Interning in Cambodia
Oaktree has run international development projects across the Asia-Pacific. All are with local NGOs (non-governmental organisation, like charities). Sometimes, this means our vollies gain ground access separate from Oaktree. Emily Maiorino shares her experience working alongside KAPE in Cambodia.
What made you Intern with KAPE?
In 2018, I’ll be finishing my Masters of International Development. As part of my final major, I chose to do a 40 day placement with KAPE (Kampuchean Action for Primary Education). I’ve wanted to work for an international NGO because it’s integral to your career to have some experience working in the Asia-Pacific, especially as a young person.
I’ve been studying and working towards it for the last 6 years and working with KAPE was my first opportunity to apply myself to the sector completely outside of my comfort zone. Choosing KAPE was an easy choice because of my existing relationship with them through Oaktree.
What does a typical day look like for you? What is it like working on projects on the ground compared to an office?
A typical work day with KAPE began at 8am. I got picked up on a motorbike by colleagues that lived close by, sometimes getting sweet Khmer iced coffees on the way. KAPE’s office is next to a school, so while I was working there was the constant sound of children laughing and playing. KAPE manage a range of education projects and I spent a lot of my time working on peer counselling training and writing and editing donor reports. The staff would often eat together, usually at the forest restaurant that made good fish soup and fried rice. A normal work day finished at 5pm.
Despite working 12 hours a day, being in an office doesn’t compare to fieldwork. Technical skills become useless, while strong communication skills and the ability to adapt become even more important. Reading case studies and reports never communicate somebody’s story enough. Connecting with beneficiaries as a development practitioner meant I was able to directly confront the people behind poverty by talking to students and ensuring they have the support that they need.
I was asked to make impromptu speeches in schools, facilitate workshops, design lesson plans and even attend program opening ceremonies to distribute scholarships. It’s so terrifying at the start, but so rewarding. In a few months, my confidence grew tenfold and I did things I never thought I could.
How is KAPE’s work different to voluntourism?
As well as my knowledge on Cambodia, I negotiated a clear position before I travelled overseas. I signed a contract with KAPE that stated the projects I would work on, the hours, the expectations and other important details. Upon arrival, this clarity allowed me to identify areas of the program where I could be useful and areas that didn’t suit my skills.
I has been involved with KAPE as part of my work with Oaktree, so my experience was very different to voluntourism. Oaktree had invested time into research, had clear objectives for my time, and I didn’t need to pay an organisation to set up the placement for me. It's important to know that you can add value to the organisation before you put your hand up to help.
What should people considering volunteering in Cambodia be most aware of?
Ask yourself what your key strengths and skills are and apply for a position that utilises them. If you find a position asking you to do something you’ve never done before, chances are you won’t be very useful or engaged.
Many people travel to Cambodia and expect special treatment. Remember that regardless of any degrees or work experience you have, you are entering a new country and a new working environment. Treat it as a learning experience, don’t assume you know better than local employees. Be open-minded and fully embrace the Khmer culture. Don’t be afraid to give everything a go – it will show that you’re interested in your environment and that you respect the cultural differences.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about volunteering in Cambodia?
Cambodia is a beautiful country despite the significant challenges faced by much of the population. A history of occupation, colonisation, war and genocide has cast a dark shadow over the Khmer people. Local NGOs are working to support their own people and better their own communities.
My experience volunteering in Cambodia taught me to take a step back and focus on using my intuition and interpersonal skills as much as my technical skills. It was so important for me to learn these lessons before jumping into a full time career as a development practitioner.