Camp GLOW 2013

7 05 2013

Last weekend was the third annual Camp GLOW in Siem Reap. Sixty-three students from seven secondary schools came to learn about women’s health and empowerment at this four-day workshop. I can’t say enough wonderful things about GLOW – it really is one of my favorite Peace Corps activities.

This year’s t-shirt design

You might remember from last year that Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a project carried out by Peace Corps volunteers across the globe. It’s an opportunity to bring girls together from different communities to share their experiences and build their leadership capacity. Like last year, the camp was funded primarily through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund, with help from each of the participating communities. However, this year the project grew in size – from 39 girls from three schools to 63 students from seven schools. I brought 11 girls from my site, all of whom had been actively involved in my weekly health club.

Posing with some of the girls

Posing with some of the girls

Our philosophy with Camp GLOW has always been to bring in competent, inspiring Khmer women to lead the sessions, and this year was no different. The first two days of the camp were led by the staff at Our Strength, who focused on sexual health and healthy relationships. The Women’s Resource Center joined us again this year as well, leading activities on self-awareness, goal setting, and community education. There was one new addition to the line-up this year though, as we asked students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to lead a 4-hour session on career planning.

What does it take to be a good teacher?

In addition to the education sessions, there were plenty of fun activities to keep the girls engaged, including a newspaper fashion show, a pizza party, and a trip to Angkor Wat.

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Cute nas

Cute nas

Now that the camp is finished, each group of girls is planning to teach 100 community members about what they learned at GLOW. Having seen the way that my girls organized and led the domestic violence education event for nearly 500 people in March, I feel confident that they will do a great job passing on what they’ve learned. Even on the van ride home from the camp, the girls were fearlessly teaching the other passengers about menstruation and reproductive anatomy.

For more pictures of GLOW, click here.


Back at Work

21 10 2012

Vacation is over, and Tim and I are back at work. For Tim, that means wrapping up the first phase of his hospitality course and settling in to his new schedule at the public school. For me, it means back to my nutrition project. On Monday, we’ll be having another workshop with the project volunteers to practice their skills, share their experiences from the project thus far, and solidify the timeline moving forward. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll start the feeding sessions in the second community. That will keep me busy every morning through the end of this month and into November.

Tim’s hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

The other project I’ve started working on is leading strategic planning workshops for an NGO based in Siem Reap. If you remember this post, you’ll remember how much I geek out over strategic planning. I met with some of the staff members earlier in the month to talk about how we might structure this process, and then I led my first meeting on Thursday, focused on creating meaningful mission and vision statements. In a few weeks, I’ll do an an introduction to needs assessments with them.

These things, along with trying to finalize my plan for working with students now that school is back in session, will keep me occupied until my parents arrive early next month. Just over two weeks before they touch down in Siem Reap!


Bizarro World

22 12 2011

This morning I arrived at the health center a little later than usual, but still a solid half an hour before the majority of the staff usually arrives. Normally, I find the one staff member who’s on duty watching TV in the waiting room and a small group of patients waiting patiently for the doctor to arrive. Today, however, I found bizarro world.

All of the staff members had already arrived. I checked my watch. Only 7:50, weird. Everyone was wearing gloves and caps, walking around smiling. The patients who had arrived early were already in the consultation room, meeting individually with the doctor. Some patients were even being handed their medications by the friendly pharmacist already. I had never seen medicine distributed before nine o’clock, let alone before 8:00. No patients had to wait. No staff members barked out orders. Things were running quickly and smoothly, and the staff was displaying the best customer service skills I have yet to witness in Cambodia.

As it turns out, two staff members from a leading (US-backed) NGO came to visit the health center today. I watched one of the nurses lead them around the newly-raked grounds, smiling and gesturing while she spoke. It was the perfect picture of what a health center in the developing world can achieve when fully utilizing its material and human resources. Throw a picture or video of my health center in a donor appeal, and you’d be sure to receive record donations.

So I found myself sitting there with nothing to do. Since no patients had to wait, there wasn’t a good opportunity to talk with them about health issues. Since the staff was busy doing their jobs, I was left with no one to socialize with. So I watched, and as I watched, things became increasingly clear. The lab techs had spent a week organizing their slides. A crew had spent several days cleaning up the grounds. Brand new signs were just installed throughout. Everyone had been too busy yesterday to study English. All of these things, all of them, were because of the NGO visit. So I watched for about an hour and then I left, frustrated.

The staff already know what they’re supposed to do, and they have the skills to do it. Today proved that. When they needed to run a good health center, they could. But what about the other 364 days a year? What about all of the patients who come in throughout the year and receive substandard care because there’s no NGO representative in town that day? Why was I sent here to build the capacity of individuals who already knew how to do their jobs, but weren’t?

Yes, I understand there’s a whole host of social and cultural factors here that I need to consider. Maybe the staff really can’t arrive on time everyday because of the responsibilities they have at home. Maybe they don’t have the financial resources to buy gloves and caps for everyday. I get that.  But, if nothing else, they can be nice to their patients everyday. Being nice doesn’t take any extra time or money. And they clearly know how they should be treating their patients, they just don’t.

Now that I’ve seen that they have the knowledge and the skills to be doing their jobs well, I’m left with the challenge of figuring out how to incentivize them to do this everyday. How can the picture perfect health center I saw today function like that all year round?


NGOs: Friend or Foe?

27 11 2011

Foreign aid dependency is something I’ve been meaning to write about since training, but I’ve lacked the motivation to tackle such a complex issue. Then, this week I was a part of a conversation that triggered me to finally sit down and address it, at least on its surface.

Any discourse on foreign assistance is particularly pertinent to Cambodia, as it receives about one billion dollars of foreign assistance annually. While much of that is bilateral assistance—meaning that it is funding transferred directly from another government to the Royal Kingdom of Cambodia— a significant portion of it also comes through nongovernmental organizations. The number and scale of international or internationally-supported NGOs in Cambodia is truly mindboggling.

Although I personally find the micro-level discussion around aid dependency to be much more interesting (How do handouts affect a family or community’s future decision-making processes, psyche and ability to pull itself out of poverty?), the Cambodian students in our advanced English class hit one of the main points of the macro-level debate without any prompting.

When talking about Cambodian agriculture late last week, the following discussion took place.

Tim: How do you think agriculture will change in the future? How will it be different in the next 10 or 20 years?

Student #1: I think NGOs will continue to go to the fields and teach farmers things that will help them improve their yields so agriculture will continue to get better.

Me: What about the government? Does the Ministry of Agriculture help the farmers?

Student #2 (laughing nervously): The Minister has, uh, other priorities. Farmers come second. You see, there is a lot of corruption in Cambodia. So after the Minister… there isn’t much money left for the farmers.

Tim: So the government isn’t helping?

Students: No.

Tim: So what happens if all of the NGOs leave Cambodia?

Student #2 (without hesitation): We would have to go to our government and demand that it help us.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The strong NGO presence seems to be alleviating any pressure for Cambodians to demand basic support from their own government.

Granted, the Cambodian government works with a budget that could be considered miniscule (just over $2 billion, about a third of the budget of the Chicago Public School system), and truly may not have the ability to respond to such demands if they were made, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen to corruption levels— and just plain efficiency— if there was overwhelming public pressure. Would the government step up and begin to take responsibility for the welfare of its own people, no longer having the NGO community to rely on? Or would the corruption continue, leaving Cambodians to suffer yet again?

And, actually, I’d like to take it one step further: Would the Cambodian people actually demand their rights in the first place? Although our student understood immediately the importance of doing so, Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.

So, at the end of it, are NGOs protecting and promoting the welfare of Cambodians throughout the country? Are these organizations creating opportunities for the Cambodian people that they’d never demand themselves? Or, is the NGO community preventing a people from taking ownership of its own rights and engaging in what could potentially be an empowering and history-altering political process?

It’s an impossible question to answer, especially because of the mixed record of NGOs in this country, but it’s unbelievably important that all of us actors hoping to promote development in Cambodia never lose sight of these issues.


Algunas cositas

11 09 2010

Nothing too exciting to report today, just a few quick updates:

1.) I’ve finally found yoga classes, and I’m loving them! It feels really nice to move a little after two straight winters and too many facturas (pastries).

2.) I’ve also found a place I’m really excited to volunteer at. The Fundacion Sotrali is a shelter in Lisandro Olmos for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. I’ll post more about it after I’ve been there a few weeks, but for now I will mention that it looks like FSD might start working with the organization, as well. It’d be a great placement for interns interested in women’s empowerment or youth.

3.) A new group of interns arrived today, which means I will be busy all week with orientation. Even though it’s disappointing that we have another small group (only three interns), I’m really looking forward to working with them, particularly the two who will be here long-term.

4.) And, finally, the new apartment is working out really well! We posted some pictures here (along with a couple of photos from a tango show I went to in BA last week):


Observations on Civil Society

26 08 2010

One of the reasons I was most excited to work with FSD in Argentina was to learn more about civil society here. (I know, between this and the last post on the economy, my love for all things GSPIA is really showing…) Based entirely on my own experiences, these are my observations so far:

Two Waves of Civil Society Growth

As far as I can tell, there were two events in recent Argentine history that spurred booms in civil society growth: the dictatorship and the 2001 crisis.

Out of the dictatorship, a huge number of human rights organizations were born. Arguably the most famous civil society group in Argentina, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo is made up of women whose children “disappeared” in the late 70s and early 80s. Similarly, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo has recovered more than 90 children who were forcibly adopted after being “disappeared” or born in captivity. But these two organizations are not alone in their pursuits. It seems like there is an endless supply of human rights organizations, particularly in and around Buenos Aires. Some of these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) want to bring justice to the military leaders who committed human rights violations, some work to create an environment where such atrocities can’t happen again and others yet have committed to the broader ideals of human rights on a global scale.

It seems that Argentina saw another boom in civil society associations after the 2001 crisis. This time the organizations were created to help people meet their basic needs. One type of organization that has its roots in the crisis is a comedor, a community center where meals and academic support are provided to community children. Also born from the crisis were hogares, or shelters, cooperatives and, to some extent, microfinance organizations.

Of course, not all civil society associations came out of these two times and not all fall into the categories I’ve listed here. For example, the work of our partner organizations in and around La Plata is quite varied: empowering adults with physical and mental disabilities, counseling teenage girls with eating disorders, promoting environmentally-friendly public policy, providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation for young people, etc.

And when we look at civil society as a whole, and not just the formally-registered nonprofit organizations, the picture becomes more complex and the sector becomes even more active. Argentina sees a fair amount of informal associations, and, like in most Latin American countries, people are very involved in protests and demonstrations.

Civil Society Challenges

There are two primary challenges we have faced recently when working with our partner organizations: the voluntary nature of the sector and the negative impact of the national subsidy program.

First, the NGO sector differs from that of the US because almost all NGO workers are volunteers. From the executive directors and founders to the part-time student helpers, almost everyone works for free. The implication of this is, of course, that most people have “real” jobs that pay their bills and take priority. NGOs here tend to keep shorter hours because of this and scheduled meetings and events often get cancelled at the last minute (although, this is clearly not unique to Argentina). This also means that the interns who come sometimes feel as though they aren’t working enough hours, which can be remedied with out-of-office work like research or lesson planning or by allowing the intern to work part-time in another organization. Regardless, it can be difficult to get the commitment and dedication required of staff members in these fields because there is no salary attached the work that people are doing. There are certainly people who will work from sunup to sundown with no pay if they are doing something they are passionate about, but many people aren’t in a financial position to do that even if they had the motivation.

On top of this challenge, the national subsidy program also has a negative impact on the work of some nonprofits in the area. First of all, the history of clientelism and the decentralized nature of subsidy distribution have allowed some of our former partner organizations to become politicized to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Furthermore, the average Argentine has access to a fairly significant amount of social welfare funding. This presents a challenge for our partner organizations trying to catalyze local entrepreneurship through the development of cooperatives or the disbursement of microcredit. Oftentimes, it is primarily the immigrants living in these communities who involve themselves in these initiatives because they do not have access to the same government assistance as Argentines. Even in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve seen several cooperatives struggle because its members do not need to work to survive and because they have grown up in a system in which their parents and their grandparents have lived on subsidies. Many of these people also lack a formal education, further complicating the picture.

It will be interesting to see how my understanding of civil society evolves over the rest of my time here. It seems as though the biggest question facing us is this: How can we better equip ourselves to help organizations and interns secure consistent commitment on the part of both the local staff and the beneficiaries? If we can make progress in this area, our development efforts will be even more effective and more sustainable as we move forward.


The Comfort of La Plata

6 07 2010

I’m currently looking for a place to volunteer, particularly in the villas outside of La Plata. I’ve been feeling a strong urge to expose myself to new and uncomfortable situations, to confront head-on the challenges that accompany poverty and to meet new people. Thankfully, I am fortunate enough to be in a position to choose to deliberately expose myself to these things. I am lucky enough to get to put myself in these situations temporarily, use them as a learning tool, and then return to the luxury of an apartment in the city center when I’m done. And, hopefully—hopefully— I’m able to apply what I’ve learned to make a positive difference in the lives of the people and community where I decide to volunteer.

I was recently asked what surprised me most about coming to La Plata. At first, I couldn’t think of anything that had genuinely surprised me, but then it hit me. I was really struck by how comfortable, easy and, well, developed La Plata was. Having done FSD in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, where there were two “paved” roads in the whole city and frequent water and electricity outages, I was constantly being thrown outside of my comfort zone, continually being reminded that I was in a world different from the one I had grown up in. Comparatively, La Plata seems like paradise, a walk in the park. With luxury home improvement stores, gyms and storefronts filled with the latest fashion on nearly every block, it doesn’t immediately seem like putting food on the table is a difficult thing for most people in the city. I just got a degree in international development, and THIS is where I’m working, I remember asking myself in disbelief when I arrived. While the overall standard of living here is certainly lower than in many places in the United States, most people seem to live in well-built houses with access to water, electricity, public transportation, medicine and education. There’s almost no homelessness and very little visible inequality.

Before we moved, I was clearly aware that the general level of development in Argentina was much higher than in Nicaragua, and than in many of the other places where we had applied for jobs. But there’s always a need, right? Even in the richest countries in the world, there are communities in desperate need of resources, training and hope. Of course this is true. It’s true in the US, and it’s true here. The communities where FSD Argentina works, often located in the outskirts of La Plata, are generally immigrant communities, where the residents don’t have access to the benefits offered by the government. Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians work long hours for low wages in neighborhoods where they’re rejected and resented because they’re outsiders. And the Argentines we work with generally do receive the huge (and never-ending) welfare packages from the government; however, the strong history of clientelism here has lead to a culture where people lack the knowledge and the incentive to capitalize on their own skills, strengths and interests to improve their lives and grow their opportunities. So there is clearly a need, and I feel strongly that FSD’s partner organizations, with the technical assistance provided by international volunteers, are doing their best to address these needs.

The thing I struggle with is that I rarely make it to these communities. I rarely get to see firsthand the needs—and assets— found in the outskirts of the city where FSD volunteers work. I spend my days in the office, located in the city center, staring at a computer screen. I also spend a lot of time talking with the interns about the challenges they face as they implement their projects (which I love!), but I rarely find myself in their organizations or communities. And, unfortunately, that is just the nature of this position. It’s a project support position, which is primarily office-based. I knew that coming in, and I’m really happy that I’m doing it. I’m gaining valuable skills and meeting some great people, but it doesn’t allow me the direct connection to Argentine people that I’d like.

That is why it is time for me to find a way to plug in above and beyond FSD. I have this nagging voice in the back of my head, pleading to be “more in the field.” Begging me to make myself a little more uncomfortable, to expose myself to new situations that push my personal limits, and to meet those people who can’t afford the luxuries of the cappuccinos sold at Café Havanna or the leather boots on Calle 12. There are needs in and around La Plata, and providing support the interns is one way of helping to address those needs, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty and to get more directly involved.


Argentina, here we come!

8 05 2010

As most of you know, Tim and I decided that after nearly two years in Pittsburgh we were ready for a new adventure. So this Wednesday, May 12, he and I will be moving to La Plata, Argentina, where I accepted an International Program Coordinator (PC) position with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).

FSD is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that “supports the efforts of grassroots organizations in the developing world that are working to better their communities, environments, and the economic opportunities around them” ( — check it out!). A quick way to sum up the work that the organization does is to say that it places interns and volunteers– of all ages and backgrounds– with local organizations in six different countries. In fact, FSD placed me with the health clinic in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua in 2008. I had such a wonderful time working with FSD in that capacity and am eager to continue my relationship with the organization as a PC for the La Plata program.

Being a PC is pretty close to my dream job at this point in my career. It’s a perfect way to combine my interest in strengthening the efforts of small nonprofits with my passion for international development. I will be working with FSD’s partner organizations, which will certainly provide insight into the ways that different organizations address community-level development issues. Another large portion of my job will be volunteer/intern management, meaning that I will get to interact with people with similar interests as me while gaining some meaningful management experience. I’m excited to conduct trainings and orientations for the interns and partner organizations, and, hopefully, I will get some (albeit limited) experience with project design and management. On top of all of the great work, taking this position means moving to a new country and getting to know a new culture, which is always a great learning experience in and of itself.

La Plata, the city where we’ll be living, is the capital of the Buenos Aires province and is home to roughly 600,000 people. Supposedly, the cathedral is the biggest church in the country and the city’s layout is one of the best. For our first month, Tim and I will be living with a host family, as a way to get accustomed to the language, food and culture. After that initial month, however, Tim and I are free to live wherever we choose. I’m sure we will want more independence (and spending money!) than living with a host family will allow us to have, but who knows what kind of accommodations we will find.

Tim does not have a job lined up yet, although the FSD field staff have assured me he will have no problems finding a position in social work or education. Despite not having a job secured (and not really knowing the language!), Tim seems genuinely excited for the big move. He just finished his last days with Gateway Rehab this week and appears to really be looking forward to this new stage. I feel unspeakably grateful to be with someone who is not only willing, but excited!, to pack up our Morningside apartment and move to the other side of the world with me on only three weeks notice. I have no doubt that our time in Argentina will be as wonderful for him as it will be for me.

This is where I conclude the first of our blog entries. We will both try to update as often as possible, especially in the first weeks and months as we get settled. The next time you hear from us though, we’ll be enjoying a cool fall day in La Plata.

Love and besos.