Cambodia has its work cut out for it, in rebuilding after the devastating Khmer Rouge regime. A huge problem. The problem is so huge, it may seem absolutely hopeless. What can an outsider do to help? Can an outsider with a couple of thousand dollars contribute in any meaningful way?
I’m going to let the abstract do most of the speaking:
Google Tech Talks, November 6, 2008
In the 1970s, essentially all of the educated population of Cambodia were murdered in the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia today, despite its rich culture and stunning temples, remains a devastated country, suffering from poverty, lack of education, and corruption. The best hope for Cambodia lies in improved education and new leadership. To that end, Lightman and Smead have been working to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia. (Studies by the U.N. and World Bank have repeatedly shown that the most effective method of helping third world countries is through education of its women.) The critical obstacle to higher education for women in Cambodia , remarkably enough, is housing. Universities in Cambodia do not provide housing for their students. Male students can live in the Buddhist temples but not females. Seizing upon this weak link in the chain, in 2006, Lightman and Smead’s nonprofit organization built the first dormitory for female college students in the country.
The Harpswell Foundation Dormitory and Leadership Center for College Women in Phnom Penh not only provides free room and board and medical coverage to its 36, carefully selected residents. The facility also gives them English and computer classes, leadership training, and critical discussions of national and international events. After two years of operations, these young women are at the tops of their classes at the 7 different universities they attend and are committed to leading their country into a new era of hope and transformation. In another two years, a new crop of 36 outstanding young women will enter the mentorship and cultivation of the Harpswell facility, and in ten years, we will have a powerful force of over a hundred women dedicated to revolutionizing their country. This is a story of how a small, highly-targeted nonprofit organization can potentially change an entire country.
In this illustrated lecture, Chenda Smead, who escaped Cambodia in 1979 at the age of 18, will describe her family’s experience living under the Khmer Rouge. Alan Lightman, founding director of the Harpswell Foundation, will discuss the work of the Foundation, the strategy of leadership training and maximum social impact for minimum investment, and the challenges facing modern Cambodia.
Speaker: Alan Lightman
A physicist and novelist, graduated from Princeton University and received a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology. Lightman has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. Lightmans novel Einsteins Dreams was an international bestseller, and his novel The Diagnosis was a finalist for the National Book Award. After a life-changing trip to Cambodia in 2003, Lightman founded the nonprofit organization The Harpswell Foundation, which has been working to empower a new generation of leaders in Cambodia.
Speaker: Chenda Smead
Chenda Smead is a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor who escaped Cambodia in 1979 as a refugee to the U.S. and later graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with degrees in computer science and mathematics.
She has helped build a school in Siem Reap and a Learning Center near Phnom Penh, as well as contributed significantly to the Harpswell Foundation Dormitory and Leadership Center for College Women in Phnom Penh. Ms. Smead is on the Board of Advisors of the Harpswell Foundation.
That “tech talk” is 50 minutes long — I have no illusions about how many people have time to watch all of it, so I thought I’d just highlight one thought.
17 minutes into the talk — to jump straight to the climax of his narrative of the horror:
There’s a long list of problems and sufferings that Cambodia has, and the last one I wanted to mention, after poverty, lack of education, landmines, no healthcare… is prostitution, which is a huge problem in Cambodia. 1 out of 40 girls is sold into prostitution, often sold by their parents to pay debts. The prostitution business is half a billion dollars, and you have to compare that to the total budget of the country, which is one billion. So the prostitution, which of course is all black market, is 50% of the total budget, and that’s why it’s very very hard to shut it down, because it’s too important to the economy. And I think that in the face of all of these terrible problems, that the only hope is education.
In a country, in a culture, where so much is in such a terrible state, making a maximal positive impact really does require in-depth research into the problem. After careful consideration and a thorough investigation, Alan Lightman identified an important link in the chain. It certainly requires a long term outlook, but there are no short term solutions.
With only $40,000 per year (I’m sure my notes are correct…), the Harpswell Foundation is housing, helping, and investing in 36 women at a time. If they study for four years (I’m not certain anymore, but this is the calculation I made that day), that’s on average 9 graduates per year, at less than $4500 per year. Now I’d be quite interested in somehow figuring out how many years it takes until that $4500 investment touches enough people’s lives to reach R10-per-head, but it can’t be quantified like that.
This is a real long-term investment that will make a real difference.
How to make that kind of difference?
A brief summary, the way I see it: make sure you really understand a problem. Connect with the people, walk the road with them, understand their greatest need. Identify the best place to invest. And then continue to walk a path with them, fostering beneficial relationships. Even if a government might be corrupt, it could be worthwhile staying in their good books and taking a cooperative angle, rather than fighting them directly, if the best possible contribution that can be made requires that you’re not constantly at war with authorities-with-too-much-power.