UW Professor seeds social change in Cambodia

Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh
(Photo by Ryan Libre)

Cambodia still suffers from the horrific Khmer Rouge rule of the late Seventies. The entire population was forced into the countryside, and the educated, professionals, and minorities were targeted for execution. Thousands more died from starvation and illness. Nearly two million people, a quarter of the country’s population, died in that time.

When the Vietnamese finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, there were only about 300 college-educated people left in the entire country.

The legacy of this dark era is a population with extraordinarily high rates of PTSD, infant mortality, poverty, landlessness, and lack of education.

In other words, a country in dire need of trained social workers; to help homeless street youth, trauma victims, and the disabled; to organize neighborhoods facing eviction, communities of garbage pickers, or garment workers; to work as policy advocates for organizations aiding Cambodia’s many vulnerable populations.

In 2004, Tracy Harachi of the UW School of Social Work teamed up with leaders at Royal University of Phnom Penh to address this need. International NGOs were tackling many problems, but at the time there were few formally trained social workers from Cambodia to for them to hire.

“I thought, ‘what about the community? Is this useful?’” she says. “And people all agreed: vast, enthusiastic support.” So she began raising the funds to bring Cambodians to Seattle to study for their MSW degrees, and prepare them to return home to be faculty of the new Social Work Department at RUPP

The Partnership with the UW aimed to create the first university level training for social workers in Cambodia. Six Cambodians spent two years in Seattle at the UW, funded by the UW/RUPP Partnership. The benefits of the Partnership extend both ways, as the other MSW students learn about Cambodia and its enormous challenges. All of the effort will pay off this June, when RUPP graduates its first class of social workers.

After the shock of confronting a vastly different type of learning wore off, the Cambodians were excited to be active participants in their education, and talked about how they would change the rote style of education they were accustomed to in Cambodia.

They knew, for example, Cambodian students don’t show up to the first day or even week of class, because the lecturer typically just reads from a book.  “So I said, ‘well, what do you guys want to do about that?’” says Harachi.

“They decided, when students came to register for class, they would get a formal letter from the Social Work Department, welcoming them, acknowledging that they were some of the first social workers to be trained in their country… and [explaining] we are entering into this partnership of learning together, so we expect you to be there. So they all showed up. And then the fact that nobody just sat and talked at them, they all kept coming back.”

Students are also required to do three years of fieldwork for their degree. Current fieldwork includes, for example, housing rights and forced evictions. Property ownership in Cambodia is very insecure for those whose land is coveted by powerful individuals and companies; Amnesty International estimates at least 150,000 Cambodians currently live under the threat of forced eviction.

One of the challenges the new department faces is a lack of materials available in the Khmer language. Learning materials, many of which come from Seattle, are only accessible to the Cambodian students if their English is good enough, or if they are translated into Khmer. Sometimes that means an “abridged” Khmer translation. But “sometimes there is no Khmer word to use exactly for English word,” says Ung.

Even trying to create a Khmer translation of “Social Work Department” took many discussions among the faculty.

But the new school’s faculty members have no problem translating their compassion and enthusiasm for the work. One student summed up her goals: “I want to be a change agent.” It’s a phrase that probably does not have Khmer words, but will soon translate into action.


    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for sharing the above.
      I head Solutions to End Poverty ( STEP, formerly known as GK hope initiative) an International Organization in Singapore that’s been successfully involved in holistic and sustainable community development work in the Philppines for the last 5 years , but recently restructured to share this methodology with the rest of Asia. We are collaborating with Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) in Phnom Penh to build a village for dumpsite families in the hope that this can lead to a prototype to restore humane dignity for the many families of the students at PSE, to begin with. Please email me as i also work with the National University of Singapore to engage students in Service-projects to support the processes. I am very interested in your research and experiences as shared in your article above. Thanks and God bless,

      Aileen Ong
      ( Mobile – +65-96181735)

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