Q&A: Heifer Cambodia chief on innovation, sustainability and staffing local

Keo Keang, country director at Heifer Cambodia. Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

When Heifer International first arrived in Cambodia in 1984, just five years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, it was one of only a handful of western NGOs operating on the ground. Vietnamese forces occupied the country, tasked with rebuilding a nation that had seen every institution — from banks, to courts, to schools — destroyed. Fighting between a Khmer Rouge coalition and government forces raged on, while millions of civilians struggled to remake their lives, despite injury, trauma, and poverty.

Decades on, Cambodia is riven by different complexities, least of which is its emergence as one of the world’s most heavily aid dependent countries. After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 paved the way for a United Nations-led transitional administration, hundreds of aid agencies, INGOs and development groups poured into the country. Though no real data is available, it’s popularly reported that more than 3,000 NGOs now operate inside Cambodia, a country with a population of just over 15 million.

With such a major foreign presence, groups have faced criticism for fostering aid dependence. Throughout the Cambodian aid world, issues of sustainability and capacity building remain a source of contention. Meanwhile, among the hundreds of major INGOs, multilateral development banks and aid agencies, Cambodian staff still struggle to move to the highest ranks.

Heifer Cambodia says acknowledging and addressing such issues is paramount. After a decade providing technical and vocational support to the government on agricultural and livestock issues, Heifer switched to its livestock gift program. Today, the group has moved to small animals, with a focus on inducing change quicker and better, thanks to a rigorous system of self-evaluation. The group works with thousands of families across 12 provinces, with education and self-reliance a crucial component of its work. This focus saw it become a partner for Bill Gates, who last year donated $100,000 to Heifer, for its chicken project in Cambodia.

Heifer Cambodia Country Director Keo Keang sat down with Devex last month to talk about the partnership, the need to think innovatively about sustainable programs, and why she — a Cambodian, female country director — shouldn’t be such an anomaly. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working in the NGO world since 1994. How did some of your past experiences help your approach to your work at Heifer?

I think it’s really important to look at the way we’re talking about women’s economic empowerment. Women’s empowerment cannot be changed if the economy doesn’t improve. You might hear a lot of things about women’s issues in Cambodia, in terms of lack of access to education. After marriage, she ends up as a housewife and takes care of everything. She’s not really the one that earns income for the family. That’s why her voice cannot be strong. Men can be very proud — they say: “I’m the one feeding everyone, that’s why everyone has to please me.”

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So when I came in, I asked, “what is the strategy to help women here to earn income?” In Cambodia, more than 80 percent of people depend on agricultural activities. With Heifer, it’s not only about technical skills, it’s also about behavior change. People just do what has been done from one generation to the next generation. I raised chickens, and the chickens were freely walking everywhere. I raised pigs, and the pigs were also like this. They’re not really well taken care of. When you’re used to something like this, when education is minimal, it’s very hard to change your behavior.

The approach that we have taken so far is about holistic community development that brings people together. Supporting each other, helping each other, so they can have a better life by increasing income and nutrition.

It’s not just a question of: “Do people have enough food to eat now?”, but we have to look at how they become resilient and have sustainability. You have to connect them to the market. If they raise more livestock and there’s no market, there’s nothing. It’s very difficult. The value chains have to be married together.

“We have to look at how people become resilient and have sustainability. You have to connect them to the market. If they raise livestock and there’s no market [for it], there’s nothing.”

Can you walk us through how you do that?

Because of the history, people don’t really want to come together. There’s a lack of trust. So we build them up together.

The program starts with us assisting the community, the farmers, to form themselves into what we call self-help groups. We want to create a culture not of giving, but of how to help yourself first before somebody else helps you. Twenty to 25 people come together, and they have different activities. One of the things they do is save together, they put the money together as a savings and credit program. The members can borrow the money to start or expand the business.

In every project we start, we select the community based on the government data tracking poverty rate. We select areas that have a high poverty rate. The government always says that the poverty rate has been going down, from 42 percent in 1984 to around 19 percent now. But in the communities where we go to implement our project, around 30 to 40 percent of people are living below the poverty line. They’re mainly earning less than $1.25 a day. In one of the projects we started in 2013, based on our baseline, they were earning $0.89 per day.

From 1999 until 2009, our main focus was on buffalo and cow — big animals. The budget was big, but the number of families reached was small because the cost per family was high. The lessons learned from that were not just that the budget was high and that it reached fewer families, but also that because they were big animals, they couldn’t meet daily practical needs. For example, you may want to eat because you are so hungry, but you have to wait because of the “passing on the gift” aspect: You have to raise the cow until the cow has a calf, and then you will pass it to a new family. Before, a lot of Cambodians were using cows for plowing and farming, but it’s different now. People feel it’s very difficult, so they use a machine. So cows are raised mainly for meat, but it takes three years before they can benefit from a cow.

Based on our lessons learned and analysis, we realised that with smaller animals we could reach more families — because the passing of the gift is faster. And then the daily consumption is met. You can have chicken, you can have eggs, you can have fish. We want the recipients to be healthy, not have to wait for three years before they can sell a cow and have money.

 If you, as a donor, support one large animal, you only support two families over the lifetime of the project. With small animals, if you support one family, you will take care of another five families.

With this income project, we’ve reach 30,000 families. We started with 5,800 families, and now we’ve reached 30,000 families. We calculated the savings, and it’s more than $2 million saved by those groups.

What are some of the impacts you’ve seen on the ground?

After we assist them to form into the self-help group, we help them build their capacity: How to run a microfinance management system so they can record finances properly and not lose money. We teach them how to manage it, how to record their loans, their loan installments and all aspects of the savings component.

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Each group has to select three or four leaders. When we started the program in Cambodia, more than 90 percent of the leaders were men. I visited three groups from the project when I started at Heifer, and all the leaders were men. I asked them: “Why all men? No women leaders?” One man said: “You know, this job is a very difficult job. There are all these numbers, you have to calculate and record them. Women cannot do it. We have volunteered in order to help women.”

I came back and discussed with my team whether there was any way we could help women to be leaders. We redesigned the project, saying that for the self-help groups, the families who want to participate in the project implementation have to get women as the family representative. So now we call them women-led self help groups.

Now we have more than 90 percent women leaders. It changed from 90 percent men leaders to 90 percent women.

How did you do that?

We talk a lot about promoting gender, it’s one of our key strategies. But when we went to the field, one of the lessons learned was that if there are more men in the group, women tended to vote for men. It took a long time, we didn’t really realize this until I came in. Because my background is in women empowerment, I can see quickly when gender is not really balanced, not really promoted. So the strategy changed.

Some of my team also thought it would be difficult, because many women cannot read and write. But that is because we never give them a chance, because we’re not expecting them to be elected by the group. They can do it, but the capacity building is needed. We have to train them to become a leader. When things change, even local authorities acknowledge it. They tell us, “wow the women are very strong.” They see it even better than me.

Is there much follow-up with the community? With agricultural training it can be very hard to change traditional methods. How do you make sure that people are really employing better biosecurity, for instance?

The training starts with animal raising. Before we provide animals to families, we train them first.  Even the farmers — they use traditional methods, so we train them too. After the training, we ask them to build biosecurity pens. Whilst they build them, the group will visit them, and at that time we will provide animals.

We also discuss their production plan with them. Is it just for yourself, or for a business too? If you raise chickens, you earn $1 per chicken, so if you raise 100 you can earn $100. We promote the change from raising animals for family consumption to raising them as a business.

We want to bring people together so they have a stronger voice. The self help group isn’t enough, so after that, we assist them to form as a co-operative registered with the government. They can access market prices and sell directly to the market. They draw up a contract stating the set price the farmer can sell to the co-operative for. Because the farmer is a member of the co-operative, as a producer, they earn more. And as a member — meaning they need to buy shares — they can also earn in return.

When the project starts in any area, we form what we call a project management committee. The project management committee mainly consists of the representatives from the self help groups. But the project is also set up with the help of community animal health workers, so we select two in each commune and we train them so they can assist and follow up with the families at the community level. We train them in collaboration with the government, the livestock department. After the training, we provide them with vet packs, so they have all the vaccines and all the serums.

They assist the community, provide education to the farmers, and then they have to keep records about the animals. If a disease outbreak happens, those are the groups that will know first. We have our experts here responsible for animal well-being, who will work closely when the disease outbreak happens. When there is an outbreak, the information starts flowing immediately, and we work with the government on how we can help each other provide an education campaign at the same time.  

How do you ensure that if additional chickens and pigs are going to the community, it’s not negatively impacting a pre-existing local economy? For instance, if someone is already raising chickens for sale, and suddenly all their neighbors have chickens.

When we start a program, we conduct a strategy and analysis assessment — a baseline survey. The areas that we’re looking at don’t really have a commercial farm in those areas. In some areas, there might be a commercial farm, but those are large-scale corporate farms such as C.P. We do this analysis because we don’t want to compete with the commercial animals, as they already control the market. However, we see a high demand for local chicken. Commercial chicken farms are not raising these types of chickens. When it comes to local chickens, people don’t really raise a lot — they have four, five, six. It’s very small scale and it’s not really for business.  

Can you tell me about the Gates Foundation funding?

The Gates Foundation is supporting 10,000 families — not our full budget but part of that. The project will be implemented for four years, starting November 2016. Right now, the self help groups have already been formed. Thanks to the lessons learned in the past, we can move faster. That’s why 10,000 families have already formed the groups in just eight months. They’ve gotten the chickens. And now they’re starting to replicate it. Even if some of the families haven’t received the animals yet, because of the self help group savings and loans, they’re running businesses.

One family I visited have already gotten the animal and multiplied it, and after six months they have already earned $1,000. So now other families are very eager. The head of the family is so proud of herself, and now her brother, who used to work in Thailand, has returned and is raising chickens. Some people have been very successful.

You have 24 people working here and the entire staff is Cambodian. That’s pretty rare to see among INGOs here.

“Heifer defers to local people to be in charge of the country office.”

The international organizations are mostly run by foreigners. In my past job, I was only a deputy.

Heifer defers to local people to be in charge of the country office. They say the people who know the context most are local people. That’s why we don’t have any expats in the office, it’s all Cambodian.

What would you say to organizations that still have the mindset of needing to have expats write the grants or check the English’?

Yes, that is a challenge. For us, English is not our first language, with many of us learning it older. We only started learning English after the peace agreements, when the country was open and we were allowed to learn other languages besides Vietnamese and Russian. So it’s hard for us. When its comes to writing, the grammar may not be good. When it comes to proposals, we draft them, but we need someone else to edit them. That’s why the headquarters office supports us. But all of the ideas come from the country level. Due to these grammar or phrasing problem, we need foreigners to support us in terms of fundraising activities. I think maybe the next generation won’t need it.

 In 1994, when I started working with NGOs, it was all expats in the office. We only had three Cambodians when I started working with Heifer, and then later they started to include more. People would say, “Cambodians, they don’t know.” Sure, we didn’t know. When they said “development,” we thought “what is that?” Human rights — what is that? Women’s rights — we hadn’t ever really heard any people talking about that. I had no idea how to write a proposal. Community development approach, what is that?

“I think for a lot of Cambodians — in terms of managing a project or program — the capacity is already there.”

That’s why a lot of foreigners were in Cambodia. I understood it at that time. But it’s been almost 30 years. I think maybe it’s time. Of course, some positions really need foreigners. We still acknowledge that for resource mobilization and similar things, our skills aren’t strong in that. But I think for a lot of Cambodians — in terms of managing a project or program — the capacity is already there.

Some organizations still have a lot of foreigners in the office. Sometimes they come in, they’re just one year out of school, and have a position with a high salary. And of course, when they write, they write better than Cambodians. But in terms of the project management strategy, I think Cambodians are strong.

It also improves efficiency. I think that’s the key. There are savings from paying high salaries to expats, which we can use to help more families in the country.

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About the author

  • Abigail Seiff

    Abby Seiff is a reporter focused on human rights, land issues, and politics. She has been covering Southeast and South Asia since 2009, working previously for Devex and freelancing for Time, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, and others. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in anthropology.