And so ends the final week of my volunteer placement. After a bit over 14 months, I’m finishing up the final details of a year that has whizzed by. A year that has drastically altered my life and taken me in a new direction.
I’m in a van with all my belongings en route to Siem Reap, the land of Angkor Wat and the heart of the Kingdom of Wonder. I have about 5 more hours on a bumpy road that I think will be the end of my wine glasses.
Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves’.
– Lao Tzu
On the professional front, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve been able to do. We’ve done some amazing things at the Working Group for Partnerships in Decentralisation (WGPD) network. Last year when I arrived, I met Chhonn, my counterpart, and was presented with a pretty fragmented network of civil society organisations that lacked systems and a work plan that wasn’t being soundly implemented.
Today network membership has doubled from 60 to 119 organisations. We have made our presence grow from 14 provinces to 22 provinces across Cambodia. We were able to recruit leaders in 19 provinces to lead activities and to represent their jurisdictions at the national level. We have consolidated perspectives from civil society and non-governmental organisations and taken their voices to advocate the government on all levels. In terms of programme management, we’ve established so many good systems at the Secretariat to implement the work plan. The visibility of the network has made a great stride and WGPD is now on the map of players in decentralisation and local governance reforms here in Cambodia. These big changes in contributing to a stronger voice for civil society come from the hands and the hard work of WGPD members, leadership, but I would say particularly in those of Chhonn’s. I have watched Chhonn bring people together and inspire them to work on behalf of the Cambodian people. I am so honoured to have been able to support him to bring his ideas to life for part of the journey.
So where am I going? I’m in van en route to Siem Reap and I can assure you from the bumps that we are on the right road.
Over the last year I had the most extraordinary opportunity to talk to people, both in a work and personal context. You might remember some of the people I met along the way. The incredible mother who was in search of blood for her son and happened to drop in the clinic as I was donating my O+ matching blood. The rare chance I had to save her son humbled me and showed me the most basic level of humanitarianism that each and every one of us can so easily contribute to if given the chance. The 14 year old girl that took it upon herself to educate other girls and women about how to make their voices heard and influence local government to improve their lives. The six people in Phnom Penh who constantly inspired me through their work, their friendship, and their own unique life projects. The female local government councillor, Doch Malin, who made her own family tragedy a personal mission to make sure residents in her district would not lose family members because they couldn’t get a ride to the hospital. My dear blind massage therapist, Nigah, who overcame big challenges to show that disability is not an indicator of success and that anyone with the will can shape their futures in their own way. My late Khmer teacher, Dara, who taught his students far more than language. A Khmer Rouge genocide survivor, he showed us true humanity and the capacity of human beings to survive and to remember the past in order to improve the future. Mr. Sim Him, community leader in Kampot who demonstrated that leadership to mobilise the community to make the best decisions for them in the face of adversity can actually succeed. And Mr. Nara, my coconut man, who reminded me that so many people in Cambodia are still fighting in fear to be the change they wish to see – even if that risks serious consequences.
The voices of the people I have encountered have deeply influenced me. They have inspired me and they have made me question more and more on so many issues. There are countless others that I think about having crossed into my daily life. With the opportunity to help strengthen a voice for civil society in Cambodia, I realised that a very big research gap exists in what we do. We certainly collect the voices of civil society representatives and have the chance to speak with many people, but we need to come up with systematic evidence so we can strongly advocate what we believe in. We need to hear voices in a way that can be consolidated and presented to all stakeholders.
Last month I was offered an opportunity that couldn’t have come at a better moment. A chance to contribute to research on the voices of different groups involved in the Myanmar (Burma) peace process. Myanmar has an incredibly fascinating but complex history of both peace and conflict. Two years ago, a major breakthrough was made as ceasefire agreements were carried out across the country by numerous groups in conflict. I will be working with a team to listen to multiple voices on the peace process and contribute to better understanding among the people and key players. The regional research centre is based in Cambodia and I am fortunate to continue my journey here in this wonderful country I’m starting to call home, and to stay focused on elevating the voices that might not otherwise be heard. Shifting from development to peace-building might not be a such a huge jump. In the words of the organisation I’ll be joining, development reaches the most vulnerable people and the poorest of the poor. Peace-building reaches the hard-to-reach people – often those viewed as the perpetrators or the ones showing frustration and taking out weapons. It is certainly a shift for me and my thinking, but I believe that the impact can be significant and the goals are similar – to improve the lives of people living in difficult conditions.
The opportunities to contribute to strengthening Cambodian civil society voices brought me here. The lack of evidence or research to effectively advocate has taken me a slightly different direction focused on another country. I feel the learning curve I’m about to embark on will be steep. But I’m extraordinarily excited for this and I hope I can share some of it in this medium.
I want to take this opportunity to once again thank all the people who so generously supported me through the volunteer project. Those that contributed to my Cuso fundraiser and those who supported me so much through emails, phone calls, and the numerous people I met in person along the way. I plan to continue my blog but will be “re-branding” it a bit to be more southeast Asian and shape the tone of the new project I’ll be engaged in and the new environment I’ll be immersed in.
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. – Jack Kerouac