Cambodia was to be their first contact with Asia.
But coming from Algeria, a developing country plagued for years by internal discord and bloodshed, this group of NGO representatives knew they shared with Cambodians the ability to cope with political unrest and flares of violence.
“[Nevertheless], we came with the understanding that we had everything to discover—in other words, we had no preconceived ideas,” said Samyla Amirouche of the Association Pour la Culture et le Developpement Communautaire.
This Algerian NGO involved in cultural and community development organized this month the visit of seven Algerian NGO representatives to familiarize them with Cambodia and the work of NGOs in the country.
And this was no luxury tourist trip: Hosted by the Battambang province NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, the Algerian NGO workers were treated from Sept 9 through Saturday to a crash course on Cambodian reality.
“Here, we eat everything including insects and frogs, and so did they,” said Tor Vutha of Phare. They lived Cambodian-style and even spent a night on a houseboat on Tonle Sap lake where they met people in floating villages,” he said. They also toured NGOs working in all fields—from child support and farmers’ assistance to health care, the arts and the environment—in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap provinces.
“What really struck me in Cambodia is the disparity between rich and poor, the grinding poverty that is rife compared to the number of 4×4 vehicles and the rich who are extremely rich,” said Nazim Salhi of ACDC.
The role of NGOs and the government in social sectors surprised the Algerian participants. Amirouche said the representatives found that Cambodian NGOs were providing some basic services usually handled by the state.
“Here, everyone seems to accept as unavoidable that the government is poor, and therefore few demands are made of the government,” said Said Salhi of the Etoile Culturelle d’Akbou Association.
In Algeria, he said, people call on the state to deliver public services, and the NGOs’ role is often that of watchdogs, making sure the state fulfills its responsibilities.
Still mainly staffed by volunteers, Algerian NGOs are progressively moving toward more stable structures such as in Cambodia, where NGOs are professional bodies with permanent employees, Said Salhi said.
The Algerian visitors were impressed by many NGOs’ management styles and some NGOs’ funding mechanisms aimed at self-sufficiency.
Moreover, while some NGOs seemed overly controlled by foreign organizations or individuals, others have set up a balanced international and Cambodian management, which has increased their capacity and efficiency, Nazim Salhi said.
This gave him pause, he said. Algerians tend to be wary of foreign intervention because of their history—the bloody war against French colonial control cost the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Algerians before France granted the country independence in 1962.
“But maybe we should look at this at home, establish long-term cooperation [with international bodies] that could produce good results,” he added.
Like Cambodia following the crumbling of the Khmer Rouge movement in the late 1990s, Algeria enacted a reconciliation policy in 2006 to put an end to extremist Islamic terrorism, which has caused the deaths of about 150,000 people since the early 1990s. Some insurgent groups have remained active.
“At home, we speak of reconciliation, but it’s a forced reconciliation,” said Said Salhi, adding that he wonders how Cambodians are handling their own reconciliation and healing.
“I did feel…fear” among Cambodians, he said. “It’s as if they were still not sure of what they have managed to accomplish…and fear a return to a state of chaos.”