Dear Supporters of SeeBeyondBorders and of better education for Cambodians,
This has been my last year as CEO, and Kate’s last year on the Board, of this charity we started in 2008 and has been so close to our hearts and minds ever since. Our dream to do something meaningful for Cambodians after seeing the conditions they had to endure in our first trip there in 2002, became a reality when some key initial donors bought in with financial and technical support. Our naivety as to just what ‘meaningful’ would mean, has been a thread through our story, focusing our determination not to waste the trust and support we have been afforded and learn how some lasting and positive change can be achieved for as many as possible. Ultimately however, it is the job of founders to face their own expendability and recognise how and when the time has come to pass the dream on.
As we emerge from Covid into a new, different, and increasingly unfamiliar world, that time is indeed now. We are very fortunate to have a very capable, less curmudgeonly, and more energetic team to pass the baton on to. They are already inspiring a new generation to support a greater sense of equity and opportunity for those born into real hardship, while understanding the many pitfalls the organisation has witnessed from within, and how to avoid them in the future. Cambodia has been and will continue to be a hard and complex environment to work in. Money brought into the country by tourists, charities, and missionaries has taught Cambodians how to anesthetise the well-meaning but naïve, and painlessly separate them from their cash. Unfortunately all too often this does not empower people to determine their own destinies but industrialises extraction at a national scale. Perhaps one shouldn’t feel too sorry for the naive individuals under the circumstances recognising that our job has always been to secure real change that leads to greater self-determination with the contributions people have entrusted us with, something that is never easy to articulate and requires engagement with more nuanced messaging.
Cambodia has changed dramatically over the 20 years we have visited and lived and worked there. The cities, Phnom Penh in particular, are unrecognisable with tall buildings and sophisticated coffee shops replacing open fires and fragile low rise structures. But the change is not only superficial. The outright poverty we saw initially is seldom visible now and those newly out of university are growing in certainty about their own ideas and the future they look forward to. Infrastructure is real and a tangible asset, with road systems that penetrate the remotest corners of the country, school buildings for all but the most isolated, and even the beginnings of a functioning rail network. Where change remains more intransigent, is where ‘soft skills’ are needed, most obviously in areas such as quality medical facilities; trustworthy and reliable institutions across government, business practices, the law, and policing; as well as of course, quality education, perhaps still the foundation for all the other developments the country needs.
Looking forward it may not be overly dramatic to suggest that we are witnessing a major change in the world order. Macro level events are impacting us all and will certainly raise new challenges for SeeBeyondBorders. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn attention to the realignment of countries between those that support a democratic process for electing and changing their leaders, and those that seek to perpetuate the regime of a single despotic individual often by repressing their populations. Russia’s weapon of choice is its formidable arsenal of artillery where as China extends its influence with technology and surveillance backed up by its growing naval capability. Cambodia has played the West off against the East since the French were in occupation and some in the current regime are increasingly emboldened by the political freedoms to be gained by the Country turning its back on Western ideals that allow it to take a relaxed approach to governance. This is beginning to alienate Western donors including the European Union such that when added with the cost of living crisis and global economic dislocation, might mean that securing funding is not about to get easier any time soon.
The funding window as we have known it, may now be closing, but the growth of a Cambodian middle class that wants to achieve a level of self-determination is fuelling a demand for good quality education. There remains time for SeeBeyondBorders to transition from a traditional charity model, to one where it is recognised as a centre of excellence in its own country, with local leadership, giving it the opportunity to diversify its funding sources as the go-to organisation for expertise in early grade education.
Our fervent hope is that the future never becomes about the perpetuation of the organisation, or a meal ticket for a few, a trap we see so many charitable enterprises falling into, but instead remains about what a group of people can do to meaningfully empower others, building confidence in them and a thirst for learning. We are delighted that there is every sign that this remains a realistic dream, perhaps more so than it ever was when we started. We will always be somewhere there in the fabric of SeeBeyondBorders along with so many others who are part of this journey and we look forward to seeing everyone grow from strength to strength. It just remains for us to say thank you to everyone who has made all this possible and has enriched our lives. From us this is ‘au revoir’ but not ‘goodbye.’
Kate and Ed.