My Work in Cambodia (Nov 2010 version)

Please note that VSO has strict blogging guidelines.  I have tried at all times to keep to these.  However it should be made clear that

the views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect those of VSO.

How are volunteers matched to needs?

As a volunteer with VSO you are first of all selected as suitable for volunteering (attitudes, resilience, skills) and then ‘matched’ to a post.   Your ‘placement adviser’ discusses the post with you and you decide if it is suitable or not.   This is unlike normal job applications where you research and apply for specific positions.  At the time when I volunteered, I did not know where I would end up, or what I would end up doing (as I have a number of areas where I felt I could offer something), although I suspected that VSO would ask me to do something in headteacher leadership training, since this is an area in which I have a lot of experience.   However a limitation that I imposed was that I did not want to serve more than six months, as when Joan and I discussed my volunteering we had agreed this was the maximum amount of time we were prepared to be apart!

My placement:

After a false start, VSO offered me a position as a ‘Technical Adviser’, based in the Ministry of Education in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.   The job was a continuation of the placement of a previous volunteer, with a number of projects to be completed.  When I arrived here I discovered that this ‘completion’ character was one of two reasons why the placement offered was a six month one, and so matched up to what I had to offer.   The other reason, I was told, was funding of the placement which could not be guaranteed beyond the six months.  The main focus is on supporting the Child Friendly Schools programme[1], a key policy of the Govt of Cambodia to improve its ‘basic education’ (Grades 1-9) and meet the relevant Millenium Development Goals.    My predecessor and I had good contact before I came out, with two long Skype calls while he was still here (till end of June) and a long telephone call in August.  He also sent some helpful documentation on the outstanding projects which he had left in June.  These were:

  • work to complete a staff development dvd resource
  • work on two upper secondary vocational programmes in ICT and Tourism

The placement description also contained the usual rubric of ‘such other tasks as might be useful… ‘.  Since I have had a lot of experience in my career on working on the curriculum and curriculum development, a placement in the Curriculum Devt Dept of the Ministry seemed quite a good fit.

The VSO team context:

VSO’s strategy, in the limited number of countries where it works (see for information on countries), involves contributing to 2 or 3 of VSO’s key work areas – education, liveliehooods, gender equality, HIV/Aids, governance and health.  In Cambodia, there are around 100 volunteers contributing in health, education and liveliehoods, making this one of VSO’s bigger country programmes.   In addition, within each country, VSO aims to have volunteers working in each of four different levels – service delivery (‘on the ground’), organisational support (at local level), institutional support (to provincial or local governments) and national level support (at Ministry or strategy level).   The idea is that people working at the Centre can learn from people who are out working directly with patients / students etc ‘in the field’ and vice versa, so that the VSO ‘team’ in a country is better informed and more effective because of communication across the levels, and, ideally, across areas (health and education working collaboratively, for example).    In this model, every volunteer has a responsibility not just in their own placement, but to the wider team.

Education in Cambodia:

Cambodia is a unique society.  The devastation of the country’s educational capital by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 meant that by the 1980s, there was almost no-one left in the country who had had a University education, with few skilled professional people at any level in public or private spheres.  Those who assumed positions in the Vietnamese backed communist govt of the 80s, or in the elected govts after the UN peacekeeping arrangements which ended the civil war, were not themselves very well educated, nor were they able to appoint well educated people into senior positions in civil society.  Many of those who were and are still in charge of govt departments had disrupted school education and if they have had a Higher Education at all, it has often been of low quality.   This lack of quality in the education of those in leadership is paralleled by problems in how Cambodian civil society operates – many of the formal relationships within govt and public service are characterised by patronage and servility, not by a concern for effectiveness and quality.   Moreover the recent Transparency International index shows that Cambodia continues to languish near the bottom of the the league table of freedom from corruption (154/178, with a score of 2/10).   Successive international reports also show that, despite the significant private wealth of a small elite (the Khmer Riche as one critical article recently christened them), Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, in terms of material wealth   ( ) and in terms of other aspects of development  ( ).   In addition, there are lots of continuing issues about the relationship between individual Cambodians and their rights and the character of government and justice in Cambodia ( see, for example, the recent LSE ‘panel of experts’ discussion on Cambodia, available as a podcast at:   ).

Since the majority of Cambodia’s population is under 25, with a quarter aged between 10 and 19, what the country does in its schools is fantastically important for the future.  There are some very positive signs:

  • the govt is investing heavily in schools (about 40% of the population is in full time education)
  • teachers recently received a pay increase, although there pay is still so low that all need other sources of income
  • many of the policies, such as ‘Child Friendly Schools’, which the govt has adopted are progressive and will lead to real positive change and the development of a skilled and mature civil society over a twenty year period.
  • this is a young society, with a positive and (perhaps naively) optimistic outlook among many young people.
  • I have met extremely able and hardworking people at every level in education (including two Ministers in the Cabinet whom I heard at a conference speaking about their hopes and ambitions for the young people of Cambodia) who acknowledge the difficulties they face but who really want to improve education for the future of their country.

However there are also some very real challenges:

  • Cambodia’s educational standards are improving but lag behind its neighbours
  • progression from basic education into higher or technical education is unbalanced and unequal
  • there are extreme pockets of rural poverty
  • the education sector does not seem well matched to employment needs in the medium term (a fantastically large percentage of University students are studying management and accounting, areas in which there are few job opportunities)
  • the integrity of examinations in school and higher education is compromised by the sale of papers and model answers prior to examination
  • governance issues pose serious questions for the future[2]

In this context, good strategic decision making at the Centre is very important.     If I can help a little bit with that I will be quite happy!  My Dept is one of several Ministry Depts.  It’s a big Dept, with a number of separate ‘offices’ for the different subjects in the curriculum (Khmer, Maths, Science etc).   Our primary responsibilities are:

  • advise the Minister on the curriculum for Cambodian schools, 5-18
  • prepare and implement plans to upgrade and develop the curriculum
  • prepare detailed syllabi for all the stages and subjects of school education
  • prepare and distribute the textbooks for each stage and subject – these are the only teaching resource provided by the Ministry for schools, and often become the de facto lesson (“today we are doing p18 and 19”)
  • research and evaluation (not inspection!) of school education

What have I been doing so far then?

Well that was a very long-winded context setting blurb……not like me at all!

So far, here are some of the things I have been doing:

  • learning about the country’s education system (investigative trips, reading, asking other more experienced colleagues)
  • making myself useful to staff in DCD (my dept) who ask for help with anything (e.g. preparing advice on national testing, reviewing proposals by NGOs to work with the dept, giving some points for the Dept Director to help with presentation he was making at a conference etc).
  • progressing the staff development DVD project
  • building alliances with other NGOs (there are many NGOs like VSO from Belgium, France,  Italy, USA…) –  we sometimes appear to be duplicating effort / unaware of how we could do better by working together
  • promoting an excellent English Language programme, developed by a VSO volunteer a few years back, which provides very good support for Primary School teachers, even if they don’t speak English themselves (there is a very full Khmer handbook and audio resources/learning games etc).   I have been trying to build an alliance with Peace Corps, who are involved with improving the teaching of English in the secondary sector, in order that we can work together with the Ministry to improve English teaching from Grades 5 and 6 (primary) all the way through to Grade 12.   My recent visit to Battambang was to allow my partner (the Depute Director of DCD with whom I share an office) to see this programme in operation.  It would be great if this programme could be ‘rolled out’ around the country.  Quite apart from the value of better English learning, it provides an excellent model of active learning, so teachers who have been trained using it are able to transfer some of the ideas into their teaching in other subjects.
  • work on a variety of committees – sounds pretty boring, but I think I usually have something useful to say e.g. the national curriculum planning committee and the committee developing the Tourism course.
  • feeding curriculum ideas in to the Director, the Vice Director and other key staff (e.g. how I believe they should remodel the ‘vocational preparation’ area of the curriculum).
  • working for VSO – I prepared some advice for the VSO office on monitoring and evaluation of their work and have volunteered to help with the strategic review[3] they are currently undertaking and to help organise the annual conference for all education volunteers. I also hope to fulfil my role in the ‘team’ by producing a report, ‘The View from the Ministry’, which will hopefully let a lot of those volunteers out in the Provinces see a bit of the ‘wider picture’ providing a context for the more detailed work which they are doing directly with schools and teachers.
  • work for the British Embassy – I have been asked to organise some training for some Cambodian organisations which work with the British Embassy – I’m not sure what will be involved but said I would be happy to help!

To give you a flavour of what that means in practice, last week, I was out of the office for four days (two days of which were travelling) taking two of my DCD colleagues up to Battambang and came back in time to attend the conference planning meeting;  this week I will be in the office for a ‘catch up’ few hours, I will attend part of a ‘lifeskills’ workshop being paid for by UNICEF with the aim of pulling together a better curriculum plan for ‘lifeskills’ development and I will spend sometime with a Cambodian colleague preparing the DVD workshop which we are running next week:  UNICEF are supporting this five day workshop which I have helped to organise to work on the #raw# dvd footage of ‘model lessons’[4] which my predecessor had got ‘in the can’ and develop from them a useable staff development resource which can be used in teacher training throughout Cambodia.    If this is done well and we are able to produce a good resource, then it will be used in both pre-service and in-service teacher training sessions.


It’s maybe too early to say whether my contribution makes a difference in any of the above.  However I am certainly busy, and feel that I have a lot to contribute by way of advice.    I am certainly learning a lot about the development industry, about Cambodia and about myself!!

[2] see, for example, some of the work of Sophal Ear ( ) , the work of Simon Springer (e.g. ) or Country for Sale

( ).

The recent LSE panel discussion ‘Impunity in Cambodia’ is also worth a visit – it can be downloaded as a podcast.  The panel of experts have a very informed insight into the democratic deficit.  It can be found at:

[3] A ‘once every five years’ examination of what VSO should be aiming to do in the country – where are the priorities?  what is VSO’s role? etc.

[4] The Ministry has a policy that all teachers should plan their lessons (something that is not well done as they tend just to use the textbook) in five steps – settling down/registration etc, recap last time, clarify learning intention this time and introduce the new idea/skill, practise the idea / skill through activities, check understanding/issue homework/flag up next lesson.  The focus of this staff development resource is to show good teachers ‘modelling’ the delivery of well planned lessons which are then followed up by the teacher trying out some of the ideas in her own classroom.


11 thoughts on “My Work in Cambodia (Nov 2010 version)

  1. You are always writing about experienced, motivated, highly skilled people who you’ve met… but are you aware that you are breaking a VSO rule : most of the time, people don’t do a lot of significant work in the first 3 (4, 5…6?) months. So you are definitely one of those people yourself! And you have done so quickly so many good things! Great to read it, and hope you will enjoy this week again!

  2. Hi Danny,
    Ann Ross sent me a link to your Blog this morning. Sounds fantastic what your doing a real adventure, you have taken on so many tasks. Is 6 months long enough to achieve them? Sorry to hear about the bridge tragedy, I hope you are keeping safe.

    • nice to hear from you Emma
      hope you are doing well and that your Gambia experience is still lined up for you.
      Life here is busy and tremendously interesting. I learn something new every day!

  3. Danny,
    It’s taken some time to get round to reading your blog – thus far only sections – so I have a lot to catch up on. It of course makes very interesting reading and I look forward to learning more about your work in Cambodia. Will you be joining a Choir on your return?

    Greetings from what the media are calling “Frozen Scotland”


  4. Sounds like you already have a good handle on things and are making a big difference. Keep up the good work and as I said in my last email, let me know if you can think of a useful way in which we can share what you are doing with Scottish teachers and pupils…
    Take care, Mike 🙂

  5. Hi Danny,
    I have just read your blog (NOV2010) version with fascination! As a teacher from the U.K. recently arrived in Cambodia, I have been learning similar lessons about the Cambodian education systems and their context, though not from a background of such experience and certainly not with the outcomes you are clearly achieving. It sounds wonderful, if very hard work.
    I met with a colleague of yours at the MoEYS recently who kindly gave me some of her time to talk through a few things…she also mentioned the work of VSO. As someone extremely motivated by education systems, curriculum development and working in Cambodia, I was fascinated to read about your work.
    I’m not sure, despite trying to piece together the dates, whether you are still in Phnom Penh – I think maybe not – but was wondering if you might be able to spare a moment from your busy schedule to meet with me if you are still here. I would certainly like to talk more about some of the work you are doing.
    With kind regards,

  6. OK Danny. Now I am really excited. Having found this link through googling VSO Cambodia, I have since been reading more of your blog and discovered all sorts of interesting things. Firstly that you are into TED talks..they have been inspiring me for the last year and a half and I am a massive fan. I have just finished reading Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Hope and Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, authors I first came across on TED. Secondly, you mention a VSO conference in Phnom Penh in March which I would love to attend, but cannot find details of. And another TED event? Thirdly, it appears you are still in the country (although very busy too). Fourthly, you attended the Meta House showing of ”Where have all the Fish Gone?”…I was there too (and agree with your critical analysis of both the film and the situation). Hmm am now hooked on reading about your antics, and have started to read about Sam and Gilly too.
    Thank you…Helen

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