Spotlight on Mr. Thy, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Children’s Rights
It only takes about a minute to be charmed by Mr. Thy, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Children’s Rights. The diminutive, unassuming Cambodian is not at all what I had expected. Running what has quickly become one of Cambodia’s preeminent NGOs working to protect vulnerable children and survivors of trafficking, he is incredibly busy, constantly meeting with potential sponsors, reporting back to funders on program results, and interacting with his own expanding staff. It took me weeks to arrange an in-person sit-down with him.
Since he took charge of CCPCR in 2010, the organization has gone from the brink of collapse, to an expanding force. I therefore expected him to have a bit of a hero complex, which is all too common in the international development field. Instead, he was the exact opposite. He didn’t take any credit for the organization’s transformation. Smiling constantly, he highlighted instead his own shortcomings, and spoke about how overwhelmed he was when he took over the position. He spoke candidly about the problems the organization faced: lack of funding and visibility; an uphill battle in getting children’s rights recognized by the Cambodian people; his own flaws in English grammar. Yet the organization has flourished under his leadership. They have established an effective system for helping survivors of abuse and trafficking: individualized client work plans including schooling, counseling, and a specialized social worker; shelter services for those who can’t immediately return to their community, followed by an intermediate period in a halfway house; after which most clients expect to be able to fully reintegrate into their community, with assistance given to find employment, or small business grants with which to start their own businesses.
Mr. Thy is well aware of the needs of his clients, but without being condescending. He says,
“Our shelter residents are just children. They need support and help from us because, like all children, they depend on adults. Once they’re older and done schooling, they can take on more responsibility and independence, but many still seek some guidance and familiar surroundings. They prefer to stay in the halfway house until they’re ready to reintegrate.”
He doesn’t talk about them as different from other children or young adults, regardless of their traumatic experiences, which include rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking and indentured labor. They’re just children who need an alternative social support system. Talking about them in this way, rather than naming them as victims who have slim chances of living a productive life, is the first of a number of things Mr. Thy does differently. He talks about re-structuring the organization to make it more effective, which included shutting down the Sihanoukville shelter, which didn’t have the funding to be a success. Most NGOs refuse to shut down services and centers, even when they can’t afford them, because it looks bad to potential funders. But Mr. Thy practically said,
“It’s not about the number of people or shelters we have, it’s about the quality we deliver and the impact we make”.
Furthermore he speaks about the problematic realities of the development field, such as the fact that donors won’t pay for overhead costs, only activities for the children. So his staff, which includes housemothers in all shelters who cook and clean and provide emotional support to the kids, are overworked and underpaid. He also speaks about international volunteers, and the challenges of dealing with young, inexperienced foreigners who don’t speak the language and aren’t capable of handling the children’s needs. He does, however, note the usefulness of volunteers who are independent initiative-takers, and says that those who can help with administration, report-writing, and English editing are the most in demand right now. He also talks about his desire to make the organization self-sufficient in the long run, with more land in a provincial area where the shelter can grow its own food, build community capacity to combat poverty, and educate about the dangers of trafficking.
At the end of our meeting, I felt like my faith in development was rejuvenated. Here was an example of development done right. A local Cambodian, bred and born, who started with the organization in its infancy (1996), worked in multiple departments, locations, and roles, until eventually taking over as Executive Director. He understands the context, culture, and the field. He runs the operation like a business, which could explain why it appeals to donors. He doesn’t constantly have expat staff members parachuted in and out from different fields of work. Yet he’s humble enough to seek help when and where needed, and extraordinarily grateful for the support the organization receives. He is slowly but surely building an effective NGO, one that proves international development can have a positive impact when led by local leadership.
*Note: The Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights will receive proceeds from this year’s Angkor Wat Bike4Kids! A fundraising bicycle race and ride around the temples of Angkor (www.bike4kids.org).Donations are also accepted online for CCPCR at http://give2asia.org/ccpcr.
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Photo: ND Strupler/Flickr