As a World Vision staff member, Development Studies graduate, and longtime advocate for better development work, I often become frustrated when speaking to people about Cambodia. While well-intentioned, most Australians’ idea of ‘helping’ is usually cringeworthy, if not outright harmful. If I had a dollar for every person who wants to go to Cambodia “to hug the orphans” I could… well, run a public awareness campaign on the damaging psychological effects of Voluntourism. So often, what Australians do to “give back” in Cambodia actually entrenches the problems of a people traumatised by war, pick-pocketted by corruption and exhausted by the day to day struggle of poverty.
When I heard about the Vietnamese Love School the first thing that stood out was how different it is from the norm.
Firstly, education is a genuine solution to a genuine problem. The Vietnamese population of Cambodia suffer not only from racism, but also from legal marginalization. The adults in the Vietnamese village can not own land or work and live at the mercy of property developers and the Cambodian Government. Worse still, the children from the village are barred from entering Cambodian schools. Thankfully, Pastor Sithet and Church of the Ture Saviour saw that the damage and hopelessness that this situation was inflicting upon the community and founded the Vietnamese Love School as a response. The school has been welcomed by the Vietnamese community, and has already been educating children for years.
Secondly, the VLS was founded, and continues to be run, by Cambodians from five minutes down the road. While it is possible for westerners to found good NGOs that do meaningful work, the best community change comes from within communities themselves, not Australians from five timezones away. Sithet and the leadership have known the students and their families for years. They have dealt with the Cambodian education system before. There is a level of trust, friendship and understanding that Australians could never achieve. That’s who you want running the school your kids are going to.
Lastly, I was inspired by the scale of possibility the school represents. It’s a well-known fact that education is the key to development. Education is by its very nature exponentially beneficial both for individuals and their communities. A person who can read and write can learn and teach, and a community of learners and teachers is one that will be able to improve its circumstances. All that adds up to more opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. The school has 60 students currently and more every year. By investing in these children through the Vietnamese Love School I know that my support is giving each of these children a chance that they would not have had otherwise to change their future. That’s the best kind of investment.
We all know that the Vietnamese Love School is only one part of the solution for the problems of the Vietnamese in Kandal province, Cambodia. Activate Church and the Love School’s other Australian partners want to continue to cooperate creatively with the people here, and the VLS is not the end of the story. But education is a very good foundation for building a life that rises above poverty. We hope you are as excited about this as we are.