The Perils of life as a volunteer in Cambodia
Since I joined the Cambodia program as a volunteer professional over two years ago, there have been a number of large changes made to the operation.
Shortly after my arrival a new Country director was appointed. Cambodia is his first role with the organisation, as such he is keen to make his mark and many subsequent changes have happened:
1 The number of volunteers has increased from around 20 to over 80.
2 The number of staff (i.e. non-volunteers) within the programme office has tripled.
3 There is currently an attempt by the Country Director to reduce the volunteer living allowance, thus reducing the per capita cost of the overall operation, (he considers US$350 a month too high for volunteers to live on).
4 A host of new, NGO-trendy, in vogue policies and initiatives have been set up; Inclusion for women, Gender Mainstreaming, Khmer national volunteers program, et cetera.
5 Working Groups and Committees have been set up for such areas as Inclusion, Corruption, Allowance, Team Working, et cetera
6 More and more reports are being written, more and more workshops are being held.
To my mind, the driving force behind all of these changes is not a desire to build the capacity of Cambodia, but a desire to build the curriculum vitae of the Country Director.
Back in the private sector I employed several people like this over the years; we called it empire building and I had little tolerance for it then.
Last year when a fellow volunteer and I clashed strongly over our differing political perspectives and differing ideas for assisting Cambodia we dealt with the matter in very different ways; I suggested that we just forget about it, shut up and not discuss it any further. She, however, went crying to the Country Director and complained that I was a sexist and I was harassing her politically.
This resulted in my being summoned by the Country Director for a disciplinary hearing over breaching some vague catchall contractual clause concerning ?the need to be sensitive to the needs of others at all times?.
She is a self-proclaimed radical feminist who believes that Aid money for condoms should be halted and redirected to teaching Khmer women Karate. She also believes in women only communities where men are only allowed to enter during daylight hours, if they are employees.
I am a free market capitalist who believes that there should be investment in Khmer businesses and industry, to create jobs, employment and income for people, rather than have them so dependant on foreign aid money.
I believe in equal rights; she believes in special rights.
The new Country Director listened to her complaints and immediately contacted the London Head Office to report sexist behaviour on my part and calling for a ?full volunteer status review? which is NGO talk for being dragged up before a disciplinary panel and fired.
Thankfully, slightly cooler heads prevailed, much to the chagrin of the new Country Director, and I was only called in for a ?recorded verbal warning?, which I attended with my own legal representation, at my own cost of course.
So the ?radical feminist? going crying to the daddy figure of the organisation. I am sure that her fellow sisters in the struggle to eradicate men would not be impressed by that.
But anyhow, back to the organisation in hand.
I still firmly believe that volunteering for a protracted amount of time, two years is the average placement for this particular organisation, is one of the most productive and cost effective ways to provide direct Aid to developing countries.
Volunteers do not take the place of Khmer workers, but work alongside them transferring skills and knowledge and doing so at a tiny fraction of the cost of them hiring International Consultants to provide Technical Assistance.
I still have a lot of faith in the overall organisation, at a global level. Of course there are problems, issues and imperfections to address as with any organisation; private or public. However the overall concept of volunteer – professionals providing support and advice is, to me, a wonderful thing.
The problem, as I see it, is the interface between the volunteer and the career NGO Professional running the local shop. A relationship that in my case was at best nonexistent, at worst discriminatory and judgemental?
The majority of my fellow volunteers are wonderful people, dedicated, hard working and are either taking two years out of their existing careers, or are doing this just prior to retirement.
Of course, out of so many, there are a few oddballs who see volunteering as a helpful short cut to a long term career in development work – Dr Weird Beards? in waiting if you will.
So thus, the self-perpetuating NGO gravy train rolls on.
As for myself, I am happily to be back in the bosom of the private sector, even if it is the under-funded, low paying, struggling Cambodian private sector.
Social Pariah of Phnom Penh?s Profuse Privileged Pricks