6 Lessons Learnt from 6 Years of OIC Cambodia

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In July 2013, after more than a year of researching the problem and hundreds of conversations, I started OIC Cambodia. If you’re reading this, you might know a little about OIC’s journey over the past six years.

But do you know what OIC stands for?

Not “Only in Cambodia.” Not “Organisation Initiating Communication.”

OIC stands for that moment when you don’t understand something, and suddenly you do. “Oh I see,” you would say. It’s these moments of connection, these moments of understanding, that we want people in Cambodia to have.

OIC came about on the back of a stunning realisation — that despite 1 in 25 people needing this basic health service, there was not one single Cambodian speech therapist in the country. This meant that over 600,000 people were unable to communicate well with friends and family, perhaps even go to school or get jobs. A large proportion of that number, due to muscle weakness, couldn’t even swallow safely. Food and liquid could enter their lungs, they could get pneumonia, and they could die.

This realisation had me tossing and turning in my sleep for weeks, if not months. I couldn’t believe that amongst all the aid money coming into Cambodia and all the volunteers flying in and out, there was still such a large population that had gone ignored. How could it be that so many people were dying due to a lack of basic therapy?

How was it that communication, a fundamental human right, and the basis of almost everything we do, had been ignored?

Six years on, the organisation is still thriving and working towards its own strategic exit. Here’s what the first six years of our journey has taught us.

1) Anything is possible, but survival is success

In the early days of OIC, a wise man said something pessimistic – and rational – to me.

“You know, given what you’re trying to do, the chances of success are basically zero, right?”

He wanted to make sure I was going into this journey with eyes wide open, ensuring that I knew what we were up against.

Around the same time, when I told people of OIC’s ambitions — to create speech therapy in a country that had none and exit the country in 17 years — I had all sorts of incredulous responses, including being laughed at.

None of these responses were mean-spirited (well, except perhaps the laughter). In today’s climate, where fundraising is harder than ever, even for big charities, with big marketing and fundraising budgets cutting staff, the chances of even surviving six years is basically zero.

And yet, here we are, in 2019, continuing our work in Cambodia and making incremental progress towards the organisation’s exit.

In this climate, success is the ability to survive.

2) It’s all about the grassroots

In the first four years of OIC’s existence, I maintained a document available to anyone within the team on all the mistakes that I had made since starting this project in Cambodia.

The document is long, but there are two mistakes which stand out – both involve focussing on the wrong kind of ally. Naively, I had thought we would be able to achieve more if we aligned ourselves with UN agencies, donor governments, and multilateral health organisations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

On one of these occasions, I had been invited to speak in front of several UN agencies and bigger and more established NGOs in the sector. While there was a realisation in the room that something had to be done, in essence, nothing came out of this conversation.

As valuable as large institutions are to the world, and as well meaning as the people who work within them are, they are simply not capable of taking risks and changing course in the way small organisations are.

Significant change has come about only through the grassroots, and through individuals deciding that this situation isn’t good enough. It’s come from the families who’ve presented to Happy Kids Clinic and wanted to support OIC’s mission. From the board members who have a personal connection to speech therapy. From the volunteer who wants help because they align with the idea that charity must have a defined end point.

It’s only ever happened because of individuals.

3) Cambodians solving problems for Cambodians — it’s the only way

Four years after starting OIC Cambodia, I had built the team up from one person to a team of six, and we were moving towards the organisation’s exit.

But throughout all of this, I knew that my time as the leader was coming to an end. I knew that, especially as a foreigner, I could command respect and lead effectively. But where was I leading the team to?

I could speak Khmer, had lived in Cambodia for five years, understood some of the culture and politics, and yet, on a daily basis, I was baffled by things going on around me.

The only way that the organisation was going to exit was if the organisation was led by a local Cambodian team.

And so, after four years at the helm, I handed off leadership to Chenda Net and a predominantly Cambodian team, and moved back home to Australia to support from afar.

Leadership handovers are inevitably painful and rarely seamless, but in the long run, they result in positive change.

Welcoming OIC Cambodia’s new leader, Chenda Net

4) You can change an entire country

This move has no better justified than what happened in March, 2019.

In March this year, OIC Cambodia hit a major milestone towards making itself redundant.

The Ministry of Education in Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to start the first ever university course in speech therapy at a Cambodian university. This is the first step towards the organisation being able to exit Cambodia and hand work over to the Cambodian government.

With this signature, the Minister recognised over 600,000 people who were previously invisible to the government. It is a significant step towards changing not just the entire ministry, but the government more widely, and country as a whole.

The Ministry of Education in Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding

5) We need to change the entire aid sector

And yet, with this success, I’ve realised that not only do we need to do this very meaningful piece of work for over 600,000 people, we also need to influence the entire aid sector.

Current approaches to aid and development revolve around short term thinking and a focus on results here and now. I don’t want OIC to be judged from what happens between 2013 to 2030. I want the success to be measured after the organisation leaves — the imprint that is made on generations of Cambodian people to come, who finally have access to a service that 1 in 25 people need.

This means not measuring, for example, the number of children seen in a calendar year. It means measuring incremental progress and milestones hit towards the organisation’s exit.

Until the sector shifts in this direction, it’s unlikely that OIC will align with typical ways of working, encouraged by donor governments and big multilaterals.

Defining success in a charity

6) Achieving something significant will take a tribe, and then some

Our goals at OIC are ambitious, and we’re setting ourselves up to do something that has never been done. It’s an entirely new way of looking at an old problem — how to execute something meaningful for a large population in need, and then getting out.

We have been fortunate to have been surrounded by some of the brightest and best — staff, volunteers, advocates, donors, and other supporters. And to achieve our goals in the next 11 years, we’re going to need all of this support, and then some.

Confucius said: To see what is right and not do it is want of courage.

It is this simple idea that keeps me committed to doing what I can to ensure that over half a million Cambodians are not forgotten. It’s why I’ve chosen to dedicate almost 2 decades of my life to doing this work. It’s courage that pushes the OIC team further and further towards the organisation’s exit.

You can join us in ensuring that we establish speech therapy in Cambodia by participating in a Day Without Speech, volunteering your time, or becoming a regular donor.

Here’s to a further 11 years of making ourselves redundant.

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