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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cambodia: Development is in the Details

When we talk about ‘development’, we often slip into well-meaning but very vague language. We hear talk about ‘empowerment’ and ‘aid’ and ‘sustainability’. One pictures a kind of iridescent moral net thrown over the world’s various ills. It doesn’t exactly zero in on what we—you with us—are trying to accomplish.

There’s a simple way of looking at it. We’re trying to help people address the things—big things to them, little things to us perhaps—that keep messing them up, keep them from having any sense of control over their lives, or the ability to improve things for their children. That is about it. That focused sense of mission takes us in a lot of different directions, it’s true; for every 100 people, after all, you probably have about 100 different kinds of problems, 100 required solutions. But the aim is the same—helping the poor to gain control over their lives.

Our health fund in Cambodia is a good example of how this all works. Pech Van is a 57-year old widow who lives in Prey Omal, Cambodia, with her mother, her daughter, her son-in-law, and her four grandchildren. Pech’s mother is disabled, and needs frequent medical care, which has placed a huge burden on Pech and her family. In the past, when Pech’s mother or any of her grandchildren were sick (which was often), Pech often couldn’t buy medicine for them or bring them to the hospital in Pursat town. The problem wasn’t that she couldn’t afford the expense; Pech has a good home garden and a chicken raising business. The problem was that her family often got sick at times when she couldn’t sell crops or chickens, which meant that she had no money with which to pay the doctors or pharmacies. Pech didn’t want to have to borrow money from a moneylender, who would have charged extremely high interest rates, and couldn’t borrow from her neighbours.

In May 2008, Pech joined one of HOPE International Development Agency’s new village health funds. Every month, Pech started paying 25 cents into the fund, along with almost 100 other families in her village; HOPE added money to this fund as well. From these pooled funds, the village health fund gives no-interest loans to fund contributors to pay for healthcare expenses.

In January 2009, Pech borrowed $40 to treat her mother for typhoid. She was able to pay this back in April, as soon as she harvested her vegetable crop. In August 2009, Pech again borrowed money from the fund - this time, she borrowed $50 to bring her young grandson, who had dengue, to the hospital. And again, Pech was able to pay back the loan within a few months with money from her home garden and chicken raising business. Since then, Pech has again borrowed and repaid money, and plans to do so in the future. With the safety net of the village health fund, Pech, her family, and her neighbours feel more secure and happier. They know that if they get sick, they now have options.

Development is in the details. It takes spending time with people to understand the obstacles they face in their lives. Pech needed a fund to draw upon in bad times. Every family has a different story, and every time that story ends well, it’s a lot more gratifying to describe than any lofty plan to ‘develop’ the so-called ‘under-developed world’.

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