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Making a Real Difference: Rebuilding Cambodia

November 22nd, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 15 Comments

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.

Categories: Humanity & Community
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15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Don // Nov 22, 2008 at 9:28 am

    This is a very touching story. I agree that education is critical to Cambodia’s future development but do not believe that this can be done only by outsiders. Unless it can be put on a sustainable track managed and funded by Cambodians themselves it will only touch the surface of the problem. The key is thus to educate the Cambodian leadership on the importance of education so that they will devote adequate resources to this important area.

  • 2 Hugo // Nov 22, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Leadership, as in government? Hmm… ;)

    In terms of this contribution, I believe the hope is that those 36 women become those very leaders that will then further promote education. It certainly sounded like this endeavour is really in partnership with the Cambodians.

  • 3 Don // Nov 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Dear Hugo: Thanks for your response. But it takes more than hope to promote development. I would classify this effort as an important and well meaning attempt by thiose involved to address the education problem in Cambodia but in fact only a drop in the bucket in terms of what is needed to remedy the problem. I guess you could say that it is better than nothing. But a lot more will be needed to promote real change there.

  • 4 Hugo // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Oh, for sure, there is a lot of work. I mean, this is only $40,000 per year. A little drop in the ocean. But I think it is a $40,000 well spent. (Well “invested”, if you consider any positive human benefit to be a return-on-investment.)

    As long as people don’t use supposed “realism” as an excuse for why they rather don’t help out anywhere, it’s fine.

    I suppose the problem with this blog post is that the words chosen kinda create an inflated impression of how much impact this one small foundation is making? I didn’t mean to create the impression that they’re single-handedly rebuilding Cambodia. At most, I wanted to point out that as a way to spend $40k, this way is certainly good.

    Compare this now with the impact of Jarrod Davidoff and his “Save the World Foundation”, for example… For the record, the guesstimate R2 million is nearly $200,000 – or nearly five times the budget that the Harpswell Foundation is spending. Not that I necessarily trust Jarrod’s numbers. But that is just the kind of thing I’m comparing to.

    After reading something like that, try telling me that the Harpswell Foundation isn’t spending money wisely.

  • 5 Hugo // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Don, I’ve added a new paragraph right at the top. Please let me know if this helps frame the post a bit better, or point out which bits are the most misleading. Maybe I could tune down the title? Though I feel a contribution/difference doesn’t have to be huge to be “real”. (The “much better than nothing” argument, yes.)

    Hmmm… the context out of which I wrote this post was one of “real” versus… well, whatever… if I were to rewrite this post from a more “global impact” perspective, I’m sure it would look quite different. I don’t think I want to do that.

    So does that new paragraph help?

    Thanks for the feedback.

  • 6 Don // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    There is no doubt that the money is being spent wisely in my view. But Cambodians have a strong tendency to depend on others to help them rather than doing things for themselves. (This observation is based on 40 years working in Cambodia and with Cambodians.) Outsiders thus tend to fill roles that should be taken by Cambodians, who do not do so as long as others are willing to carry the load. My key point is that unless this weakness can be addressed any effort to improve education, or anything else, in Cambodia will not be sustained. Much more emphasis thus needs to be placed on encouraging Cambodians to become more self-reliant in order to assure long term development success.

  • 7 Don // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Dear Hugo: I have written a draft paper on “the Cambodian Dependency Syndrome” which I can share with you as background if you can give me an e-mail address to which I can send an attachment. The paper is based on much thought and long discussion with David Chandler and other Cambodia experts. I have also circulated it to many Cambodians in Cambodia as well as in France and the US for feedback, which has been mixed (for reasons that are clear when you read the paper) but quite a few thoughtful Khmer and other long term Cambodia observers feel that it raises critical issues which normally do not get much attention. Let me know if you would like to see it. Best regards, Don

  • 8 Hugo // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:42 pm


    Say, would you be interested in writing a short piece on your experience working in Cambodia, that I’d publish as a guest post here? It isn’t worth much in the grand scheme of things, but you’re commenting anyway. It’d be just like writing a couple of comments, more focused on the good, and with a clean slate (i.e. not responding to my post).

    If you would be interested, with regards to what I’d like to share most on this blog, something focusing on how important that local context and understanding is, maybe something about what is necessary to keep things sustainable, the importance of self-reliance and the danger of a “colonialistic” attitude towards humanitarian help (I’m sure you know what I mean… “we, from the west, shall come down to your third world country and solve all your problems for you, for we know best”.)

    In short, that previous comment of yours, but maybe with a couple more interesting details, and written to be relatively independent of this conversation we’re having?

    Only if you feel you’ll enjoy writing it! I’m sending you an email.

  • 9 Hugo // Nov 22, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    I wrote #8 without seeing #7. I’d like to read that paper, thanks!

  • 10 Pieter // Nov 25, 2008 at 6:37 am

    I like this. Half of charity is being willing to give, but equally important is for staying responsible where your money is applied.

    @Don: If you teach how to fish it is hard to go wrong? I wish that didn’t sound so patronising though.

  • 11 gerhard // Nov 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    pieter : that applies to politics aswell , half the responsibility is to make sure , that governemnt which is for the people stays as such :)
    its like south africa, it is the way it is because the people make it such.

    Let me remind you to register and to vote :)

    hugo : ehm, apeasement isnt a fix. its a temporary fix. I would argue that all you’re doing is legitimizing the ‘authorities-with-too-much-power.’ by recognizing and respecting them.
    War is kuck but fuck … the alternative is to compromise morality turning it into a relative thing. I wonder where the world would have appeased hitler and stalin a lil bit more. One can’t run from the bad by compromising on the good.
    I know i know , i criticize america as much as the next guy for invading iraq for doing what i just proposed. I just think they went about it the wrong way.. inventing reasons when they had plenty to act on anyway…

    Don’t even get me started on that illegal nazieque country called israel which thinks apartheid is an ideal.

  • 12 Hugo // Nov 26, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Appeasement? I’m not asking for appeasement. Or what I’m asking for certainly isn’t a “temporary fix”. I’m just asking for the choosing of your battles. If the place you or your organisation contribute is in direct education, on secondary or tertiary level for example, then it is best to not tick off the government. Let another organisation do the ticking-off. Maybe have two organisations of your own, though that might be dangerous: you don’t want them to be connected in any way.

    Does that make sense?

    Hmm, I should do more explicit agreeing, I think. I do “look for the good” in comments as well, but I acknowledge it in my head and move on, rather than acknowledging in writing. Then people think I’m disagreeing with things I’m actually agreeing on.

    Pieter sent me some links demonstrating Obama’s open approach to government, pretty cool! (E.g.

    In other news, if Helen Zille gets her way, we might be able to vote:,,2-7-12_2430514,00.html
    I’ve not seen any follow-ups on that yet.

  • 13 Hugo // Nov 29, 2008 at 2:24 am

    Here’s a sinker: we could give money for education and think “ah, education is a good contribution! no way they can use the money badly then?” – but no, what if local governments then merely conclude “great, the foreigners are spending to get our people educated, so we can spend our money on other stuff”, with the net effect that aid money kinda goes into funding other stuff anyway… hrmph…

  • 14 Cambodia // Apr 29, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Cambodia relies too much on two industries: textile and tourism. These industries are particularly vulnerable to the global economic downturn. We need to focus our efforts on our natural strength, which is agriculture, not tourism or textile.

  • 15 how to help a country to help itself? | things that make me tick // Aug 7, 2011 at 9:57 am

    [...] something else’. Another article said that the best way to help Cambodia move forward is to by helping its women, in particular in providing housing. As a budding architecture student with very limited funds, I [...]

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