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Jennifer Winstanley Headshot

Cambodia: What Happens When Reality Meets Idealism

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I have been writing about the positive experiences that I have had and the personal development that I have enjoyed while working in Southeast Asia over the last year. In order to present a more balanced picture, I wanted to briefly discuss another side of it - the frustrations, the disconnect, and the constant haunting doubt that maybe what you are doing is useless... or worse, maybe it is destructive.

Humanitarian work is controversial - the different organizations, close connection with politics and foreign policy, and questionable motivations that do arise in the field are all things that I had limited awareness of when I arrived in Cambodia. The more insight I gain into this area the more dismayed I am at certain aspects of it. I am by no means an expert on this so I will limit my discussion of it to personal revelation, and in particular a discussion that I had with a moto driver in Phnom Penh early this year.

Driving through the city our casual conversation turned much more serious when I mentioned that I was in Phnom Penh working with an NGO. A polite but passionate monologue ensued, detailing this man's complaints against NGOs and particularly their impact on his life. His opinion of NGOs in Cambodia can be summed up as the following: before the arrival of NGOs, people were poor but there was a sense of community and he was happy; then NGOs arrived, and people started to be competitive with each other, everything became more expensive, and the NGOs had no visible positive effect. He felt resentful of the lifestyle that NGO workers lead and resentful of the change in his life in the decade and a half that NGOs have been prevalent throughout Cambodia and particularly in Phnom Penh.

I didn't have much to say in response to anything he had said, and for the most part I felt that it didn't invite a response. He was sharing his opinion and his experience and I appreciated that he was speaking openly. Listening to him talk did accentuate something that I had already been feeling - some sense of disconnect between the work that I was doing and the community that the work is intended to benefit.

The particular work that I have done with the Community Legal Education (CLE) program was not what I had doubts about. The positive impact of CLE had been demonstrated to me not only through seeing it in action, but also in speaking with co-workers and reading evaluation forms. It is a broader sense of being uncomfortable with the distance between the language and structure of work in the development field and the individuals/communities/countries that the work is aimed at.

The voice of one moto-driver in Phnom Penh is not the source nor the confirmation of this feeling, and I have heard opposing viewpoints from local Cambodians as well - many of whom were grateful for presence of and work done by NGOs. It is something that I think is important to really think about though, as I continue to work in this field - as I hope to do.

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