Category Archives: Regional Issues

Helping Talent Bubble to the Top

I had the pleasure of meeting Socheat at Digital Divide Data. He joined DDD 9 years ago as an operator, and today as an HR assistant is clearly a DDD success story. I first got to know Socheat through his dedicated participation in the communications workshops that I led for the DDD Phnom Penh office. And it was on the way to visiting the home of Bunthy, a DDD operator, that Socheat told me of his journey to DDD.

Socheat’s parents, like many of his generation, were displaced by war and moved around several times. With the economy in tough shape, Socheat was sent to Phnom Penh to try to find work. And he did, as a security guard. His ease with people and responsible nature helped him land this job, which by chance was at an English school.

Now here’s the really interesting part. You might guess, correctly, that the security guard job at the English school was a key launching point for Socheat to learn English and one day join DDD. But what surprised me was that the other four security guards did not learn English—they played soccer while he was learning.

Every chance that he got, Socheat would look over the wall at the classroom and strain to hear as much as he could. He’d take notes and do his best to learn. Fortunately a kind teacher noticed his efforts and invited him to sit in on the class whenever he had a chance.

Socheat took on this opportunity with gusto, and pushed himself to learn and use new vocabulary, writing 7 sentences for 5 new words every day. And in so doing he laid the foundation for his future success.

One day Socheat heard about DDD from a friend—he didn’t know what they did, but heard they were hiring. Unfortunately he had been given the wrong address however he searched for four days until finally he found the office.

The rest, as they say, is history as Socheat rose through the organization into his current position as assistant HR manager. I can attest, as well, that his English now is great—it was a real treat to have him helping me on the home visit.

Now this story leaves me wondering, what is it about Socheat that made him different from the other guards, in his energy to study English and better himself?

Any ideas, about what makes some people like Socheat decide to rise above the crowd and distinguish themselves? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

What motivates some to succeed academically?

Today I had a very unique opportunity to travel to a remote Cambodian village with Arun Sothea, Executive Director of Sovann Komar, an orphanage in Phnom Penh.

To get there we drove about 45 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, boarded a ferry that crossed a large river, went overland by motorbike another 10 minutes, took a small boat for another 15 minutes over seasonally flooded land, and finally drove another 10 minutes by motorbike. Needless to say I wasn’t clear at all where we were.

Arun was visiting families that he works with in various capacities, such as education and health, to see how they are doing and to hear their ideas of what they need in order to better their lives.

When we were boarding the small spot for the 15 minute ride, Arun informed me that when he was a child that boat service didn’t exist. However he needed to cross that water in order to get to school every day and so he *swam* to school. He said that the snakes and scorpions in the water weren’t so bothersome–it was the centipedes that would bite. OK so if you’ve heard the “when I was a kid I had to walk 5 miles in the snow uphill both ways” story then I think this one ups the ante.

So I couldn’t resist but to ask Arun “What motivated you to swim to school every day, and stick with it, when most of the kids dropped out?” And his reply made me laugh: “My relatives told me that I was too skinny to be a good farmer, and so I’d better study.” I can relate to that!

Arun continued on to say that he was told that his parents (who were killed in the Khmer Rouge regime) were smart, educated people, and so it made sense for him to also become educated. So here we have a similar story to DDD operator Bunthy’s story, where there is a “runs in the family” theme to education.

That makes me wonder–can family’s attitudes to the value of education be changed? If so, how? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Attitudes for Success Run in the Family

Today I had a very special opportunity to visit one of Digital Divide Data’s computer operators, Bunthy. He was hired by DDD out of CIST, which runs an IT training program for disadvantaged youths, and given further training by DDD in order to become a successful digitization operator at the Phnom Penh office.

Bunthy’s parents, like many people of their generation in Cambodia, had to move a lot in order to stay safe during the Khmer Rouge regime. As a result they ended up with no clear place to be, and no land. After living in a slum next to Boeung Kak Lake for several years, they were forced to leave when the land was sold to a developer. Fortunately they were eventually given a cash settlement to purchase land elsewhere and start over.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Bunthy’s father is a visionary. He could see the talent in his son, and he knew that in order to get ahead, he had to support his son through finishing high school. So in spite of the hardships, he took that long term view, and allowed Bunthy to continue studying rather than leaving school early to make money for the family.

And this investment has really started to pay off. After graduating from high school, Bunthy was accepted into CIST’s training program, and after that he was hired on by DDD to be a computer operator doing digitization work. And in just a couple of weeks, with DDD’s support he’ll be attending university to study business.

What’s even more fascinating is that this cycle of education is continuing in the family. Bunthy’s sister (seen in the picture holding a young neighbor) is being supported by Bunthy to stay in school, at his insistence, rather than going away to take a factory job as his relatives have suggested. “I want her to get a job where she uses her mind” he told me, “I don’t want her working in a factory.”

Bunthy has plans to help the family finish building their home, and then to start a side business from the home, selling consumer goods. He also has an idea to make soap for sale locally. His father works in construction, and his mother works across town selling beef kabobs that she makes. This is an enterprising family with a bright future.

What was so uplifting for me in visiting Bunthy’s home was seeing the hard work, smarts, ambition, and vision that Bunthy’s whole family holds. They “get it” as to why they should keep their kids in school, and they have the core attitudes for success. Indeed this is the type of family that I aim to support in my social enterprise work.

How Friends International Develops Hospitality Market Power

While at Romdeng, the upscale Khmer restaurant of the Friends International, I talked with one of the local managers about their success in outplacement for the staff there. What I learned was right in line with what I’ve been blogging about with respect to market power.

The Friends International hospitality program has 3 levels. In the first, students learn to cook Khmer food for the 300 kids in the children’s program. Then in the second level, they move onto Romndeng, where they learn gourmet Khmer cooking as well as how to be a waiter at a nice restaurant. And for the third level, they move to Friend the Restaurant, where they also learn to cook western food. And that’s where the market power came in.

I learned that although some students wish to leave the program after the second level to find work, they strongly encourage them finish the third level. Why? Because they know that there is unmet demand for cooks that can both local AND Western cooking.

Thus by staying for the third level, students are building important market power that will give them higher wages and better job stability. They’ll be in demand. This is precisely the type of strategic thinking that brings a social enterprise’s impact from good to great.

What happens after socent workers leave the “estuary?”

A few nights ago I was enjoying dinner at Friends the Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, watching the waiters in this lively social enterprise bustle around. It was fun to see that the team on shift was comprised of waiters of many different skill and training levels. That got me thinking of the prospects for these young people after they leave the training program.

One way to think of a social enterprise is as an estuary for underdeveloped talent, a warm and fuzzy place that values people and provides them the extra support that they need in order to get up to speed and do a good job. All very nice.

But what happens when they leave this “estuary” and go out into the “real world” to find employment? I propose that an important aspect to how they’ll fare depends on the amount of market power that they’ve developed while at the social enterprise.

What does this mean for these waiters? It means that they will be that much more likely to succeed if they can be *excellent* waiters, who stand out in the local employment marketplace. Furthermore if they have special, hard to find skills that employers want, such as familiarity with wines, all the better. That’s market power, and it matters for planning employee transitions from social enterprises to the broader employment world.

For a moment let’s contrast this highly skilled waiter to one who is simply “average,” just another person on the employment market. They’re going to struggle, they’re going to have less job security, and they’re going to make less money.

On the one hand it’s true that many folks coming into social enterprises couldn’t even get average employment before, and so yes they are a bit better off to at least find average employment. But there is so much more potential for their economic stability if a social enterprise can set them up with the skills and experiences to have market power. It’s a goal worth reaching for.

So how does market power work in more detail? I’ll be posting a follow-up article pretty soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. It’d be great if you would share in the comments social enterprises you’re familiar with that generate workers with strong market power.

Successful statebuilding? IBL

There is a fascinating chapter towards the end of  Roland Paris’s book At War’s End which talks about the Institutionalization Before Liberalization (IBL) peacebuilding strategy. Chapter 10 is particularly interesting because several of the elements are counter to what seems to be prevailing wisdom. It challenges common notions like “hold elections quickly, encourage free speech, privatize ASAP.”

To me this is a very productive and healthy dialog to have, especially given the mixed record of such policies in peacebuildling, as outlined in the cases cited in the book. It’s also of great interest to me that Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew embraced several (although clearly not all) of these ideas in successful economic development of Singapore, as described in From Third World to First.

Here are the main points of IBL as described by Paris, with my notes below.

1. Wait Until Conditions are Ripe for Elections

There’s often a rush to elections, but then the results aren’t meaningful because the process and buildup to the election has been under strained conditions.

2. Design Electoral Systems that Reward Moderation

There are certain ways of choosing a winner that require bipartisan support, so that a candidate can’t win by just playing up religious or racial differences.

3. Promote Good Civil Society

p. 195, counter to the idea of complete freedom to organize:
“Peacebuilders must also be prepared to shut down organizations that openly and repeatedly advocate violence against other groups in the society.”

4. Control Hate Speech

Total “freedom of the press” can be very harmful. Lee Kuan Yew has strenuously made this point in Singapore, and clearly in the early days it was important.

But in the case of a foreign intervention, who decides on what speech is allowed—the locals or the externals? One way is to have tight control at first, but then building up the local societal infrastructure to the point where they can regulate.

5. Adopt Conflict-Reducing Economic Policies

The classic policies have the effect of causing much pain to the common people, hurting small businesses, and leading to a consolidation of business interests in big hands. So in fact the “rich get richer,” further exacerbating the rich/poor divide.

In addition, “shock therapy” for an economy can be too shocking, and leave a lot of the “little people” bitter and out of work. Not a good start for a new way of doing things.

6. The Common Denominator: Rebuild Effective State Institutions

p. 205, counter to the idea of raw libertarianism:
“Democratic politics and capitalist economies are not self-organizing: they depend on public institutions to uphold basic rules, to maintain order, to resolve disputes impartially, and to regulate behavior incompatible with the preservation of market democracy itself.”