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Notes from Phnom Penh, September 2011

September 7, 2011
  • Difficult to feel sorry for my pregnancy nausea and clumsiness when I see far more pregnant women in the slums carrying loads of laundry and making their way across the tiny monkey bridges!
  • The big community near Alexandra is severely flooded – the river has risen further than I can remember in the last ten years. The only way in or out of most of the slum is across a monkey bridge, which is basically a 5-inch wide plank with a single pole handrail at the side. If you are an adult, you walk slowly across with one hand on the handrail. If you are a pregnant foreigner, you do this with an arm flung out for balance and stare at the sky above, not the filthy brown water just underneath. If you are a small child, you run back and forth on tippy-toes shouting with glee “the fat foreign lady will fall!”
  • I’m working on budgets and forms. For me, this is tremendously exciting and satisfying. Not so much for anyone else.
  • We’ve just started what will be regular feedback from people in the community visited by or nearby the Advocacy Walks. We’re finally at the point where we can train more guides, and the walks are pretty close to what we want, but we’ve only done one big round of community feedback (no photographs, compensate us equally for time, have the visitors talk to us and not just ask questions) and we want to set up a cycle of feedback so the Walks keep improving.

    Our new volunteer co-ordinator drew up a good survey and went to interview people, and came back with the initial round disappointed. “No-one has said anything negative.” Which is great – not because no-one said anything negative, but because he recognized that wasn’t likely. Someone always complains!

    We went over and figured out that it’s most likely about trust. He’s new, and people in the community aren’t going to complain until they trust he’ll be fair and confidential. Same thing happens with our social workers, so we will have to wait 1-2 months to start getting real complaints.

    We also talked about either a community meeting or putting up posters, and might focus on informing the coffeeshop owners in the communities with feedback posters to spread awareness of what the Advocacy Walks are about.

    I have to re-jig the cost of them – we don’t make a profit from them directly really, but they’re great for prompting further fundraising from informed and passionate donors, but we want to add a percentage cut that will go into a community fund that we can use each month for community improvements like repairing the walkways or helping destitute families that don’t qualify for Riverkids’ usual programs. We’ve been doing that on-and-off, but directly pegging it to Advocacy Walks will be easier and more consistent.

  •  We’re going to switch focus on volunteers and try recruiting more Cambodian volunteers. We get a fair number of international volunteers applying without pushing already. We are going to start saying no to anyone who can’t do at least 6 weeks unless they have special skills. It looks like the really short structured trips we’ve been experimenting with are way easier for the staff and produce as much.

    And no more English teaching unless you have actual ESL experience. For the past couple of months, we’ve had six English classes going. Two are taught by a local teacher who isn’t particularly highly-trained, and four by a mix of local and foreign volunteers. The teacher-led classes have zoomed past the volunteer classes. The kids enjoy being taught by the volunteers, but a local teacher with volunteers as classroom assistants (preferably local volunteers) will be way more effective and not much more expensive.

  • And the debate over English class! We finally have an advanced english class organised for this month with an excellent teacher – but that’s it. I am not authorizing any more than 15-30 children, which is less than 10% of our students. There will be regular english classes for about 30% of them, and the rest will have no english classes.

    Why? Because it’s a waste of money to do more. Yup, that’s me the evil despot saying it blunt as I can.

    I have kids who don’t eat a decent meal each day. They’re beaten up at home. They’re struggling to learn their own language and stay in school.

    Adding english classes, especially classes with a high standard that require concentration and discipline, that will cost $10-$20 a month per child – what does that do?

    It’s money that could go to feeding the child, hours spent teaching them maths and Khmer so they can keep up at school, and more.

    English classes are a luxury. For a talented kid, they’re within reach, but most of our kids will reach high school where they need some English, not university. And for those who are struggling to make it to Grade 6, to get a job waitressing or in a garment factory, English isn’t as useful as oh, about a million other things.

    I think it’s because we want so much for these kids – we want them to get the same opportunities we did. But even if someone did give me a million dollars tomorrow, I still wouldn’t spend it on private schools and English lessons for all the kids. I’d spend it on social workers and meals and Khmer lessons first.

    I’m going to make this an essay for our website to explain why we don’t fund more than a percentage of our kids on scholarships and English classes. And those are already funded by some awesome donors. We’re not looking for bright kids – we’re looking for hurt kids, and that’s what we focus on.

  • I am so grateful to see things running smoothly here. We’re introducing a couple of big changes – the social department re-organisation and expansion (YAY!), the Direct Cash Aid pilot, the new curriculum and schedule for the Get Ready program – and cutting and expanding lots of other things, and it’s like a time-lapse film, seeing everything change slowly but surely. I love being superfluous.
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