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Volunteer overseas on worthwhile and sustainable programmesVolunteer Overseas

David Welsh - Micro-finance in Cambodia

I arrived in Phnom Penh early in November in the middle of the Water Festival – three amazing days of boat races, fireworks, and pageant, which heralds the end of the rainy season. I don’t think I’ve ever been caught up in such a huge crowd as I found thronging Sisowath Quay, the beautiful riverside promenade.

Shared volunteer accommodation

A local farm in Cambodia

I stayed at the volunteers’ apartment in Russey Keo, a 15-minute tuk tuk ride to the city centre but just a few minutes to Khemara, the local NGO, which was our project office. The apartment was nice and clean with air-conditioning in all the rooms and we were lucky to have an excellent cook who served up delicious meals.

For the first few days, I shared a room with a young Cambodian volunteer, who was nearing the end of his Teaching placement. He gave me an excellent introduction to Projects Abroad and had the great advantage of speaking Khmer, which meant we got very competitive deals with the tuk tuk drivers!

My Micro-finance placement

My Micro-finance colleague was Seiko from Japan. Seiko was very good with the admin side of our project and was also particularly good at making friends with the families we visited, and was often surrounded by children. Our Projects Abroad co-ordinator, Sothea, came from a farming family in the north of Cambodia and was extremely friendly and keen to involve us in all aspects of his work.

We spent the first week visiting the women who had received loans and collecting their fortnightly repayment. It was quite a shock to see their living conditions, but surprising also to find how cheerful they are. What was also surprising was the variety of businesses they were engaged in. This included selling fresh fish, fish drying, and selling clams, frogs, and sugar cane juice. Some women also cooked and sold corn on the cob and rice cakes, ran fruit and vegetable stalls, or ran a tailoring business (I had a pair of trousers made to measure in two days!)

With so many beneficiaries trading in fish, we decided to go to one of the main fish markets in Phnom Penh so we got up really early one morning and arrived at the market in darkness at 5am. The place was teeming with people but the most surprising thing was that almost all the fish on sale were alive. With the intense heat in Cambodia, all the food needs to be super fresh.

Micro-finance volunteers and local staff in Cambodia

The most exciting part of micro-finance work is to identify a new group of potential borrowers, and about halfway through my placement Sothea found nine women from a local community who were interested in receiving a loan. Our first job was to introduce them to the Khemara/Projects Abroad loan scheme, so we met in one of their houses and explained how they would receive an interest-free loan of $120, which would be repayable over 12 months. As well as the fortnightly repayment of $5, they would also pay $3 into a deposit account so that at the end of the year, they would have $72 of savings.

Over a period of three days, we carried out one-on-one interviews with the applicants in their homes to find out how they would use the money and to assess if they were creditworthy. We found out that two of the women had recently finished repaying one-month loans at exorbitant interest rates. One of them had borrowed $100 for 40 days and paid $25 in interest!

Back at the office, we considered the merits of each applicant and decided that we could offer loans to seven of them. The seven successful applicants then received loan agreements, which they had to get authorised by their community leader.

One of the key elements of the Projects Abroad loan scheme is the support they receive from their co-ordinator, so before the loans were actually handed over we conducted a training session to stress the importance of savings and household budgeting, and a further session on the importance of managing costs and overheads to ensure profitability.

On our last day, Seiko and I presented Sothea with a cartoon of him pointing to a graph showing profitability on the increase.

My free time

Micro-finance volunteers interviewing local business women

I enjoyed a weekend trip to Siem Reap with four other volunteers. We decided to get up at 4am to watch the sunrise over the temples and were indeed lucky to see the sun come up as we sat on the steps of the royal bathing pool.

I also had a weekend at Kampot, famous for its pepper plantations and I had a superb crab lunch at Kep, a nearby resort made popular by the French. I decided to travel back to Phnom Penh by train, which took rather longer than the bus but was most entertaining.

A tuk tuk outing to the Killing Fields just outside Phnom Penh was moving but it was the subsequent visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum that brought home the grim horror of the Khmer Rouge regime. The story of Bophana, a young woman who was imprisoned at Toul Sleng and executed in 1976 was particularly poignant.

Sothea organised one of the most entertaining evenings - the CTN TV studios just up the road from the apartment have kick boxing every Saturday night and about seven of us joined a crowd of about 2000 to watch four bouts. It was a very boisterous evening and there was no charge!

Final thoughts

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about my trip to Cambodia. I’m retired so I was a bit concerned about how much older I would be than the other volunteers. Imagine my surprise when I found that not only was I about three times the average age, but also the only male volunteer for most of my stay! It didn’t matter because all the volunteers were extremely friendly.

My month in Phnom Penh was highly rewarding; it is a beautiful country with very friendly people and I came away with the feeling that I had made a worthwhile contribution to the Micro-finance Project.

David Welsh

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