PEPY Answers Questions

Posted on: May 26, 2009 Posted by: Kaia Smith Comments: 0

PEPY Answers Questions

by Daniela Papi – PEPY Executive Director

PEPY is entered in the Changemakers "Geotourism Challenge" and, in doing so, our entry is open for comments/questions

Recently, a Changemakers representative asked us some questions which relate to how to manage our projects, impliment our tours, and work  with partners.  I am including my responses here as they might shed light on the way PEPY works which is not otherwise visible on our websites.

1. What do your visits to the local schools entail?

Some of the dangers I see with school visits:

1) Child safety
2) Interrupting their education
3) Having foreigners come in to “teach” when they should be the ones learning about the new place
4) Taking time away from more important work to entertain the visitors
5) Giving “things” (like paper/pens, painting a fence, etc) when the real needs of the school might be teacher training, salaries, etc.

We used to do it all wrong. Our first trips, we would pop into schools and “teach about the environment” when we knew little about the environment in Cambodia ourselves. We then began partnering with a local environmental education NGO to do similar visits, but then we still recognized that one-off trips into schools was not going to make much difference if our aim was impacting attitudes towards the environment. Now, most of our tours which involve any school visits are visiting schools which we partner with in some way. At those schools we support, our main focus is on teacher training and Khmer literacy, things which are difficult for short-term visitors to be involved in. Where are tours used to be designed around “giving” they are now designed around “learning”. Why limit tour “volunteer days” at any one school to three trips per year, though usually two, and integrate opportunities for the kids and teachers at the school to be the givers, not the recipients. Visits to The PEPY Ride School in Chanleas Dai might include a presentation from a computer class on their latest XO Computer project or English class presentations on rice harvesting or the highlights of their local community. The “giving back” portion is either a cultural exchange, though we have done less and less of those types of trips in recent years, or a physical project which we integrate the visitors into based on the needs at the time.

In otherwords, we don’t always say “we are going to be helping to build XX classroom resource center” 4 months out when someone signs up for a trip. Instead we say we will be helping out with the needs at the time, and if the needs at the time are re-cementing the shaded study area outside the school, working in the garden after the cows had broken in and destroyed the fence, or repainting a classroom, we will do that.

We make sure our visits have PEPY staff present at all times and are very monitored in terms of child-visitor interactions. During our school visit days there is typically 1 PEPY staff person at the school that day for ever 2-3 guests and guests and we do a thorough orientation about our expectations when visiting, being a role model for all other foreigners as their interactions with foreigners are very limited, etc.

To avoid interrupting schools, our visits into the classrooms to tour is usually a short 1-2 hour stint and we find other ways to participate in our programs without interrupting as much. For example, we take 4th graders from our target area on an annual trip to see the temples of Angkor. We can schedule these field trips on the same days our guests are seeing the temples and, though they travel with different guides for language reasons, the guests can learn about our programs and be a part of an important moment in these children’s lives without adding additional days interrupting school.

We tell all of our guests that their impact is only partially in what they paint, build, repair, or teach on our trips. It is more in the funding the support to provide for the more ongoing needs at the schools (salaries, teacher training, etc) and in the work they help support with changing attitudes towards education. During our temple visits, when the visiting foreigners are paired up with student buddies during our morning introductions, part of the lesson they leave is “I am here because I believe in YOUR education, and I want to see YOU graduate from grade 6, and then grade 9, and then grade 12…” Those connections and personal acknowledgement of their belief in a child and his/her education is just as if not more important than the rest of their work. Of course, in Cambodia, most of the decisions about staying in school are not based on a child’s desire to study or not, but a family’s need for their child to be home working. Guests who travel with us know that their funding is supporting PEPY’s programs which lower the barriers to entry in school and thereby help more students continue on further in their education than they might have otherwise.

2. How do you collaborate with development projects in your region? Can you give some examples?

At first, our model was something like this:

OLD MODEL: Identify a need we wanted to support, find NGOs who could fill that need, operate a trip, support their work

NEW MODEL: PEPY has on-going programs run by local staff, we operate a trip to support those projects, a portion of the funds goes to other NGOs we visit along the way, remaining fundraising supports on-going projects

Now, PEPY operators most of its own programs. That was not my intention when starting PEPY, but in working more and more in development I learned that many needs were not being met in any sort of sustainable manner: aka build a school, walk away, never building capacity which takes MUCH less money but more time, local understanding, patience (which I am slowly trying to gain!), and commitment. I also learned that so many of the NGOs I did respect and whose models I wanted to support were stretched very thin. If we wanted to support the work they were doing, which we often do, that is fine, but when we want to take their model, say in agricultural education, teacher training, etc even with funding, their human resources are often too thin to help bring their model to our target area. So instead, we have often found partners, hired them to train our staff or initiate parts of their programs with us and then we take those programs on as our own, with local staff, etc. As such, most of the projects travelers get involved in are PEPY projects, though we sometimes have worked with a partner like building and funding rainwater collection units with and these types of things.

We are constantly collaborating with other groups because we know that WE are not experts in any of the fields we are working in, so why not use and spread the resources of those who are. We identified that libraries in Cambodia are often failing to impact education and literacy as they sit locked, with no librarian, with rat eaten books, many of which are in English. There are many large groups out there funding these libraries, and we know we don’t have the funds to do them ourselves, so instead we decided to be the mosquito biting enough people to try to create change. This year we partnered with Room to Read to help redesign the way they look at libraries in Cambodia. We are installing classroom libraries in every classroom in 10 schools this month and doing teacher training for all teachers. We look to partner with groups that have great models to help them spread their work and groups who have the funding and recognition to do things better. We appreciate when other groups partner with us and tell US how to do things better too 🙂

3. How do you share the information and lessons learned from your program?

Through our:

Team Journal: we have posts which are titled “Lessons Learned” actually, like this one –…

My blog: I post lessons I have learned as well, and there is a recent post series called “What ELSE does PEPY do?” which might be of interest and one about the negative effects of orphanage tourism in Cambodia –

Speaking about voluntourism: I try to speak at adventure and travel events a few times a year with regards to the negative and positive things I have scene in Cambodia with tourism. I have spoken at the Adventure Travel World Summits for the past few years, and my underlying theme is usually that your IMPACT will drive your INCOME. So many tour companies seem focused on selling more and making more where as I think if we focus on how good our tours are and how much GOOD they do, then (once again, with patience!) we will find that the income will come.

Twitter @voluntourism and of course @pepyride and my own @danielapapi though there never seems to be enough time to do these things

Partnering with groups. Taking other programs out to see our projects and learn from the lessons we have learned. Educating the traveler who travel with us about the mistakes we have made ad encourage them to ask other NGOs and travel operators in the future what mistakes THEY have made. I wouldn’t trust a group which wasn’t willing to admit at least some level of learning and mistakes or else they are likely following the extreme of what Easterly calls the “Planners” dilemma. Following through on NGO plans which are set without really understanding realities (unfortunately SO much of where our development funding goes!).

We are launching soon which will be sharing voluntourism lessons learned as well as a self-check tool for others in the industry who want to rate their voluntourism impact. We are looking at other ways to spread this model, through a self-enrolling (yet very transparent) certification system and competitions to get more transparency in the industry.

And mostly by talking about and believing in admitting our mistakes and looking to help others avoid doing the same.

4. Its great that you’re tracking the impact of your projects – what have the results been?

Different projects, different results. Many much slower and harder to track than others.

Literacy: Some would measure our results in things: we built 6 schools, installing classroom libraries in 10 schools, delivered nearly 20,000 books to these libraries, connected over 30 teachers to training, etc. But schools are only as valuable as the education going on within them and kids need books of the right level, so those are not good ways to measure our results. We gave reading/writing tests to al 4th/5th/6th graders last year (as well as similar tests a few years back, but the results were hard to correlate as our new tests are different but better), and we will do the same tests at the end of the year. We broke those students who didn’t pass the highest levels of the literacy exam into 16 groups with teachers teaching additional classes for these groups daily. What I have seen: a library which last year had 70 books per month checked out and now has over 2,500 books per month (nearly the same number of books, same number of kids, a lot more reading). More than that, they are READING in the library, not just flipping through pages. PARENTS know about the library and talk about their kids bringing books home, which didn’t happen before. Parents asking for education program for them.

Teachers who used to ask for “a radio and a clock for my room” are now asking for teacher training. Recognizing where you lack and what the potentials are in education is one of the biggest steps I think we have taken in education.

Travelers on our trips helped start a “use waterfilters” campaign – over 200 have been sold just in the small village area where we work and the principal says that is perhaps the biggest addition to their school – health. Attendance is so much higher because of it.

Teachers, some of whom had 50% attendance in years past, now all have over 90% attendance per month. Where there were only about 10 students in 8th grade in years past when students had to travel far to get to school, we have about 70 students in our 8th grade right now.

Our tours used to be designed about giving. People would walk away saying “I’m so glad that we helped them.” Now they walk away with more questions than answers, recognizing that “giving” takes thought and time and research and that if we view out time and money as investments, rather than donations, we can truly help support the people and causes we believe in.

These are some of the qualitative ways we have made changes. Raising over $1 million dollars for educational projects is another way to look at it, but like I said, most of the biggest impacts we are having are with the things that cost the least amount of money. A School building and classroom materials costs about $68,000. Teacher training is likely less than 10% of that for a year for all teachers, but THAT is what makes a big difference.

5. What were the responses from the Participatory Rural Assessment you conducted?

We conducted 11 PRAs in all 11 villages in Chanleas Dai Commune, where we work, and we are now planning to conduct 6 more at the school level for all 6 primary schools in the commune.
The goal of the PRA was three fold: 1) for us to get information about the needs (and perceived needs) of the community 2) to let community members know about PEPY and about the government institutions which are supposed to be helping them in certain areas 3) and to bring a range of people in the community (men, women, older, younger, village leaders, farmers, etc) together to see where their ideas overlapped and differed.

The results in terms of needs was not to different from what we expected: education is not a high need when food security and agriculture technologies to improving farming are. There is a high rate of illegal immigration to Thailand. We knew this, but we didn’t realize how widespread. There was hardly a single family that did not have someone working in Thailan illegally and sending money home.

At one point we thought about getting into agriculture, but as I stated, we don’t want to pretend to be experts in fields where we are not. We have identified two partners who are applying agricultural technologies in applicable ways for rural Cambodia ( and and are looking to, and in some cases have started to, incorporate some of their models into our work. We have brought in information from other groups about things like rice harvest improvements and organic farm training in our schools – but doing these things we recognized that we are better connectors in that area than implementers. Instead, we started to focus on decreasing the costs associated with attending school (Bike-to-School Program where students can earn a bike, Teacher Award Program supporting teachers but requiring that they do not take the now standard daily “payments” from students, building schools in areas that didn’t have access to them, school uniforms and supplies) as well as connecting to scholarships for higher education.

We also started child clubs in all 11 villages after the PRAs bringing education to kids and young adults in their village when many of them do not otherwise attend school.

Another need identified by teachers and the community was that kids come to school but do not learn. We have taken many steps in this area in the schools we work in (summer school, a Khmer Literacy camp bringing in teachers from the city to partner with local teachers to get and give literacy education training, our classroom library project, teacher training, etc)


To see the full PEPY entry on the Changemakers page or to add a comment of your own, go here: