Living and Giving

36 Hours in Cambodia [Part 7 of 7]

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This is the last of a seven part series entitled 36 Hours in Cambodia. This is an unedited account of a personal journey and will be followed by stories from a few more of my international volunteer trips. Many of the experiences on these trips would become the impetus for founding UniversalGiving™.

June 16, 2002

Looking Ahead, and Corporate Social Responsibility


Looking ahead, Sophary from DigitalDivideData sees agriculture and  industrialization as the mainstays for the economy.  Agriculture being rice, corn, beans.   I think cashews as well.  There also numerous factories, even a “Canadian Industrial Park.\”  Look down the row and you will see a factory complex of more than 30 warehouse, uniform.  They are all factories.  Thirty of them.  It\’s white ribbed tin metal buildings; heat waves molt back and for between them in this hot sun day; it\’s pure it\’s stark it\’s white it\’s unwelcoming, it\’s factual, clear, and amidst this burning heat, cold.

Sophary asked if I wanted to see the living conditions and talk to the people.  How I could never have done this without him!  Not just language barriers, but intruding in people\’s lives.

We stopped by a roadside, and walked down a row of \’\’homes.\”  People lived amongst wood slabs as walls, and slept on a wood covering.   Because the salaries are so low — $45/month, and rent is $30/month, they share a room, 4-5 per.  I asked questions and Sophary translated.  They work 6 days a week and overtime you get paid 1000 riel per hour.  That\’s 25 cents.  If you don\’t want to work, they \”dismiss you.\”

Positives are that while they don\’t have vacation, they are paid the equivalent of one month\’s salary for vacation.  They do have a lunch hour.  And, from what I saw in El Salvador, the living conditions in Cambodia are definitely much, much better…..Not that it means that these conditions are right.

I asked which companies were better to work for.  The people stated it didn\’t matter. They were all the same. Sophary says that from his perspective, the Chinese companies are the worst. They don\’t have respect for people\’s lives, only profit.  Many dislike the Chinese for their ability to get rich quickly and not care about the process.  However, Japan is providing money for roads, businesses, NGOs and is regarded very favorably because they are investing and building areas of Cambodia that affect all aspects of society.

Sophary has run the gamut on striving for justice in the corporate arena.  He is a dynamic, very kindly, absolute expert on street smarts and pushing the channels for change.  He\’s brilliant.

He\’s helped organize the people to fight injustice through the proper channels, while finding out about the background of the company.  Often there are companies called \”parachute\” companies.  They seem to come from nowhere and he can\’t find out the owner.  Usually this means the company has been allowed in by the government as it is receiving a major kickback.

If a company is doing something unjustly, he finds out what stores buy from them, and will contact them about the company.  Or such as with the case of Gap, Nike and Walmart, they so have local codes of conduct which they strive to abide by.  They also have local offices with whom he can meet.  The local offices are interested in keeping relations positive in order to be profitable for headquarters, so there is a good check there.

If Sophary can\’t get good responses, he sends emails copying the Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Finance, the NGOs and the company.  He could indeed be a dangerous man for the Cambodian government.  And he is the most smiley, kind person as well as incredibly street smart and entrepreneurial!

Another accomplishment is regarding contracts.  The U.S. will set up contracts for clothing from Cambodia. The operators will import them from Vietnam and Laos very cheaply, and then sell them to the U.S.!  But Sophary is taking a stand for the purity of these contracts, which will cut out the middleman, and in truth provide jobs and increase productivity within Cambodia and for its people…

Because of all these skills and negotiating tactics and working of the channels, he was offered a job by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for $600/month which is a lot.  His role would be working on all of these types of labor issues, which really deals with corruption.  He accepted Digital Divide\’s $300/month as an opportunity to create more jobs and train people, and is more excited about his work.  The ILO presented more money, but only the opportunity to fight a system, rather than to create…

Early Social Entrepreneurship: Accountability and Revenue Generation


Sophary was already having \’good\’ trouble with the government.  Some colleagues offered to have him come to a meeting about money given from the World Bank.  The World Bank would be giving more money in a five year period.  But Sophary asked, \”First, can we review what has happened in the past and how we have used the money?\”

The agreement was that 65% of the money would go to the rural sector; 35% to the cities.  The reverse occurred.  Sophary established that they DON\’T want money in 5 year installments.  They want it for the first three months, and to evaluate how and where it was spent.  Subsequent to that there will be 6 month checks.  In essence, he is putting his government in check about how the money will be spent.  He wasn’t asked to a second meeting.

As opposed to the U.S. nonprofit mindset –often wanting the money WITHOUT frequent checks – here he was requesting it.  This is good as far as wanting accountability; sad that they have to put their own country in check for abuses, politics and corruption.  For the U.S. part, I think some nonprofits are totally legitimate in wanting to control their work and focus on achieving results rather than making long reports tailored to a government agency; on the other hand, if someone is giving money, they have every right to request results and accountability.

Another key aspect of social entrepreneurship which is being introduced is revenue generation.  Much earlier in their NGO history, they are putting together revenue generation schemes.  Donors not only will not always be around — they are not necessarily around NOW.  The process of attaining government monies is arduous as often it gives way to corruption.  So related to the mission or not, many NGOs are generating revenue in order to survive.  Awesome!

Regarding DigitalDivideData (DDD), their work is wonderful.  They are helping people, often who have not been trained or had any opportunity of any sort, to help execute on data entry and digitization (working with transforming text to images and vice versa).  Kathryn is from the mid-West and is spending a year there to help them on the social responsibility side. For example, right now she is trying to set up a healthcare system for them.  First, the insurers want a list of everyone who has an arm or leg missing, in order not to have any false claims (due to so many people losing limbs from the war and landmines).  Second, they only have crisis insurance — nothing for \’regular\’ checkups, pregnancy, dentistry, etc.  So she is looking into working with one doctor who might provide a group rate. Fascinating the entrepreneurship one takes hold of when systems we take for granted aren\’t in place!

I really enjoyed speaking with Nary.  She is the director of operations at DDD, and works with all the employees, training them, handling employee issues, holding meetings, measuring progress.  She herself has little training, but she is \’all natural\’ — she just gets it.  She knows how to instruct people, how to encourage them, tell them how to do their job better, in the best way possible.   She is excellent at what she does and it shows.   It just shows that people who don’t even have a great amount of experience, but have the motivation, appreciation of opportunity, heart and gut instinct, can make tremendous differences.


How grateful I am to have experienced this beautiful countryside, inordinately kind people, and growing government and people.  To have people so recently affected, willing to speak about their history, themselves, and their future…I am honored by my stay here…


You can take action.

Give $20 to provide gardening tools to a Cambodian family.

Give $25 to clear landmines.

Give $100 to support economic development in Cambodia.

Volunteer with an arts center in Cambodia.