Last week I had the pleasure of visiting our Cambodia Country Programme. I arrived at Phnom Penh airport having not visited the city for nearly 20 years. I was immediately struck by the huge changes. Cars and SUVs have to a large extent replaced the bicycles and cyclos on the road into the city from the airport - exclusive hotels and apartment buildings are being constructed everywhere.
I had a very informative and interesting lunch with the Country Director, Caroline, and her SMT. We discussed their very positive approach to programme led funding and the need for more strategic communications to profile their good work. I was able to brief them on some of the major developments taking place at international level.
I then set off with Caroline and Kimtheng, Partnership Manager, for our field visit. We travelled to the town of Kampong Thom where we met three key groups at a very enjoyable and informative dinner. HOM (hilariously translated as Help Old Age and Miserable People Organisation) is the key ActionAid partner in this Local Rights Programme (LRP). Headed up by two great old guys called Korng Saom and Ol Sameach, HOM is working with local fishing communities, implementing strong HRBA programming and enabling child sponsorship in the LRP. They work closely with two other organisations who I also got to meet at the dinner: FACT (Fishery Action Coalition Team) which brings together local fisherfolk to advocate with and for them. And CCF (The Coalition of Cambodia Fisheries), which is an umbrella organisation representing fisher communities at grassroots level and links up to the national advocacy level.
In a really interesting example of how a programme led funding planning approach can link the local and national approaches to our work, ActionAid Cambodia enables HOM to make a small proportion of its Child Sponsorship income available to FACT and CCA. What this means is that ActionAid is able to make a real difference in the lives of the communities in this region - both through our traditional community-based development work and through effective advocacy at regional and national level.
We spent the night in a local hotel and set off early the next morning to visit a community in Kampong Kor commune in the Kampong Svay district of Kampong Thom province. The settlement we visited is temporary. Located on the banks of the lake area, it enables the community to have access to the livelihood offered through fishing during the dry season. The community stays here for several months and life is very basic: simple tarpaulin shelters, no sanitation facilities and no electricity.
We had a really informative discussion with community representatives. They described the harsh deforestation that has taken place in the area since 2007 and the impact that this is having on local biodiversity. They also told us about how ActionAid partners had helped them prevent private companies from gaining access to their fish stocks, but also noted that informal illegal fishing was still threatening their livelihoods. ActionAid partners are supporting work to monitor and challenge this illegal fishing activity. And they told us about their hopes for a permanent dam that would hold water levels at the lake and enable fish stocks to replenish. In a pretty impressive feat of amateur engineering, the community has already built a dam that seemed to be working well when we walk passed it on the way to the community. But the 'home made' dam does not stand up to the ravages of the wet season and the community end up having to undertake the back breaking and time consuming work of rebuilding it each year. A permanent dam would cost only about $35,000 and ActionAid partners are working with the community on an advocacy project to have the local authority support this.
We learnt about the local fishing committee (whose community-elected head is a brilliantly articulate and enthusiastic guy called Yen Morng). The committee came across as a strong and vibrant group that has - by their own accounts - benefited massively from ActionAid partner training and capacity building. There was some good natured banter as to why only two of the eleven committee members are women and I had some hope that Yen Morng had taken our comments on board that more women need to be involved in this important work.
We also talked about Child Sponsorship. There are a number of sponsored children in the community and their parents had a good understanding of why we collect child messages and photos and how this translates into some of the positive changes they are seeing in their community.
And then we had a treat. A ride on one of the community fishing boats around the local waterscape. We visited a shelter on the lake built with ActionAid support that enables community members to monitor illegal fishing.
Finally we returned to shore for a lunch of rice and fresh fish with the community before heading back to Phnom Penh. Lunch was a significant battle with a persistent plague of flies, but the fish was delicious.
I was very impressed by what I saw in Kampong Thom province. The community is benefiting from a programme approach that sees strategic allocation of child sponsorship income, a really tangible linking of the local and national through the advocacy partners and a genuine sense that the community is learning the skills that will make it self-reliant.