Returning to PEPY
Written by Adam Vaught
My first experience with PEPY was an amazing voluntourism cliché, the type that many people have during their first trip to the third world. We showed up and gave the dirty but adorable kids things we thought they desperately needed like toothbrushes and Spanish lessons. I ate it all up. “The country is full of people who need things and I could totally help them.” It seemed just that simple. I left Cambodia high on the difference I felt we all had made; it was a high I knew I wanted to recapture. I remember telling Daniela on my last day, “Don’t be surprised to see me back here in the future.”
Turned out the future would only be six months later when I returned in October of 2006, to work on the same type of trips on which I had been a volunteer. After five months I once again left Cambodia having had a much different experience.
Seeing the day to day workings and struggles of not only PEPY but the countless NGOs working in Cambodia opened me up to another side of development work and voluntourism. I was forced passed the short term high that I had experienced and watched others experience as a result of their first rural volunteering trip and began to see the bigger more complex picture. Every group of tourists that visit the school, every group of interns that works for PEPY, every night spent in Chanleas Dai or weekend spent partying in Phnom Penh has an impact on this country and on its people; its a long term impact that is seemingly impossible to understand, quantify, or evaluate.
I wasn’t alone in this realization and probably came to it in large part because it was often a subject of conversation between those of us working in the office at the time. We discussed ways that we could have more control over our impact, ways we could make sure it would be a positive one. Ideas poured out mostly revolving around a few main themes: fewer groups going out to Chanleas Dai, training and hiring Cambodian staff, and ensuring all projects have a genuine community focus rather than donor or volunteer focus.
While these discussions went on and my departure day grew nearer I realized that the amazing cliché experience I had initially enjoyed with PEPY had morphed in a new cliché, that of the jaded, cynical NGO worker.
I left Cambodia in March of 2007, feeling that I had gained immensely from my time spent in Phnom Penh and Chanleas Dai, but worse than having given nothing back I worried that my presence may have actually had, in the long term, had a negative impact. That I had been part of something that was doing little more than perpetuating a dependency that was hurting those it claimed to be trying to help. I questioned whether PEPY as an organization would ever be able to take the steps we all felt were necessary to warrant our presence in Cambodia and was happy to return home to a place where I wasn’t forced to face these tough questions on a daily basis. Had you asked me at that point if I expected to come back to Cambodia do work in the development field I would have said no.
Over the past eighteen months I have heard second hand about the incredible shift that has taken place in PEPY’s projects and its staff. When I left, the organization was comprised of Daniela, four foreign interns and our English teacher Tolors. Today the staff numbers forty, with Cambodians outnumbering foreigners two to one. Funds raised by volunteers are now used strictly to support development projects with none going to PEPY overhead, and although trips still allow participants to “go where their money goes”, itineraries have been redesigned to leave a much smaller footprint than in the past. Projects such as the Khmer Literacy Program and Child to Child Clubs have been added after consulting with the communities and asking them what they wanted rather than telling them.
When a for-profit business begins to fail it is obvious, all anyone has to do is look at the bottom line; red verses black. With non-profits it is much harder to assess success and failure. There is no bottom line and short term success has the potential to mask long term failure. The cynicism I acquired towards the end of my first internship stemmed from a feeling that many NGOs, possibly including the one I was working for, believed they were doing good while actually causing harm. At the time I saw this as a problem that was be nearly impossible to rectify. Since I left, Daniela, Maryann, and everyone that has worked with PEPY have taken this organization in a direction I didn’t believe possible and effectively proved me wrong.
Two weeks ago I landed in Siem Reap once again to work with PEPY. There are new faces, new programs, a new office, and we are in a new city. But the atmosphere is just as inspiring as when I joined my first PEPY trip two and half years ago. That seems to be a constant. I know it hasn’t been easy and I know that things are far from perfect, but the steps they have taken have left me extremely proud to have been a part of this organization and made it impossible for me to say no when Daniela invited me back earlier this summer. I’m not sure what cliché I fall into now as I haven’t found too many people that have left the NGO world with the same jaded attitude I had only to be converted back. Maybe I’m just continuing of the natural progression of someone working in development. All I know is that this time around I expect nothing other than to have all the conclusions I have come to thus far to be challenged, which is exactly why I love working for PEPY.