Oh Dear!

Back in Phnom Penh and I discovered an Environment Day event in Wat Botum Gardens, along the lines of my Eco-Festival from last year. There were a number of NGO’s present but many from last year were not even invited. Quite what the plastic jewelry stall had to do with environment week is beyond me. It was a horrendously hot day and most groups brought fans, however… The European Union decided that it would be a good idea to put 3 air conditioning units in their tent, which was all about climate change. Apparently they only used them in “fan mode” but still it shows an incredible lack of common sense.

European Union efforts to promote climate change

European Union efforts to promote climate change

Stories of NGO stupidity are not exactly rare here in the land of the NGO. With around 2,000 now we are assured a regular supply of the dumb, the ridiculous and the quite unbelievable from our helpful friends. Many are doing a good job, but there are quite a few, including many of the big boys who simply seem to be paying lots of money to foreign consultants to have an extended holiday in an exotic location.

Sadly I cannot divulge some of the best and dumbest of these stories, but here are a couple of examples.

Nice toilet, shame about the school

Nice toilet, shame about the school

One of my favourites was a man I dubbed the “Toilet Builder of Preah Vihear”. In 2002/3 this remote province was possibly the most impoverished in the country. They had no roads of any description. The villages in the province are all as they would have been for centuries, constructed from bamboo. Not a brick in 90% of the villages and most had just 1 small communal TV/Kareoke set and a few radios. The schools were almost all made from bamboo and leaves, not even wooden planks in most cases.

Some genius decided what they needed was toilets next to the schools. Beautiful brick ones with some very nice porcelain. Great, and I understand the idea from text books is that in parts of Africa many girls miss out on schooling because of a lack of toilets… I am sure this is true in some places, but here, where the schools are in the jungle and there are plenty of perfectly good bushes to squat behind, this was a bit pointless. The contrast between the decrepit schools and the new toilets was wonderful as you can see. The above shot was taken more than a year later and I think these toilets will stand as a monument to their maker for many years to come.

No one in the villages wanted to use them, largely because it meant carrying water several hundred meters from the river. Just the logistics of getting the bricks and cement to these villages would have been horrendous. The locals I spoke with laughed and were amazed that someone would do this. What they really needed was to make some  simple repairs to the schools with local resources and then the difficult part, find some teachers willing to stay in these remote places…  But you have to admit they are nice toilets.

Bridge in Siem Pang collapses after a few weeks

Bridge in Siem Pang collapses after a few weeks

Another cracker was this bridge in Siem Pang. The bridge was built a couple of months earlier and didn’t even make it to the rainy season. A certain international “Aid” bank sent 5 tons of rice there to pay for the locals to work on the bridge, and I guess they paid for the wood etc. Siem Pang is very remote and you need to transport everything by boat for up to 10 hours from the nearest major town, so this was a major effort. Unfortunately it clearly wasn’t major enough to warrant bothering with proper construction.

Villagers explain what happened

Villagers explain what happened

It’s a big bridge, maybe 40 to 50 meters across, and it should have been constructed to survive a 10 meter rise in the river level during the wet season. I always assumed they must have had an expert along to advise on the construction, but if they did he must have got his qualifications from Legoland. Anyway the bridge collapsed after just a few weeks cutting the village off from the only school in the area. I guess the bank made it’s loan though so that’s alright then.

Another thing you come across from time to time in remote places like Siem Pang is religious zealots. These are invariably christian fundamentalists with a twisted sense of christianity. Some of these small groups generously offer medical assistance or education freely… but only if you convert. If not, then tough, “may your testicles swell up and drop off” or something along those lines. I should point out there are many religious groups here, which do not agree with this wholly unchristian behavior.


About Allan Michaud

English Wildlife Photographer/Environmental Filmmaker based in Cambodia
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