The past two years of pandemic-induced economic hardships have taken a heavy toll on some of Cambodia’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Many of them have had their livelihoods disrupted in every way imaginable – whether they are tuk-tuk drivers, restaurant servers or migrant labourers working at construction sites in Thailand – nearly all of them, across the board, have experienced a drop in their incomes and constant economic instability.
One organisation focused on helping the urban poor who dwell in some of Cambodia’s most blighted neighbourhoods is the non-profit Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisations (DCO), which has been helping Cambodians who are down on their luck pay their bills such as rent and mortgages or assisting them with finding buyers for their produce at markets.
“The project introduces those in need of help to a market network which allows them to sell their agricultural produce to help pay for their living costs over a two year period while they get on their feet, with the expectation that afterwards they will be able to pay for it,” says Som Sam Ol, DCO’s programme director.
Boeung Tompun is one of the communities that DCO has worked with heavily and the neighbourhood has seen families constantly being evicted due to business developments, which seem to continue apace despite the economic downturn that has devastated all of the other inhabitants of the neighbourhood and stretched their ability to put food on the table for their families past the breaking point.
Sam Ol says that for this project he expects that at least 70% of the beneficiaries will be families that go on to become sustainable and will continue their vegetable production post-project, hopefully ending their hard life in the slums and becoming integrated into Cambodian society.
One of the organisation’s projects is working to address the critical problems faced by the poorest of the poor from food security, basic health education, formal and non-formal education, improvement of livelihood and combat trafficking in human.
Founded by Pok Samoeurn, who is currently chairman of the DCO board, and Dr David G Aston of Canada, the NGO was first registered in 1999 as a non-profit NGO with charitable purposes.
For every project, DCO staff made an assessment survey to reach out to each family. For instance, for the current project in Boeung Tompun, DCO conducted an informal “participatory survey and project discussion” – inviting 87 heads of households from the area to discuss the project and to better understand their situation and their needs.
The participating villagers expressed keen interest in activities that generate income to partly replace their currently precarious means of earning a living. Some proposed horticulture, some suggested vocational skills training, some requested financial support to set up small businesses and others were open to suggestions because they’d already run out of ideas to try.
To eke out a living, some of them are fishing, growing morning glory to sell, picking through rubbish to collect recycling materials or working jobs that are low-paid even by local standards. These families often live in informal settlements and are regarded as illegal squatters who are not registered with local authorities and are vulnerable to evictions.
However, Sam Ol says it’s fulfilling to see that the people the NGO has worked with have been able to improve their situations in many cases.
“Drawing on our experience from past projects, project beneficiaries are better off now and today they are able to pay rent by themselves without NGO intervention. Their lives have been improving. Vegetable production by the beneficiaries continues as normal and they have established good networks for selling vegetables to wholesale buyers.
“More projects of this kind will help bring new hope and reunite families in Cambodia’s poorest neighbourhoods while reducing exposure to human trafficking,” he says.
The 40-year-old programme director says in recent years DCO has been trying to diversify their funding but due to Covid-19 all project financing is pending and some donors are not accepting project proposals during this uncertain period and many donors are pulling out of Cambodia entirely, so funding is shrinking.
The main challenge at DCO is lack of financial support, Sam Ol says, and at the moment DCO is seeking fund to assist those families living in precarious situations in Boeung Tompun on Phnom Penh’s outskirts.
DCO is appealing for donations aimed at assisting 150 families who are facing evictions and uncertain futures because their abodes and places of work are being taken over by property developers who are focused on filling-in low-lying portions of the neighbourhood to reduce flooding and begin building.
“The donations will be used for helping them acquire a better livelihood by training them to become sustainable vegetable producers. It provides them with training, seeds, farming tools and finds a suitable place for them to relocate and assists them in their relocation,” Sam Ol explains.
Sam Ol says that the project managed to relocate 37 beneficiary families before the Covid-19 lockdowns in Phnom Penh began and the area was declared one of Phnom Penh’s “red zones” where people were barricaded in and under lockdown for extended periods.
“So, our beneficiaries’ friends who were stranded in [Boeung Tompun] had a very tough time. DCO and a few other NGOs were allowed access to the red zone to help 672 families there with food rations given to us by local humanitarian organisations, the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner in Cambodia, Arcaid Charity from the UK and the Mengly J. Quach Foundation.
“But thankfully the 37 beneficiary families for the present project escaped much of this Covid suffering, as they were able to live in small family groups in a more open environment without restrictions and to continue making a living during the pandemic,” Sam Ol says.
Besides the urban areas of the capital, DCO is also active in other parts of Cambodia, including Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Bantheay Meanchey provinces and they recently have broadened their activities in Phnom Penh to support poor neighbourhoods where government involvement is limited.
“The situation in Cambodia has changed considerably since 2020 due to Covid-19. Since then we’ve begun to focus our charity work on raising funds to support those who live in poor urban areas. So it was necessary for us to adjust our plan of action. We are working closely with the government, donors, NGOs, private sector business donors and the targeted communities to bring real change and opportunity to their lives,” Sam Ol tells The Post.
The projects are mainly focused on livelihood improvement, healthcare, education, environmental issues and combating human trafficking in Cambodia.
DCO is one of 16 NGOs in a consortium working to fight child trafficking activities in Cambodia and is an active partner in the Cambodia Against Child Trafficking Network (Cambodia ACTS).
It is also a member of a consortium of NGOs working in the western provinces of Cambodia to tackle rebuilding and recovery following the flooding last year by building villager capacity to adapt to climate change and encouraging changes in behaviour to increase weather resilience agriculture.
“For that project, we are working in 16 villages in Battambang. The project is to strengthen flood affected farmers capacity to cope with future disaster and climate change by up-skilling key actors in weather resilience and improving agricultural production in light of seasonal changes and also providing sanitation education,” says the NGO’s programme director for the past 15 years.
For more information about the Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisation or to find out how to donate they can be contacted via phone/app at 077 704 000 or their Facebook page: Facebook.com/DCO-Cambodia-100867238366653