“Teachers get paid anywhere between $20 — $50USD per month – an inadequate living wage”
In mid to late 2013, I engaged in an internship for three months with an education based non-profit organisation in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that focussed on improving the accessibility of education to children in Siem Reap and the surrounding communes. In Cambodia, education is officially “free”, however, state-school teachers get paid anywhere between a $20 — $50USD per month salary which is an inadequate wage to live off, pushing most teachers to charge their students roughly 100riel per class (equivalent roughly to 0.02USD) which over the year adds up to be extremely costly to the average household.
These financial barriers are much greater than the physical barriers to education accessibility. One of the most common ways to assist the schools is to donate items that alleviate the financial burden on the families of enrolled children including pens, books, backpacks and uniforms as well as bicycles and sports equipment.
I was alarmed to find that often these donations were posted directly from the U.K., Australia, Korea, etc. which meant the donors were paying significantly more for these products plus a substantial fee in postage. Money that could have been used to purchase even more supplies locally, which would in turn support local businesses and jobs.
“In one case, a student showed me that they already had ample learning supplies in their classroom”
Though these donations understandably caused much excitement among the children, it became apparent that our organisation was overwhelmed with pens, books and pencils and so were the schools, which receive these donations from multiple organisations. In many cases, we found that the teachers and principals were selling these supplies to make some extra income for themselves, and in some cases, the supplies were being used as rewards for “brighter” students, rather than being allocated to those who really needed them. In one case, a student showed me that they already had ample learning supplies in their classroom.
“The un-enrolled looked on, excluded”
While the many enrolled children received learning material, the un-enrolled looked on, excluded, illustrating a very big flaw in this unwavering generosity — It wasn’t reaching those that arguably needed it the most.
Among the well-intentioned donations, clothes were a frequently donated item. Clothes proved incredibly difficult to distribute due to differing sizes and strict uniform policies in most state schools. In most cases, the clothes were handed out at random with the hope that the children’s families may find use for them.
Again, clothes are something that can be purchased locally to support local business and ensure that the clothes are appropriate and are going to those that truly need them. Rarely did I come across children that desperately needed clothing in Siem Reap.
“They intended to paint a picturesque mural on the school walls, including an Australian flag”
In addition to this blind generosity, I came across a school excursion made of up of students from a High School in Western Australia that purchased $1300AUD worth of paint and travelled to Siem Reap to paint a school. When they arrived, they realised that state schools have a strict paint scheme whereas they intended to paint a picturesque mural on the school walls, including an Australian flag. While a nice gesture, I could not understand how this was a priority for improving the children’s education.
“The principal tried to keep [the donation] for himself and called the police on our organisation when we tried to put it to good use”
Subsequently, the Australian students spent their three day visit playing games with the local school children, which was a treat for the children, however their classes were heavily disrupted and they received no lasting benefit besides $1300 worth of paint that the principal tried to keep for himself and called the police on our organisation when we tried to put it to good use.
These reoccurring issues prompted our organisation to encourage more effective contribution from foreigners that wished to help. This included skilled volunteers that could commit to the students for at least six weeks, so as to minimise disruption.
These volunteers consisted of skilled English teachers, pronunciation coaches and teachers aids among many more. The positive impact provided by these volunteers far surpassed the impact provided by donated supplies and in most cases was less costly, not to mention they were generally very nice people to work with!
“Why couldn’t they just donate money.”
Overall, the generosity of foreigners could be overwhelming, although frequently I found myself exclaiming, “Why couldn’t they just donate money.” which, as blunt as it sounds, turned out to be one of the best ways to assist our NGO. Often there were cases where we found schools that required a new water well, a new road, a new classroom or new desks — Things that sadly could not be purchased with donated clothes or books.
“The children in unison turned and thanked me, I had literally done nothing but take photos yet they assumed I was responsible”
Another observation was the assertion of foreigners as “saviours”. In many cases school staff insisted that the donors distribute their donations among the children, encouraging what my colleagues and I perceived as an unhealthy relationship between the students and foreigners built on gratuity and leaving a sense of the children “owing” something to the donors. I experienced the consequences of this when I was at Prey Chrouk primary school taking photos alongside local staff from my organisation. After they had distributed the donated supplies the children in unison turned and thanked me, I had literally done nothing but take photos yet they assumed I was responsible as I was the only foreigner present. Although very humbling, this occurrence encourages dependance on foreign intervention rather than sustainability.
During my time working in Siem Reap I came across many sustainable programs for improving education in Cambodian schools, such as sponsoring English teachers to qualify them to teach in many schools around Siem Reap. I even had the opportunity to help implement a learning centre which was placed in Kok Thmey commune giving the mostly un-enrolled children in the community access to library books, school textbooks and free English classes which improve the children’s future employment opportunities in the fast-growing and relatively well paid tourism industry.
Overall, their are some impressive efforts being made to improve the accessibility of education in Siem Reap. The best way for you to help is to contact one of the many wonderful organisations that specialise in the locality and ask what the best way to help is.
Unfortunately, the Cambodian governments neglect of the education system is at the root of the apparent corruption and subsequent financial barriers faced by many in Cambodia.
Without this commitment from the Cambodian government, all of the efforts made by local organisations, volunteers and donors can only slowly build towards the hope of a quality free education system in Cambodia. However, due to the overwhelming number of NGOs in Cambodia, the government has resorted to depending on them and neglect their responsibilities to the Cambodian people.