The international development sector is a colonising system that paternalistically responds to the symptoms of poverty but never the root cause. If we keep going as we are, global inequality will continue to rise, and we won’t reach the first sustainable development goal to end poverty by 2030.
Charities colonise countries like Cambodia by establishing and then controlling a privatised system of social protection. Charities have full discretion over what services they offer and who can access them, which means that services provided to vulnerable communities are disjointed, duplicated, and not distributed equitably.
The Royal Cambodian Government has drafted plans to build its own public social protection system, but international charities have dominated this space for so long that it’s hard for local leaders to wrangle back control. The Cambodian Government also has very limited visibility into international charities, which makes it difficult for them to gain a clear understanding of what the needs are and how to budget for them.
It’s not just the big international charities that have created this parallel, privatised system of social support. Local grassroots organisations play a role too. They may be staffed by locals, but they are still controlled by foreign agendas as they are forced to shape their programs and services to align with foreign funding requirements. In other words, the social services available in Cambodia are a direct reflection of foreign interests and not local needs.
When social protection systems are built from the outside-in, they overlook local knowledge and expertise because foreigners don’t have the language, relationships or cultural knowledge to identify strengths in local systems. As a result, they end up stripping the local community of the capacity to respond to their own needs. It is not uncommon for a charity to run its own private school for children on the same road where there is an underfunded and under-resourced public school.
When foreign-funded charities are in control of a privatised social protection system, they tend to invest downstream into crisis support services or ‘ambulances at the bottom of the waterfall’. These are services that exist to support people after the harm has already occurred. The reason for this is that crises pull on the heartstrings and are easier to fundraise for. With donations predominantly flowing downstream to assist people after the harm has already occurred, what we end up with is an endless conveyor belt of people in need that keeps charities in business for generations to come. It’s no wonder that we are not succeeding at ending poverty. Most charities aren’t even trying. The absence of an exit strategy indicates that they intend to stick around addressing the same problem indefinitely.
Systemic change requires a shift of focus from thinking about how we can help or “save” individuals towards thinking structurally and systemically. It requires us to look upstream to radically change the systems that are causing individual children, families and communities to fall into crisis in the first place.
Shifting from investing charity donations from private into public programs will begin the work of changing the system that begets poverty.
Changing the system doesn’t require a magic wand to miraculously solve all the social justice problems that international charities are responding to. Some problems won’t realistically be solved in this lifetime. Other charities, like CCT, are providing essential services and thus will be needed forever. To fix the system, we don’t need to focus on solving all the problems; we just need to focus on who is solving the problems.
CCT has been providing essential services in Battambang District since 2007. We ran health, education, housing, nutrition, and income generation services from private facilities. These are essential services that all communities need to thrive. If we kept going as we were, CCT would need to remain in Battambang forever. But when we started focusing on who should be delivering these services, the solution became clear. Operation Village Hive was born.
By transferring our privately run services into the public sector and shifting the power and control to local communities, we began systematically working ourselves out of a job.
Just imagine if all foreign aid was channelled into the same public facilities. There are over 6,000 charities in Cambodia alone. If all their donations, innovative programs, resources, and training converged within the same public schools, public health clinics and hospitals, and public social services, an impactful paradigm shift would emerge. It would result in a massive reduction of overheads. It would avoid the unnecessary duplication of resources. It would prevent the endless reinvention of the wheel. Services would be distributed equitably to all members of the community. None of the institutional knowledge would be lost when charities wind up their projects or move on to different regions. The local communities would retain the fruits of this collective effort.
Centralising our efforts through the public system means that charities would lose their visibility and branding, and that would be a significant blow to the egos of charity founders and directors. They would no longer be able to say, ‘Look! Here is OUR school’. But, this work is not, and was never, ours to begin with. Charities should ultimately be accountable to the local communities they operate in. These projects are theirs. Losing the ego and paternalistic ownership that engulfs the international development sector might help us all to refocus on our common goal to break the cycle of poverty.
Upstream development that prevents harm before it occurs doesn’t pull on the heartstrings in quite the same way downstream development does. Instead of saving people in crisis, it mostly involves preventing them from needing to be saved by finding more equitable ways to distribute power to transform policies, processes, frameworks and organisational structures. To make this work we need to raise awareness to educate donors that their funds will have a much greater impact when they are invested in upstream projects.
Shifting the power to local communities to own and operate their own programs requires a level of trust and belief in the local people’s capabilities. To achieve this, we need to break down the stereotypes, often perpetuated by charities, that local people are corrupt and incompetent and, therefore, can’t be trusted to manage their own affairs.
The evidence is clear that high-quality universal public services are the key to a happy, healthy, flourishing society. If we changed the system by shifting from private, charity-delivered programs to public community-delivered programs and then invested upstream in prevention and early intervention programs – like public health, public education and public housing rather than crisis shelters, orphanage rescues and foster care – we would quickly arrive at a day in which communities in Cambodia would no longer need to be rescued by charities.
The CCT team is throwing all its energy behind building a robust evidence base to prove this is not only possible but also easy to achieve. With support from our small but passionate team of supporters, we have already begun. We are dumbfounded by how smooth sailing the Village Hive Project has been. It all comes down to the enthusiasm of the communities in Battambang. This is what they want, and so they are moving heaven and earth to make it so.
The only challenge we face is getting enough funding to see it through. If we can complete one commune a year, we will complete the Village Hive Project by 2031.