Recently, my employer for the summer, Population and Community Development Association (“PDA”) sent me to Cambodia to see the organization’s development work outside of Thailand. Despite difference in development level and need between Thailand and Cambodia, PDA’s work showed remarkable similarities.
To clarify, it was not actually my organization, but rather a sister organization, Population and Development International (“PDI) that sent me to Cambodia. PDA/PDI have many of the same personnel and share oversight by the same founder, but PDI is a legally separate organization with a more international focus. While PDA focuses almost exclusively on Thailand, PDI does development work in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia. PDA has mostly Thai donors and partners, but PDI is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization in the United States.
There is a difference in development level between Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand’s per capita income is about three times that of Cambodia, and Thailand is 36 places ahead of Cambodia in Human Development Index Rankings. In Siem Reip province Cambodia, 5 star hotels are within walking distance of villages that lack electricity, wells, plumbing, and paved roads. Three quarters of a million annual foreign tourists visit Siem Reip to see the world famous Khmer temple Angkor Wat, but very little of their money trickles to fund village development.
To be fair, I am only using high level UN statistics and going off my own limited experience. I am not comparing the capital cities Phom Phen and Bangkok, but rather rural development projects. My experience is that PDA’s partner villages in Thailand have potable water, functional plumbing systems, respected local governing organizations, and developed roadways. Cambodian villages have much more basic needs, and the work in Cambodia is not yet to the same level of complexity, integration, sustainability, or capital intensity, in part because of the infrastructural and development difference.
Comparing PDA’s Thai I-BIRD (Industry-Based Integrated Rural Development) projects to PDI’s work in Cambodia shows how these development differences manifest in terms of project complexity. The “I” or industry of a Thai I-BIRD project can be a sponsor company, school, hospital, or even a jail. For example, in a School-BIRD project, a community school serves as a hub for community development activities. Community volunteers raise crops for school income; education experts train teachers from an entire region, and community members have access to established microcredit loans. In contrast to complex I-Bird projects, PDI Cambodia is still establishing microcredit banks, helping bring wells and potable water, and working with smaller scale educational projects.
Despite apparent differences, there are remarkable similarities. PDI Cambodia and PDI Thailand both use entrepreneurship and community involvement to further development, empower villagers, and create sustainable projects. PDA has decades as a head start in Thailand, but I can already tell that Cambodian projects will match Thai projects one day. PDI is applying the same proven principles, industries, and spirit of volunteerism. Hopefully, the Cambodia projects will match their Thai counterparts in complexity, sustainability, and, most importantly, in success.