This is a story about people from one of the wealthiest and most stable nations saving and then enriching the lives of people in one of the poorest and most corrupt nations
[WHO] Bronwyn Stephens of aid and development organisation World of Difference
[WHAT] Leading Australian volunteers to save lives and provide human rights to Cambodians.
[HOW] Collaborating with a survivor of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s genocidal regime of the 1970s.
This is a story about people from one of the wealthiest and most stable nations saving and then enriching the lives of people in one of the poorest and most corrupt nations. It shows how individuals actually can make the world a better place – and enrich their own lives, too, with meaning and purpose – by refusing to be bystanders.
The people have not had emergency food for about 18 months and they are happy and healthy growing their crops and having safe drinking water. The people have not got cholera and typhoid fever.
And it is an unprecedented instalment of The Zone; it is the first time since we launched the column almost five years ago that I have revisited a story. On April 30 last year, The Zone featured Rithy Lay, who was four years old when his mother, father, brother and sister were slain in 1975 during the genocidal regime of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.
As many as 2.5 million of the nation’s population of eight million died during Pol Pot’s four-year reign, which ended in 1979, and the nation remains economically and socially stricken by the effects of that horror.
Lay survived critical injuries, was raised by Buddhist monks, learned English and then went on to complete bachelor degrees in teaching and agriculture and a master’s degree in management.
In part to honour and repay the monks who saved him, Lay, who with his wife and two daughters has taken into their home the daughter of a former soldier in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army, has decided to dedicate himself to helping rebuild his nation.
Among other things, he worked as an interpreter, a tour guide and as a consultant for a telecommunications company. About four years ago, while investigating mobile phone coverage for the telco, he came across a remote, poverty-stricken village called Bosalla, in central Cambodia, where people were dying of starvation, disease and alcoholism. Devastated by their plight, he sent an email to the 1000 or so international contacts he had built up through his work as a translator and guide.
Finally, someone responded. She is today’s guest in The Zone. Bronwyn Stephens is a former nurse. Under the auspices of Rotary International, her Rotary Club (Melbourne South) undertook a project called World of Difference, which takes tours to Cambodia to introduce people to some of the many development projects there. Lay had been, and continues to be, the main guide on these tours.
World of Difference tours are an alternative to schoolies week; many Australian students have become involved and make repeat visits. Stephens’ son William has become a tour leader.
Rotary is a non-political, non-religious organisation with 1.2 million members across the world who form clubs of business and community leaders, and create volunteer-run projects in their own communities and in the developing world.
After discovering Bosalla and receiving Stephens’ response to his email, Lay took Stephens and a group of Australian school leavers to the village.
Stephens takes up the tale: “When he first went there, he found people dying of cholera and typhoid fever. There were people with dengue fever and secondary pneumonia. When he took me down, there were people that had died the week before, and they were really all in a pitiful situation. There were people starving. There were people close to death with terrible diseases.”
The timing was perfect. Stephens and her medical specialist husband Mark had recently sold the private hospital they had established years earlier in suburban Melbourne. Stephens had, in effect, been running the business and was worn down by the 60-hour weeks.
But instead of feeling liberated by the sale, she was bereft. The moment she set foot in Bosalla, she found a purpose – and a path to move World of Difference from being a way to raise awareness of the need for change to a vehicle to actually deliver that change.
Such was the desperation of the people of Bosalla and surrounding villages that she and Lay started by funding and organising emergency food aid. “This was required for 12 months. While that food aid was being provided, Rotary put in water systems, provided dams for irrigation, safe drinking water through filtration, agricultural training and basic medications.
“Now, two and a half years later, the people have not had emergency food for about 18 months and they are happy and healthy growing their crops and having safe drinking water. The people have not got cholera and typhoid fever.”
The full transcript of our conversation is at theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone, and there are many photos, words and videos of the project at World of Difference’s website and Facebook page, the details of which are below.
In late September, I travelled to Cambodia for two weeks as a guest of Rotary and World of Difference (I paid to take two of my children with me) and spent the first five days in Bosalla to look first-hand at the changes.
One of the most striking experiences was to walk around a neighbouring village, Kroa Boa, with Stephens as she checked on people’s health. “That community across the river is sometimes inaccessible because there is no bridge spanning the river and I have actually only been there twice before. The first time, really every person was terribly unwell and we had to take six of them to hospital. They were really at death’s door.
“So to now find them well was very gratifying, because over the times that I have been visiting Cambodia I have gradually taught a local guy to administer medications basically from a protocol that Australian and Cambodian doctors wrote for me and he now is keeping those people healthy. I was just delighted to find that that training has been effective, and the contrast over those two and a half years is just amazing.”
After stabilising the health of the villagers, Lay and Stephens turned to the education needs of an illiterate community. The nearest school was too far away, over flooded and potholed tracks, for any of the 500 children of the two villages to have any hope of making the daily trek. So, with donations from Rotarians a school was built, a project overseen by Lay. Last month, it opened – with 500 students.
The median house price in Sydney is more than $800,000 and in Melbourne it is about $650,000. The total cost of the emergency food, three dams, clean water, agricultural projects that have made the villages self-sufficient, building a few homes, providing medical care and constructing the schools was about $200,000.
And that is after having to negotiate the biggest barrier to change in Cambodia, the corruption rife in almost every aspect of the nation, from the highest political level to foreigners dealing with local tradespeople and merchants.
“It is just so pervasive in every transaction that you make, be it negotiating at the market for a loaf of bread or paying a taxi driver through to even just relationships with people in the village. Education of the young people will change it in their generation. They are not so accepting of it and the ones that go to school are becoming educated into the ways of the world.”
The official poverty line in the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh, is US$120 a month, a figure the overwhelming majority of the population clearly falls well below. Last year, the average monthly wage of police officers in the city was US$57; it is not hard to see why so many law enforcers become corrupt merely to survive.
Another former guest in The Zone is Kate Kennedy, the chief executive of Hagar Australia, which is part of a global organisation with the sole purpose, as set out on its website, of “restoring the lives and hopes of woman and children devastated by human trafficking, domestic violence, rape and sexual exploitation”.
Hagar is one of the biggest aid organisations in Cambodia. Says Kennedy: “Corruption filters into many aspects of life in Cambodia, including the court system, access to police and everyday business. Unless improved, corruption is a barrier to sustainable growth and human rights reform for women and children.”
The latest report, released only last week, by Transparency International, an independent global watchdog, found Cambodia’s position in the global corruption perception index to be one of the worst at 156 out of 175 countries surveyed.
Stephens and Lay hope that ranking will improve significantly as the younger generation takes over Cambodia. Meanwhile, they will keep driving grassroots change. Stephens is there right now leading a tour of teachers, volunteers and young people, and helping Lay with the next steps in providing people with an opportunity to live a decent life: farming pigs and mushrooms, setting up a biomass project to generate energy and building a bridge so that the children of Kroa Boa can get to their new school without having to swim across a river that in the wet season is a dangerous torrent.
Should you wish to help, contact Stephens through the World of Difference website link below.