Featured Post

"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

I love to go a-wandering

Backpackers in Phnom Penh + Basil George "Wannabe"?*
Please click on the link; switch on your speakers, and sing along!
I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.

The parting of the dearly-departed.

The main part of the Buddhist Funeral with Monks

Foreword: Mr Erik W Davis has published a book "Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia” that featured in this weekend’s Phnom Penh Post.  It describes local funeral arrangements and prompted me to write up my observations.  Mr Davis no doubt elaborates on these.
The man next door imbibed too much rice wine, probably a cocktail with brake fluid, had a massive stroke and soon succumbed to his fate in the small hours of the morning. The wife and neighbours had dragged his heaving body to the local hospital, somehow balanced on a motor-cycle.

He who pays the piper, calls the tune?

Very often, too often in developing countries like Cambodia, there are “Westerners” who exude the same superiority complex.  They believe that because of their better education; and coming from their more advanced/sophisticated home country – together with their money - they can bring improvements to bear on these needy folks.  In this sense, the old missionary concept lives on, only with a development rather than religious slant.

They can be sorely mistaken.  I often remind such well-intentioned if misguided souls that it was not so long ago, that our countries were not so civilized. (Please refer to a previous blog.)

“We have struggled to engage with people….”

 Housing in the UK - out with the new, in with the old?

Refurbished terrace house in Ashington, Northumberland, that once boasted the longest rows of such houses in the country, the homes of the once proud and mighty coalminers.
Glasgow demolition of tallest blocks of flats (apartments) in Europe

Recently I met a new colleague in the UK housing sector who lamented “We have struggled to engage with people in the north there!”

Failures are finger-posts on the road to….achievement!

Sage advice in a Ludlow Pub.
"Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success" attributed to C. S. Lewis and Charles F. Kettering

We had just left Northumberland, but I couldn’t help spotting this worldly advice in Worcestershire - clearly a sign for something to write about?

What a week it has been.  So now we are back in Cambodia after two months in the UK. 

NGO Law off to worst possible start!

Outdated? “Children should be seen but not heard?”
Cambodian school children pictured in 2002 - the "traditional" expectation is for them be dutifully patient; regimented; compliant. Girls even today find themselves pressured to follow the traditional women's code "Chbab Srey".
This is my Op-Ed in the Cambodia Daily on 17 July 2015, but with illustrations and sources of reference added above and below.  My premise is that Cambodia's ruling party, in trying to retain control, is turning the clock back to the days of absolute patronage/dependency, when people "knew their place in Society".  They hope that this will make for a compliant electorate, unlike the one in 2013.

Privilege, wealth and inequality.

My school reunion Alnwick Garden May 2014
(Photograph credit - George Skipper <skipphoto@hotmail.co.uk>)

Privilege, wealth and inequality - no, I am not this time talking about Cambodia, but my home town Alnwick in the UK, thanks to the circuitous route of a Washington Post article reproduced in the Cambodia Daily.  The article (copied below) traces the landed gentry status of the Duke of Northumberland, who even today has inherited vast ownership of lands and business interests, plus to go with it considerable influence in public affairs. 

Now what the article did not include was the controversy that accompanied the plans for the Alnwick Gardens.  In this sense, Cambodian-watchers will see something more familiar. 

More to Saint Helenian Culture than Napoleon

I have taken the title from my most popular blog to date*, to make the same point – before it is too late – for Saint Helenians not to lose their unique culture when the new airport opens up in 2016.

Just as for Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, and most such peoples around the world, are we seeing again a failure to appreciate the richness and rarity of Saint Helenian culture?

There's more to [NGOs] than meets the eye!


My favourite play on this blog-title idiom has to be with one of the North-East’s finest gifts to the culinary-discerning beyond our boundaries.  Greggs: More Than Meats the Pie

Now Cambodians like their bakery products too.  But what has this to do with NGOs?  Quite a lot as it happens, if you follow my way of linking life in Northumberland to the outside world.  It helps to make my points about Cambodia that is now (May 2015) contemplating a new law to regulate NGOs.

There but for the Grace of God goes I!

Lally Brown gives a fascinating insight in to the strength of spirit aroused in the wake of the misfortune caused by the Montserrat volcanic eruption.  I reviewed her published article – reproduced below.  In an instance, reading it took me back to Tristan da Cunha, its volcanic explosion in1961, with the evacuation of the island, and the many friends from there I have met over the years.  Most returned home.  There is no place like home.

The best person for the job?

A slide from the first "Good Governance" training in Cambodia 1998*
(For more on that programme - see End Notes below)
“You should get the best person to do a job” I found myself saying yet again last week. It seems eminently sensible advice.  However, the best person can be passed over, in any culture. We saw that in last week’s UK election.  Can a 20 year-old student be a better Member of Parliament than someone with many years of experience and widely-respected? Yet that is democracy and a sign of a mature one - no bloodshed in the contest and handover - Cambodia please note.  It would rarely apply to normal employment situations, if ever!

Now here in Cambodia, the “best person” in the opinion of many people may not be the one with the best or most appropriate skills and experience. And even if they get the job, they may end up not doing it or doing something else instead.

Foreign Aid: Upside Down; Inside Out, & Roundabout!

Almost every day Cambodia has conferences and workshops, ostensibly to promote development for the poor, but always senior officials and experts take pride of place to expound their wisdom down from upon high. The “Sage on the Stage!”

Just now, today, I received a call from development expert. “Our donor has some money.  We stand a good chance of getting it.  We have an idea, only we need your help...... to find the beneficiaries!”

And this message will be typical of many like it in every country where overseas aid and development money goes out to “Calls for Proposals”.

Cows End Poverty - Maybe?

Kan Srey Oun, like many children in Cambodia proudly entrusted with looking after her family's cow.

If Northumberland’s famous Chillingham wild cattle lived in Cambodia, they would be long gone. Sadly few people would have appreciated such beautiful unique creatures beyond their meat.  Cambodia may possibly have a distant bovine cousin of the Chillingham cattle, called the Kouprey, but this has not been spotted since 1957.

The Kouprey © WWF / Helmut Diller
Cows, however do play an important part in Cambodia’s development, especially for the rural poorest.  I qualify that by saying that they can play such a role, provided the modern-day version of “rustlers” don’t have their way, as often as they do. And if good sense had prevailed, the country’s tourist industry would have gained lucrative income from the Kouprey, as indeed it could now – from elephants; tigers; sun-bears and so many other fine creatures endangered from poaching and loss of habitat for agro-industrial concessions.

More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Here is the slightly fuller version of the article published in the Khmer Times, with more scholarly and  pointed references.  Also below is a second photograph and caption.

 The Putaing Community Social Enterprise Group decided to revive Bunong Song and Dance for extra income from performing at traditional ceremonies and for eco-tourism visitors.

More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Cambodia can justifiably take great pride in Angkor Wat and its classic dance led by its graceful Apsaras.

Yet there is far more to Cambodian culture, to be just as proud about, and not just to impress or attract foreign visitors. All Cambodians should appreciate and enjoy their compatriots’ heritage and culture.

Development at all costs? The Areng Valley, too much dogma?

 Kielder Water, Northumberland

Development at all costs? The Areng Valley, too much dogma?

Kielder Water in Northumberland is a fantastic man-made but still natural resource. Not only has it fulfilled its original aim of guaranteeing water supplies to people, but it is now a treasured recreational facility and with the Kielder Forest, an abundant supply of sustainable timber.  I do remember though that there was controversy before it was approved for construction.  I went to see what would eventually be the new shore-line, as trees were felled. I have asked the Research Unit if they can remind me of the consultation processes that allowed the project to proceed. Today, I do not think there are many dissenters about its value and acceptability. (Even the humble salmon would agree.)
I wonder if that could be the case with the proposed dam for hydro-electricity power in the Areng Valley, Cambodia, in one of the few last pristine tropical forests.

Chong and Phor ethnic minorities, sometimes called Khmer Daeum, are affected and so far simply oppose the plan, or are advised to do that.

Alnwickdotes: No 1 “The Dartford Warbler”

Quite often I tell stories about the lighter things that happen in overseas development work.  One about the “Dartford Warbler” two weeks ago produced the same response from the listener as many before him.  “You should write it up!”  So this is the idea for this series of anecdotes.

The Pantomime of Human Rights

Readers unfamiliar with British theatre and the background to this blog, will need an explanation.  My theme in all postings is to relate earlier experiences in Northumbrian life to contemporary Cambodia, and/or to developing countries generally, for lessons to be shared.  The Theatre Royal in Newcastle dates back to 1788, and the present fine building to 1837.  Nobody today would deny that the UK in those days was enlightened when it comes to human rights, but very important reforms were begun, for example in relation to employment and children in 1833.  

Care(less) in the Community

Our Cambodian Children Dancers proving that "we can do"  and that it is not their disability but their ability that matters.  They were taught to peform publicly by our great partners Epic Arts.

The biggest disappointment I have is the slow and non-existent progress in areas of development, where it is clearly needed and perfectly possible to make.  Social protection and services is but one, not just in Cambodia but in other countries where I have worked.  Sometimes it is simply misguided if well-intentioned projects that have not worked.  Most often, it is because of a real lack of will in top leadership to make things happen.  In Cambodia, a lack of compassion for poor; vulnerable and disabled people is often dismissed as “due punishment this life for sins in a past life”.

At the borders of Northumberland for many years, to emulate Shakespeare’s or Thomas Hardy’s country, we used to have “Welcome to Catherine Cookson” signs.

A blessed and charmed childhood

 Dunstanborough Castle

Dunstanborough Castle formed the northerly point of our childhood coastal playground in the 1950/60s.  We wandered freely up and down the coast, from Alnmouth or Amble, all the way past Boulmer, around Howick; up to Craster and beyond. Bamburgh, occasionally Holy Island, was as far as our little legs on our bikes would take us. During school holidays we would camp out, away from home for days on end. We were relatively care-free and safe. For today’s children, life is more restricted.  Holidays, as I blogged last year, are when a child is most at-risk.  In Cambodia that risk is increasingly from holiday-makers. This is why I co-ordinate and join colleagues in campaigning for more responsible tourism. (If you are interested in spreading the word, please follow us on social media or e-mail me.

Now I do want to make a very important distinction. 

"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

Photo: flettrek.wordpress.com
Built to Last.  Robert Stephenson’s 28 Arch English/Scottish Border Bridge has lasted since 1850. 

January 2019: Latest Blog on Foreign Aid: The Unlikely Foreign Aid Worker

In most professions like doctors, lawyers, and teachers, practitioners maintain direct or close contact with clients even after attaining leadership positions.  In Foreign Aid almost all top professionals are as far removed as possible from clients in all respects. Some may once have been practitioners in the field, but the system and culture soon elevates them away, to seniority in capitals in developing countries, with the most successful back to home countries and aid agency HQs.  Does this disconnect between professionals and their clients in #foreignaid help to explain its ineffectiveness?

Main Blog

Why is longevity elusive to aid and development professionals? 

Whenever I am in Northumberland and watching TV, I keep seeing numerous advertisements from charities.  They follow the same style.  They depict pictures of hardship to evoke pity and ask you to hand over cash.  If you do not feel guilty when not doing so, you may take comfort in that your tax has helped the UK Government to meet its over-generous commitment to devote 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid, and thus claim moral leadership among the world’s rich nations.

They are misguided.

Some celebrity donors around the world learned the hard way.

Alnwickdote No 11 On unsung heroes and charity shops

This blog is a thank you to the Northumberland Gazette for publishing my letter, and of course for helping me to make a few points.

Saturday 17 January 2015 

Better late than never! Christmas gifts from Alnwick.

Unsung heroes – we have a few to thank. The check-in lady at Newcastle Airport who kindly overlooked our excess weight, so various toys, chocolates, shortbread, smoked salmon and even a Christmas pudding found their way to Cambodia.

Print and be Dammed or “Haad your Gob?”

Foreword to this blog added September 2017. 

Very sadly things in Cambodia have taken a dramatic downturn for the worst in Press and Media Freedom. By far the worst development is the closure of the Cambodia Daily - precipitated by the hostile government - whose journalists have been a vital element in our human rights work for all of my 20 years in Cambodia. Numerous references and extracts appear in this blog. Many stories and eulogies appear, many from the many journalists all around the world whose career started there.  See for example: Richard Paddock. Also last edition after almost 25 years here and visit the Daily's Facebook.  See also CCIM's report on media generally in 2017.

The UK is 36, Cambodia 147, out of 197 countries for Freedom of the Press 2014 according to Freedom House.  We need Foreign Media to help Cambodian Media.

(For the 2016 report go to its website, here or this report) for 2017 here 2018 here.
For 2019, and a further erosion: go here.)

Freedom of expression is a most important human right.  Yet it is still routinely challenged in many countries, whenever criticism upsets powerful people.  I don’t intend to argue against that here.  Instead I want to ask about self-censorship and highly selective writing and editing, especially when editors decide that a story or issue “would not interest our readers!”  I wonder why certain kinds of stories always make it. Often they are ones most lacking informed comment.

You will see from my blogging supporting Cambodian child rights, that we are opposed to sex tourism; orphanage tourism; and things like “gap year” stays that can be harmful and counter-productive.