Cambodia, Francesco

Hello from Phnom Penh!

Below is a brief of the situation here, follow my blog on the right [Francesco, Cambodia] for more day to day thoughts and reflections.

In the upcoming months, I will be based in the central office of the Community Development Foundation, located in the capital of Cambodia. But I will work mainly with communities scattered all across the country, from plains on the Mekong towards Vietnam, to the basin of the Tonle Sap Lake in the north-west, from the coastal towns of Sihanouk and Kep to the inland centre of Kampong Cham. There are dozens of ongoing community-driven projects in Cambodia in which I will (possibly) be involved, so delineating briefly the context is not an easy task – also because it’s not that clear to myself either. Therefore, I thought that an easier and more entertaining way to introduce the Cambodian situation would be to start from the huge drawing that’s been hanging in the office for a few weeks now.

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Titled Expectations of CDF 2013, it’s been made by Roth, Sokly, Len, and Heing – all members of the national CDF staff – after a huge meeting held at the end of 2012, attended by representatives of all the provincial CDFs and even by members of communities from neighbouring Thailand and Laos. They discussed their achievements and what results they would like to see in the forthcoming year, 2013, which marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the first CDF beyond the capital – it was founded in Bantear Meanchay province in 2003. The results are collected in this poster, which I tried to examine in detail yesterday with Roth, one of its authors, to get a broad picture of what’s going on in the country, in what direction communities are moving forward, and what’s the base on which are they building their next moves.

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On top, just beside the title, you can see a boat with people rowing on it. Roth explained me that it represents the people in the communities, the staff in the office, and everyone who has a stake in the process: we all need to row together and in the same direction if we want to accomplish something. Right under that, you may see a weird concert on top of a 20.000 riel banknote: it refers to the strategy, adopted by the national CDF, to stage singing shows in order to persuade people to pay back the loan in case they’re not doing it – or are lagging behind. Roth is one of the leading singers. The group gathering with flags stands for the international networking, through ACHR and other organizations. The temple nearby is Wat Phnom, the symbol of Phnom Penh, built on the hill (Phnom) after which the city is named; the bunch of people down there, with a paper document hanging over, represent the Memorandum of Understanding between the Municipality, ACHR and the savings groups network, that established the Community Development Foundation.

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Below there’s a guy, surrounded by loan repayment books, registers, and contracts, evidently strong and in good shape. In his mind, we can see the exchange meetings in which he took part, the upgrading project already completed, and the savings group that enabled it. Beside him we find a map of the country, divided into six regions: the CDFs are linked at regional level in five groups, plus one just for the Phnom Penh area. Money is flowing into the map from the savings group managed by women below.

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On the upper right corner there are a big mast, a celluloid strip, a TV, a camera, and a shooting set: they want to keep using the media to let people all across the country know what’s going on, to spread the savings group and the CDFs and reach more people. It’s already 10 years that the channel TV3 is broadcasting short films about the upgrading of slums and the work done by the CDF.

The upper left corner is instead occupied by an idyllic scenery of an upgraded community with people steadily paying back the loan. Below,  you’ll find a lot of building materials and techniques, from bamboo to community-produced earth blocks. Pnom Penh already has a centre for the production of construction materials at low cost that the communities can employ, and a new building, devoted to training, is under construction and due for completion this year. The people engaged in various activities down there refer to the income generation funds: something that has already started, and needs to grow, is the support of small businesses by the CDFs. You can see a tuk-tuk driver and a motodop, a weaving workshop, street vendors, foodstalls… The funds, managed collectively (as depicted in the group meeting on the left), are often extremely important to sustain the livelihoods of the communities, so that they can afford to pay back the loan, to complete the upgrading maintain it across time.

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Another important issue in the country is the post-disaster reconstruction, as fires, landslides, and most of all flooding are some of the disasters that often affect poor communities in Cambodia. The first post-disaster reconstruction project has been carried out in Khan Russeikeo (Phnom Penh) after a fire destroyed a settlement in 2010, with ACCA funds, and is now complete. You can see an example of a safe upgraded community on top of the representations of the disaster-affected ones.

All in all, this colourful poster well represents the Community Development Foundation’s work as I understand it: the attempt to coordinate the process that is unfolding in Cambodia, an intricate, multifaceted combination of projects,  actions and people that move across different fields such as the provision of basic services and infrastructures, the focus on savings and flexible finance that extends well beyond housing upgrading, the training of people from the communities and the professional world, experience-sharing through tv, radio, publications, meetings and exchanges, experimental research on material and construction techniques,  the involvement of the lower-income segments of the population and the weaving of delicate alliances with governmental institutions… and a lot more. It looks messy, and indeed it definitely is, yet there is an encompassing social vision behind the picture, a vision to which hundreds of thousands of people are participating everyday all across the country, and beyond.

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