The rice harvest: most Cambodians depend on this type of agricultural work, largely for basic subsistence.
Reflecting on the New Year I realised that I've now worked part time for six years i.e. most of my post-University working life, bearing in mind that I had my first job when I was 13. Lots of people have frequently told me to 'get a proper job' but the extra time has allowed me to do lots of things that may otherwise have remained pipe dreams, for example: my masters; gaining academic teaching experience; and the Ghostsigns project.
I have no regrets and believe I should count myself hugely privileged to not only have the choice to take on part time work, but also to come from a country where such a huge variety of employment opportunities exist. While I know that times are tough in the job market back home, I doubt that anyone would trade these problems for those faced by Cambodia...
Graphs from Morris (2007)
Youth unemployment and the lack of opportunities in rural areas are two of the country's major employment issues and I wrote about these in some research I recently did for VSO. You can read my findings here, references available here. The word limit forced me to omit other important issues such as child labour, the informal economy and the gender wage gap but overall the outlook is potentially very bleak for Cambodia's poorest. Some further reflections can be found here on Kounila's guest post for TEDxPhnomPenh.
My research was done as part of VSO's 'country strategic planning'. VSO has a number of strands of work (development goals) but usually selects a small group of these to focus on in each country where they operate. This is done in response to that location's most pressing issues.
Here in Cambodia VSO's current areas of focus are Education, Health and Livelihoods. Hopefully the first two are fairly self-explanatory but the last involves work to improve the food security and incomes of those in rural areas, especially those who are heavily reliant on limited forest and fish resources in the countryside.
Download more on VSO and Livelihoods here or by clicking the image above.
In the next couple of years VSO's livelihoods work in Cambodia is being done with an emphasis on the concept of 'pro-poor markets' which attempts to break down barriers and disadvantage suffered by the poor when accessing markets, namely those of products, employment and finance. Some take this to its logical conclusion in a very commercial way by viewing the world's poor as perhaps one of the biggest business opportunities around.
Here in Cambodia it would seem that there are more profound issues and that change is slow and incremental rather than radical in nature. This allows the disparity to grow between the accelerated development taking place in Phnom Penh versus the lack of opportunity, infrastructure and access to knowledge and information experienced by the majority of the country's largely rural population. However, some change is better than none and hopefully VSO's work is playing some part in the shift.
I think it is difficult to understand the life experienced by most Cambodians when we are based in a provincial capital, quite far removed from the toil of most people's subsistence agricultural work. Our homestay and my recent trip to Koh Preah do give some insight, but even then we are one step removed from the most isolated communities who experience the most disadvantage.
If VSO's vision of "a world without poverty" is to be realised then connecting people with markets, and the opportunities they bring, is certainly one way of achieving progress. I am currently discussing a placement for myself which, while thrusting me back into full time status if it works out, will put me in a position to do something in this area. (Fingers crossed, more news to follow.) Perhaps me getting a proper job after all this time might help some people here have the opportunity to do the same...