Lasting Links：Taiwan NGOs are strengthening people-to-people ties
BY OSCAR CHUNG
Taiwan NGOs are improving public health and well-being and strengthening people-to-people ties with Cambodia.
A Cambodian father and son express gratitude to Taipei City-based Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation after the boy received treatment from NCF personnel at the National Pediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh in December 2017. (Photo courtesy of Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation)
Cambodian surgeon Dr. Long Vanna still remembers the buzz of excitement at the National Pediatric Hospital (NPH) in Phnom Penh during the summer of 1999 as he and fellow physicians prepared to welcome the first delegation from Taipei City-based Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation (NCF). The visit was to discuss a mooted partnership under which the Taiwan nonprofit would share its expertise in treating conditions such as cleft lip and palate. Long, then 41, recognized the potential of this tie-up in boosting children’s health and well-being in Cambodia. Looking back on what has been achieved in the decades since, he said the results have, if anything, exceeded his expectations.
Under the collaborative arrangement, formally launched one year later, NCF doctors perform surgeries at the hospital and NPH physicians undertake advanced training in Taiwan. Long was among those selected for the overseas fellowship, spending 2002 studying cutting-edge care practices at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital. “Before the foundation came to Cambodia, children with craniofacial conditions went untreated for their whole lives,” he said. “Thanks to this partnership, I’ve acquired the skills to help, and become one of the top surgeons in this medical field in my country.”
Dr. Long Vanna, right, assesses a young patient at an NPH outreach clinic in eastern Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province in June. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Long Vanna)
According to NCF, its doctors have treated 648 patients in Cambodia. Local physicians who have undergone training thanks to the foundation have helped many more. Long has independently handled more than 1,300 cases, in addition to assisting NCF personnel with complex procedures during their regular visits.
A total of 16 Cambodian medical professionals, including four surgeons, five dentists, three anesthesiologists and two speech therapists, have received instruction in Taiwan under the NCF partnership. They also act as seed trainers on returning home, with Long having passed on his knowledge to three junior doctors.
Inspired by the Taiwan foundation’s outreach work, in 2008 NPH started seeking out patients with craniofacial conditions in remote parts of the country, establishing a clinic in one province each year to conduct consultations and surgeries. “Sometimes on these trips, we encounter patients who got inadequate treatment,” Long said. “It fills you with great pride and joy to be able to offer them top-class care.”
Founded by American surgeon Dr. Samuel Noordhoff in 1989, NCF is among the first Taiwan-based nongovernmental organizations (NGO) to launch collaborative projects in the Southeast Asian nation. It has been followed by a host of others in recent years, including ELIV and Taiwan Education and Employment Program—Culture and Education Association (TEP), both of which have their Cambodian headquarters in the northwestern city of Siem Reap.
Like NCF, Taipei-headquartered nonprofit ELIV Co., short for Empowering Lives through Innovative Volunteerism, is dedicated to improving public well-being while fostering enduring people-to-people connections. Founded in 2010, the social enterprise facilitates international volunteering in countries across Asia. Every year, it dispatches dozens of teams to Siem Reap province to build houses and toilets in rural communities.
Bun Chou, center, a group leader and translator for Taiwan-headquartered social enterprise ELIV Co., explains the implements that will be used to build an outdoor toilet during a volunteer mission to Siem Reap province this summer. (Photo by Oscar Chung)
According to the World Bank, Cambodia is the least urbanized nation in Southeast Asia. Just 23 percent of its population lived in cities in 2018, lower than Myanmar, 31 percent; Vietnam, 36 percent; and Thailand, 50 percent. “In the countryside, people typically defecate outdoors. Women in particular find it embarrassing and often need to walk a considerable distance from home to find a comfortable spot,” said Bun Chou, a Cambodian working as a group leader and translator for ELIV. “This can become a grave concern during the long rainy season.”
To date, ELIV has sent more than 180 groups of volunteers to Cambodia. Participants vary widely, ranging from high school and college students to office workers and retirees. Providing housing and toilets aside, Bun said that the organization works to boost the social inclusion of isolated communities.
“Our missions bring volunteers to very remote villages, some of which may have been secluded from the outside world for years. And residents sometimes still have lingering trauma from the Khmer Rouge,” she said, referring to the regime responsible for the 1975-1979 Cambodian genocide. “They are often very wary of outsiders, but the altruism shown by ELIV teams alleviates their concerns.”
ELIV groups build squat toilets and houses using locally purchased sustainable materials such as bamboo and palm fronds. (Photos courtesy of ELIV Co.)
Participants also find the experience deeply rewarding. “Doing volunteer work in Cambodia got me out of my comfort zone and made me realize that there’s so much I can do to improve the lives of others,” Yanni Tsai (蔡瑜庭) said. The university student first joined an ELIV group to Cambodia last summer and was deputy leader of another, the 179th, which visited Siem Reap from late June to early July this year. “Taking part in these trips has given me a strong interest in volunteering, and I’m going to remain on the lookout for similar opportunities at home and abroad in the future,” she added.
The 179th group consisted of Bun and 26 volunteer high school and college students from Taiwan. During the nine-day trip, they constructed a simple stilted house and squat toilet in northern Siem Reap. The structures were made from sustainable materials purchased locally, such as bamboo and palm fronds.
Also on the team’s itinerary were visits to two international nonprofits operating in Cambodia, APOPO and SALASUSU. The former, a Belgium-registered NGO, uses specially trained rats to detect and remove landmines, while the latter is a Japan-based social enterprise dedicated to advancing women’s economic empowerment. “Overall, it was a very eye-opening experience for the Taiwan young people,” Tsai said.
While ELIV offers immediate assistance through building homes and toilets, TEP focuses on improving long-term outcomes by providing education services. Also founded in 2010, the group operated solely in Cambodia until last year, when it expanded its work to Vietnam. “Initially, we provided free nutritious meals to impoverished children in Siem Reap, but soon realized that more needed to be done to boost their future prospects. That’s when we started our education program,” said Rebeca Hung (洪子芸), deputy director of TEP’s Cambodia office.
Children from a rural community are taken by ELIV team members on a day trip to Angkor Archaeological Park. (Photos courtesy of ELIV Co.)
In 2011, the organization began opening education centers across Cambodia. Eight of these are located in public schools, with TEP hiring educators from the host institutions to offer courses after the conclusion of regular classes. Another 13 are in community buildings such as temples or in purpose-built facilities constructed by volunteers from Taiwan universities.
The TEP education program focuses on two areas: English proficiency and computer skills, as these are considered critical in strengthening employment prospects. “We ensure all instructors are fully trained in delivering our courses,” Hung said. “They also have to demonstrate a real passion and enthusiasm about educating the young generation, who are the future of their country.”
Among TEP’s teachers is Am Sereyrath. She leads afternoon English classes in a stilted classroom erected by students from Shih Chien University in Taipei. Am picked up the language through enrolling in courses staged by international NGOs in Siem Reap. “Education means everything if you want a better future. I’m proof of that,” she said.
To date, about 45,000 elementary and junior high school students in Cambodia have attended TEP classes, with about two-thirds graduating. “All too many drop out because their parents ask them to spend more time helping out on the farm or at home,” Hung said.
Dozens of students participate in a graduation ceremony during October 2018 at an education center in Siem Reap established by Taiwan Education and Employment Program—Culture and Education Association. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Education and Employment Program—Culture and Education Association)
The education program is supported by funding from Taiwan private sector organizations. Thanks to growing donations from Taiwan enterprises operating in Cambodia, salaries for TEP teachers have risen continuously since the start of the initiative to about US$250 per month. Taipei-headquartered AsusTek Computer Inc. also contributed 100 secondhand computers to the group this year.
In line with the Cambodian government’s policy of promoting practical skills training, TEP has opened computer classes at three of the nation’s 11 public vocational senior high schools. It also arranges internships and factory visits for students at the institutions. These efforts are designed to lower long-term emigration rates by spotlighting viable career prospects at home.
“Many young Cambodians cross the border into Thailand looking for work, but most of those jobs are unstable or even illegal,” Hung said. “We want to develop Cambodia’s human resources so more companies will invest and young people can find ample opportunities here in their own country.”
Two girls discuss coursework during a break between classes at a TEP center. (Photo by Oscar Chung)
Hung expressed hope that the work of TEP, as well as other nonprofits like ELIV and NCF, will help forge lasting bonds with the Southeast Asian nation. “Through its various humanitarian projects, Taiwan’s NGO sector is strengthening people-to-people ties with Cambodia. This will undoubtedly benefit bilateral relations going forward.”
Retrieve from Taiwan Review