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When Hope Goes Wrong

I’m in Cambodia with Tearfund this week to see some of the projects they support, in particular those run through their partner International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC). Along with Anita and Rich for the next week I’ll be visiting villages working with them and understanding how helping Tearfund helps communities on the other side of the world.

Today was a day of contrasts, of the promise of hope and the prospect of why hope can be misplaced. As I sat and listened to the staff of ICC talk about their Village Integrated Development Programme I was excited. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but you’d be surprised how unusual it is. It takes time and effort and commitment, but what it doesn’t involve is an international NGO handing out food parcels or even chicken coops or cash for seed crops. They were the first organisation in Cambodia to take this approach.

They take a village with little or no NGO involvement, and with a church committed to working with all of the community to make the village a people love to live in. They work with a volunteer facilitator and the church leader and encourage them to engage first the church and then the wider community in changing the things that matter most to the village.

They ask: what is the problem, and they range from the small to the huge, from the familiar to the alien, from worrying about young people drinking too much alcohol to being unable to feed their family. Next they ask what resources they have, because they have resources, and this is what this is all about, it is about encouraging communities to remember that they are not poor. And then the community, led by the church, plan for action. It might involve chicken raising (not chicken racing as one confused set of visitors apparently expected!) or sewing circles, or savings and investments groups.


Key to the programme is getting communities to work together. It’s based on Umoja, a Swahili word meaning togetherness, and it’s a way of working with communities Tearfund encourages across the world.

For communities in Cambodia working together is a tough ask. And why became abundantly clear in the second half of the day. Between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime killed around 2 million people, of a Cambodia population of 7 million. He declared it year zero, pushed everyone out of the cities and forced them to work, together, on agricultural programmes. We visited the genocide museum, which is housed in a former school taken as a prison during those years and where 21,000 people died. At the end when Vietnamese forces marched into Cambodia 4 children and 7 adults survived. Out of 21,000.

The walls were plastered with pictures of the prisoners, wearing numbers of increasing length as the years passed by, taken at their incarceration to keep on record and distribute should they escape. But another set of pictures was also shown. Of torture in process and execution completed. Why were these photos taken, for what purpose, for what use?

And what made men do more than follow orders in the pursuit of a horror more vile than I prefer to imagine? There was a picture, a painted one of a scene too vile to describe, but of a man killing for joy. Was it the extra rations, the sense of power? Was it some idea that what they were doing was right? Could that possibly be the case? What kind of perverted, crazed, sense of right and wrong could lead to that?

Cambodia_FacesOne of the first displays showed a series of photos from the day of the liberation of Phnom Penh, because that was how it was known, in 1975. The streets were lined with the capital’s citizens welcoming the forces, and hours later they were lined with the population being marched out of the city into the country, and those who refused shot. Hope had been catastrophically misplaced.

And yet hope remains. For the churches and villages prepared to look in the face of both poverty and history and determine that hope must remain, that their poverty does not mean they have nothing, and work together to use what they have to see their dreams come to reality.

I’d love it if you could support Tearfund and the work in Cambodia, if you give £3 a month it would make a huge difference. You can find out how at and follow all that we’re up to.

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