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Toward Sustainable Development in Cambodia

by Rev. Dr. James L. Gulley

The caretaker of a cow and calf stands with Muy Sochear (right), pastor of O Ambel Methodist Mission Church.  Raising these animals leads to self-sustenance in Cambodia.
The caretaker of a cow and calf stands with Muy Sochear (right), pastor of O Ambel Methodist Mission Church. Raising these animals leads to self-sustenance in Cambodia.
Image by: De. James L. Gulley
Source: New World Outlook
A family examines a resettlement shelter in Phum Sophy where they may begin a more fruitful life.
A family examines a resettlement shelter in Phum Sophy where they may begin a more fruitful life.
Image by: Dr. James L. Gulley
Source: New World Outlook

New World Outlook, March/April 2008

The first thing is to make relationships, not to make projects. The major goal of the redevelopment of the community is to help village people to regain dignity and unity. Rebuilding relationships is a key to the most troubling problems.

From Toward Restoring Life in Cambodian Villages,
written by Dr. Meas Nee, 2003.

Pastor Muy Socheat is a man with multiple talents. In Sisophon,  Cambodia, he leads O Ambel Methodist mission church, a lively congregation. He earns income by raising pigs and using his carpentry skills, which are elegantly displayed on the wooden doors of his church-house-carpenter shop in the form of four hand-carved Scripture verses. He also writes Christian music.

Always cheerful, Pastor Socheat is an excellent leader whose cow-raising group has excelled. The group received a gift-loan from the Methodist Community Health and Agricultural Development (CHAD) project that was used to purchase two cows in July 2005. Two women were selected to be the animals' caretakers. By mid-2007, the two cows had produced two calves that the caretakers raised for one year, weaned, and passed on to two other group members.

Drawing from the experience of Heifer International, church-based groups in Cambodia organize themselves to raise cows and share the offspring among group members. CHAD staff members provide groups with materials for improving animal care, encouraging involvement of a village veterina-rian, and promoting savings accounts to provide for the animals' health care. A "caretaker" selected by the group prepares a secure, hospitable shelter and provides water and feed. Group members make periodic visits to see that the cow is being cared for properly.

"Passing-on-the-gift" takes place when the first and third calves are produced, raised for 12-15 months, weaned, and given to other members of the group. Each member who receives a calf must also practice passing-on-the-gift. The caretaker, who makes the largest contribution to the process, keeps the second, fourth, and any other offspring, as well as the original cow. Over time, all members of the group benefit.

By 2005, 38 of 45 CHAD groups in Cambodia were raising cows.

Community Health and Agricultural Development
In 2003, a vision conceived by Methodists in Cambodia to engage the church in sustainable development was given a spark by a mission volunteer from the tiny United Methodist Church of Finland (1,000 members). Pontus Fred, an information technology specialist at the University of Helsinki, took three months away from his studies and traveled to Cambodia to teach youth how to use computers. After seeing how rural Cambodians lived, he returned home with a draft proposal for an agricultural development project developed in partnership with the United Methodist mission director in Cambodia. He secured funding to launch the project from both the Finnish United Methodist Church and the Finnish government. In 2006, this rural agricultural-development program was combined with a community-based health component and additional funding through the Health and Relief unit of Global Ministries to form the Community Health and Agricultural Development (CHAD) program.

CHAD aims to restore hope by ministering to the rural poor through Methodist congregations—integrating agriculture, health, and microenterprise development activities that improve health, increase incomes, and build congregations and community. Activities include training village health-care volunteers called Good Samaritans, initiating rice and fertilizer banks, introducing better vegetable and mushroom production, improving pig and cow raising, initiating biogas (methane) production, weaving, and sewing. The activities are designed to become self-sustaining under Cambodian leadership.

The cow-raising project is just one of many development projects that CHAD promotes, but it is one of the more popular programs. Reasons given by Cambodians for the popularity of the cow-raising groups: cows can graze and even eat stored rice straw in the growing season, requiring little cash outlay; they can plow rice fields and
provide transport; they produce manure (natural fertilizer) for farms; and cows produce offspring. Owning a cow is an asset that provides security in difficult times, but most individual farmers do not have the capital to buy a cow.

The practice of passing-on-the gift taps into a fundamental need in all communities: to trust and to be trusted. Nowhere does Christian tradition more fully embrace the insight of God's gracious action on behalf of humankind than within the Wesleyan tradition. How fitting, then, for Cambodian Methodists to embrace the practice of sharing and giving in response to receiving a gift that an individual farmer could not afford to purchase.

A Young Church in Which All Things Are New
Cambodia's recent history of the ruthless Maoist dictatorship of the Pol Pot regime, subsequent civil war, and occupation by the Vietnamese for 14 years left many psychic scars in Cambodia. It is a youthful nation, stripped of much of its adult intellectual and entrepreneurial class and struggling to transform itself. The Methodist Mission in Cambodia (MMC) is likewise a youthful church, whose members are mainly youth and children. Methodism has had a short but rapidly changing history in Cambodia. The establishment and growth of the church has taken place only over the past decade and a half. Cambodians and missionaries from Methodist traditions in South Korea, Singapore, the United States, France/ Switzerland, and Malaysia jointly established the Cambodia Methodist Bible School in 1998. The five missions came together in the first annual meeting in 2004 and in
October 2005 formed a single church—the Methodist Mission in Cambodia (MMC).

Lay members, pastors, and district superintendents have just completed their second year of training, learning how to carry out their new responsibilities within 10 new districts and 11 program committees. Mission and ministry are carried out amidst a population still struggling for daily bread.

About 80 percent of the population of over 14 million lives in rural settings. Villages are typically clusters of stilted homes along roadsides, which are surrounded by rice farms where most farmers eke out an existence on less than two acres of land. Twelve percent or more of rural residents are landless, and many depend on seasonal work, such as transplanting rice, that pays less than one dollar a day. Despite these efforts, two-thirds of poor rural households still face seasonal food shortages because of low yields and periodic droughts and floods.

Sustaining Life Despite Poverty
Sustainable development can be simply defined as change that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. A biblical perspective calls people of faith to change in ways that transform the lives of individuals and communities—materially, spiritually, and relationally. The fruits of that transformation: individuals living in community and caring for one another as intended by God, the source and creator of all of life. This implies an effort to provide everyone in the community with access to the resources and opportunities required for learning, health, wholeness, and sustainable ways of making a living.

No single "blueprint" exists for development that fits every situation, though embracing essential principles is critical to moving beyond a relief-assistance mentality. Development begins with people recognizing and using their own experience, skills, and resources. Outsiders can at best serve as catalysts to support and complement processes that have genuine local roots. Pastors are expected to be leaders in the local church and community. Project leaders and villagers get acquainted through initial visits to the villages. Pastors have an opportunity to listen and learn about the local situation: community needs, interests, resources, and hopes. Gaining the respect and trust of community members in order to play an effective leadership role takes time. In
a young church, people find they must learn and grow together.

Partnerships Are Essential
The Methodist Mission in Cambodia and CHAD formed partnerships with two organizations that have greater technical expertise: International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), a Christian organization, and the Center for Livestock and Agricultural Development (CELAGRID). CELAGRID introduced the Methodists to innovative farming technologies through conducting a Farmer Field School. ICC provided CHAD and other Methodist leaders with training in microenterprise development and management.

Prek Ampel Women's Weaving Group
In late 2006, Ms. Svay Neng, a young woman pastor, was appointed to the Prek Ampel MMC church near Phnom Penh. Having completed a community development course in the Bible School the year before, Pastor Svay Neng met church members and learned that many of the local women earned income by weaving in their homes while caring for their families. The women wanted help with the business aspect of their weaving. The young pastor turned to CHAD for help. A more experienced ICC staff member accompanied CHAD staff member, Mr. Leng Thy, to see how they might help the women weavers.

Many of the women were skilled weavers, but they wanted to eliminate the middlemen who sold them thread, issued loans, and bought their cloth pieces for four dollars each. The weavers knew they could sell their products for five to six dollars each in the market, increasing their incomes by 25 to 30 percent. With loans of $58.00, each could buy enough materials for one month before selling and replenishing their thread. Working together with the guidance of CHAD and ICC staff, the group selected their leadership and sent two persons to a Phnom Penh market to find buyers.

Each month two members of the group now take the finished cloth, sell it, and purchase thread for the next month's sewing. Members share the cost of transportation. By August 2007, 15 women were working together to increase their incomes by selling directly to the market.

Group members also started their own savings plan. They pooled a portion of their profits to give loans to some women in the group who were renting their looms for $10.00 a month. CHAD encouraged the women to save and promised to match their savings so that three new looms could be bought on loan from the groups' savings. Prek Ampel's success was built on shared local interests, group cohesion, and traditional knowledge and skills. Not every group manages to work as cooperatively and as quickly to effect economic improvement for its members.

"We don't want to cooperate!"
In the earliest village visits, we encouraged those who expressed interest in improving their farming to form groups and work together, to "cooperate." We were unaware that the Khmer word for "cooperate" translates as ruom, a word used under the Pol Pot regime to describe forced communal work! No wonder we saw scowls on the faces of people when we suggested that they "cooperate" with each other. The translator had to find another way to express that working together would directly benefit individual members of the group. That was our introduction to the depth of mistrust in Cambodia, not only within the broader society, but also within villages and, too often, within churches as well.

Thanksgiving and Commitment
As new projects are begun, CHAD promotes mutual trust and accountability through services of Thanksgiving and Commitment. In three of the first four of these services, the preachers independently selected the parable of the talents entrusted to three servants who received five, three, or one talent(s). The preacher exhorted leaders to use faithfully the various resources being entrusted to their project groups. As leaders and treasurers stepped forward to accept the "gift-loans" on behalf of group members, they pledged in the presence of other project representatives to use them faithfully. All present committed to share the products of their activities, whether gift-loans for livestock, water pumps, weaving looms, rice, or fertilizer. They promised to pass-on-the-gift to others. After one service, a pastor responded: "We have never done that before. I really appreciated the service." Through the practice of sustainable development, Cambodian Methodists show that God's spirit of grace, thanks, trust, and sharing is present in every church and community.
Community Health Needs
Along the walk toward sustainable development, CHAD constantly meets those poor who not only struggle to subsist but need immediate medical care as well. Mrs. Yeye of Phum Sophy is a case in point. Her heartwarming smile masks a serious heart condition that limits her physical activity. Three of her children have been farmed out to other relatives or institutions for schooling or work. Still, she does what she can to earn some income from petty trading to support herself, two younger children, and her own mother. A quick glance behind this lovely little family reveals the tidy but meager material goods in her platform-shelter home.

CHAD has paid for transportation, tests, and medicines to care for Mrs. Yeye. Doctors have told her that she must have an operation to correct her condition. Beyond the cost of the operation, Mrs. Yeye's fears for herself and her family have prevented her from undergoing surgery. Still, in the midst of so much adversity, Mrs. Yeye never fails to smile and always shows up to participate in the activities of her local church. Helping poor women, men, and children to access life-sustaining health care is a central goal of the Community Health component of CHAD.

Walking Together in Faith
The Methodist Mission in Cambodia has brought together an amazing diversity of people who are working together to be the body of Christ in Cambodia. Created in a culture of crisis and overwhelming need at the end of the nightmare of the Pol Pot regime and subsequent civil war, the MMC is helping Cambodians to move beyond a "relief assistance" mentality to grapple with the meaning of sustainable, self-directed development. People working cooperatively in community are central to the process.

While teaching community development to Methodist pastors-in-training at the Cambodian Methodist Bible School (CMBS) in 2004-2005, I asked the students to ponder and answer: "Can Christian faith help to heal hearts and spirits?"  The answer is an emphatic yes!  Jesus said:  "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." Those words from John's Gospel (10:10b) express the spirit that motivates the mission and
ministry of CHAD in Cambodia.

Principles Guiding the CHAD Program

  1. Meet people where they live; first listen and learn from them.
    Together identify resources available locally and build on those.
  2. Promote full participation to foster local ownership of decisions and activities.
  3. Maintain openness and transparency to build trust, accountability, successful cooperation, and community.
  4. Commit to project partners over the long haul. Commitment is both theologically and practically essential.

Partners in development must remember that sustainable development is always a learning process that requires flexibility and adjustment in each community.


Rev. Dr. James L. Gulley, an ordained clergy member of the Rocky Mountain Conference, serves as Advisor in Agriculture and Community Development for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and as Rocky Mountain Conference Secretary of Global Ministries. Formerly a missionary in Nigeria and Cambodia, he holds degrees in agriculture, theology, international relations, and development.
See Also...
Topic: Agriculture Christian love Communities GBGM programs Health Hunger Poverty United Methodist Church
Geographic Region: Asia and the Pacific IslandsCambodia
Source: New World Outlook

arrow icon. View Listing of Missionaries Currently Working in: Asia and the Pacific Islands    Cambodia |   

Date posted: Feb 27, 2008