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‘Not just a learning experience’: Prof Robert Chambers living in rural Cambodia

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 11:34

Outrage is a great motivator, 

says Robert Chambers, sitting back in his chair matter-of-factly.

Professor Chambers, a pioneering academic who has pushed the voices of the poverty-stricken and marginalized to the centre of development debate for more than 30 years, has just returned from three days living with a poor family in Kampong Kor Leu village, Kampong Thong, Cambodia. Chin Hy, 45, her husband Chom Chom, 48, and their six children welcomed Prof. Chambers to show him what life for them is really like.

During this rural 'immersion' the UK-based professor slept on the family’s wooden floor, shared their food and used their toilet – which he notes doubled as a duck house.

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He helped water the plants ('almost falling in the pond,' he says, laughing), weed the garden, and listened to accounts of the havoc that flooding and ill-health have wreaked on family life.

Prof. Chambers says sharing the intimacies of a household’s daily routine – in this case with a father, mother and two of their six children – offers invaluable insights into the challenges they face.

Huddled around the fire in the early morning, watching a soap opera on a tiny black and white television, or eating a meal, information is shared that would never surface during a formal site visit.

Not only this, but the experience can shock or emotionally move the visitor in a way that a formal meeting or dry report would not – inspiring them to do more to help.

Prof. Chambers says: "It’s not just a learning experience, it’s emotional.

I’m a great believer in outrage. Feeling outraged at some of the things going on here, and indeed in other countries all over the world, can motivate you to act.

"Particularly increasing inequality - it’s outrageous, it’s cruel and it involves a lot of selfishness, greed and all the rest of it.

But then you’ve got to think, what am I going to do about it.

During the immersion Prof. Chambers asked his hosts how they coped with 2011’s devastating floods, learning that their cattle developed debilitating leg problems after standing in flood waters for three months.

He asked about the main health issues facing the village, and was surprised that – alongside familiar reports of dengue fever and malaria – villagers spoke of stomach problems they attribute to the treatment of fruit and vegetables with chemical sprays.

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He heard about the family’s own debt burden, which exploded when dengue tore through the household and the father’s spiraling medical bills – for treatment of a lung complaint – forced the family to sell cows to survive. Health-related debts are a common story in Cambodia, and a toxic cause of landlessness in poor communities.

This immersion is the first ever to be held by ActionAid Cambodia, although the concept was developed around a decade ago.

Prof. Chambers says that, at a time of accelerating social and environmental change, such visits are an increasingly useful tool for NGOs to assess the evolving needs of the communities they seek to help.

He was accompanied on this week’s visit by Boramey Hun, Programme and Policy Manager at ActionAid Cambodia.

She said: "Just spending three days in the community was more moving than reading a 50-page book about how difficult life is there.

When you hear about a girl embarrassed to go to school without a uniform, that’s really heart wrenching. And what’s important is that it triggers you to think.

"The process made the family feel close to us and enabled them to give certain information that I don’t think we would have got from them otherwise."

Prof. Chambers has vowed to take part in two immersions annually from now on – and, convinced of the multiple benefits immersions offer, is challenging others in the development sector do the same.