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  • Writer's pictureJaime Gill

Non-profits using creativity to survive the pandemic

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

At 4am on Monday March 8th, three Cambodian acrobats juggled on a highwire in a tent in Battambang province, . Onlookers included several monks who stayed up all night alongside 500,000 viewers online, all cheering on the performers as they neared the end of the world’s first 24-hour circus. Thousands of dollars were donated in support of Phare Ponleu Selpak's audacious attempt to set a Guinness World Record. Nothing could have better illustrated the creativity with which Cambodian non-profits have sought to respond to COVID-19.

Like commercial businesses, NGOs have transformed working practices to protect staff, but have also learnt how to support vulnerable people without actually being in the same room as them. Meanwhile, much funding has evaporated, forcing them to be even more creative in their efforts to stay afloat.

Yaim Chamreun is executive director of First Step Cambodia, which provides crucial services to protect Cambodian children from sexual abuse, including social worker training. It has faced daunting challenges: “Many of us NGOs are at risk of downsizing and have had to put an end to some projects.”

“Public performances were our key source of funds and came to a sudden stop. We had to drastically adjust, including pay cuts, reduced hours, and curtailing activities. And that then forced us to get creative with our fundraising,” remembers Osman Khawaja, Phare’s executive director. “Sadly, I know several non-profits, especially in education or training, which had to close or cut back services.”

Fortunately, August’s International Business Awards proved that many non-profits in Cambodia have successfully embraced creativity as a survival mechanism. Phare alone won four gold trophies for its circus fundraiser, while ISF Cambodia was recognised for innovations such as “Social Distance Football”, a new Covid-safe sport that became a hit on four continents.

Plato wrote “need will be the real creator” way back in 375BC, so there’s nothing new about the idea that a crisis creates innovation. We’ve all had to reinvent our social and professional lives to stay safe , while companies had to overhaul business models. Drive down any major Phnom Penh road and you will pass platoons of masked food delivery drivers, living symbols of Cambodia’s changed socio-economic landscape.

Creativity doesn’t have to mean enormous or flamboyant ideas such as inventing sports or breaking records. It can also mean rethinking how we approach work. First Step is an example, shifting support services and training online, and reappraising its priorities. Aware that children were increasingly using the Internet during the pandemic, Yaim says: “We paid closer attention to the growing issue of online sexual abuse in Cambodia, why it happens and what are the best ways for children to be protected.”

The big beast development agencies also had to transform, not as a matter of survival but to support the government in its Covid-19 response. UNICEF has long supported Cambodian education, but school closures meant its education division had to transform in a matter of weeks. A new home learning curriculum was created, with UNICEF helping develop online lessons and educational programming such as the Happy Families animation series. Even as schools reopen, UNICEF is still working with the ministry on delivering hybrid learning packs which children can use in classrooms or at home.

As well as inspiring existing NGOs, the pandemic also gave birth to new ones. Unexpectedly delayed by Covid-19 from returning to the US where he studies, 21-year-old Taing Huang Hao was heartbroken by the plight of Phnom Penh’s poorer communities. He reached out to the Cyclo Association and developed creative community events like Cyclo Christmas. When restrictions tightened in March 2021, he stepped up and launched a new NGO, Local4Local. This youth-run organisation works with cyclos to deliver food to struggling families, benefiting all . In a few months, it raised delivered 26,000 meals and raised $64,000 from local donors.

“I come up with my best ideas in the shower,” laughs Taing over a Zoom call. “I 100 per cent believe we need to be creative when faced with challenges. My goal is to be a bridge between entrepreneurs and creatives.” He says innovation will be even more important as Cambodia recovers from Covid-19.

That’s also the motivation behind UNICEF’s “Generation Future” initiative, connecting young people with creative ideas for change with mentors who can help them deliver . One Generation Future project focuses on encouraging children to return to schools as they re-open. Almost everyone in the NGO world agrees this is a priority. Yaim is deeply concerned that large numbers of children may drop out: “We really need to put these children on their way back to school.”

Khawaja of Phare agrees. “We’re going to have to be really inventive in persuading the more disadvantaged Cambodian children to return to education after so long away, and to persuade parents that it’s in everyone’s interest that they do. That’s the next big creative challenge for the whole NGO sector, and it starts right now.”

An original version of this piece first appeared in the Phnom Penh Post:

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