The Step into the Gap volunteers have been meeting many communities in Cambodia, whose lives have been impacted by the support of CAFOD’s partners. Rod Howlett reflects on how a little bit of funding and support can transform a whole community.
It is the fourth full day in Cambodia and our first full day visiting a community that CAFOD supports. We’ve had the time for briefing, adjusting to Cambodian culture and getting rid of jet lag as best we can.
Today we will be able to have our first proper conversations with the villagers, finding out how they have been helped by CAFOD’s funding. This first community is the Ou Breus in Rukhakiri District, Battambang Province.
Here, CAFOD has provided the money for a local organisation, Village Support Group (VSG), to set up a three-year project working with the community to help them find the means to diminish the level of poverty in the village.
Like CAFOD, VSG believes strongly in bottom-up support. In other words, giving the community the power to make the decisions that will best fit their community, rather than simply planting an external project plan upon them. As a former director and founder member of VSG, Singha told us: “If everyone is empowered, then the whole country will prosper”.
A superb example of this principle comes in the form of the well that VSG, with the financial backing from CAFOD, has facilitated the construction of a well. This is what the community felt it needed most.
VSG helped create a village committee, which was elected democratically and has now met for six months, to help form a collective position for the village. To ensure that no one person was ignored, the group collected a broad cross-section of the opinions of different groups: men, women, older people.
So not only did VSG facilitate the building of community assets such as a common well, they also provided the means for enabling the community to form a collective opinion, and take responsibility for the decision-making process.
These two kinds of building allow for long-term development. Firstly, in the case for infrastructure: the physical building of the well. Secondly, in the case of building up a community and giving it responsibility: the community is working towards a common goal, rather than being a collection of individuals all aiming for different ends. For the community, this second type of “building” had not been formally considered, despite it being crucial to the whole village flourishing.
After this has been done, the next step can only fall into the hands of individuals themselves to take this responsibility to the next level – to continue the process that VSG and CAFOD have begun.
Beyond the newly built well, I can see a very neatly kept garden with rows of vegetables of a number of different kinds. I ask Singha, who is our translator for the week, whose garden this is. He gestures across and a couple comes and stands alongside it. Chhoy Chheang and Kov Oeun live adjacent to the well and own the land behind it, where the garden is on its way to full blossom.
They tell me they have had the garden for a month and that they were not able to have it prior to the introduction of the well. Before the well, Chhoy would collect the water from the stream beds, but this supply was too inconsistent to provide sufficiently for a garden of this size.
They have lots of food growing: courgettes, ginger, cabbage, chilli and medicinal plants. One particularly rare courgette, for example, will sell for 2500 riel (around 50p).
The garden has provided them with an important extra income alongside their main source: larger scale farming of Cassava, a root vegetable popular in South America. The well provides them with the water to maintain it and the certainty that they can throughout the year, including the dry season.
Kov tells me that once the garden is ready for harvest, she will be able to feed their three children so successfully, that she will only have to buy meat and fish from the market.
This all comes back to individual responsibility, or as Singha from VSG describes it, the “priming the pump” method. CAFOD’s funding primed the pump (literally), and VSG helped implement change, but Chhoy and Kov have allowed it truly to flow forth meaning the project reach its full potential and become truly sustainable by providing income, hopefully for years to come.
The biggest smile of our conversation comes when I ask them if they are proud of their garden – Chhoy is beaming as he exclaims: “Yes, we’re very happy and proud of it!”