Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why Bloom is not an NGO

I’m so happy to be back in Phnom Penh with Alan and our dogs again. Phnom Penh is so cool and dry now—the weather really reminds me of Australia. I was freezing at 8:30am in the tuktuk on the way home from the airport. Mornings have been so cold Alan says jokingly it’s just like being in Scotland! You’d never know we were in the tropics. Singapore never gets this way. It’s always humid, even when it’s windy. I’m writing this at 3am and it’s so cool it feels like there’s aircon switched on.

I got stopped at customs this trip because I had packed my lace and trimmings and stuff in boxes, thinking proper luggage would add unneccesary weight. I was asked to open the boxes and had to explain why I was bringing in so many accessories. Fortunately, the official let me off after I explained in Khmer what they were for. I did not know how to say “social enterprise” in Khmer, so I said “NGO”, even though strictly speaking Bloom is not an NGO. It got me thinking that there really are so many benefits to registering as an NGO. Cambodians, especially, really seem to respect NGOs, or at least “get” what NGOs do, i.e., ostensibly, they help Cambodians.

I had resisted registering Bloom as an NGO, despite the advice of many friends. My friends were exactly right, that life would be easier here as an NGO. You don’t have to pay all sorts of licenses and taxes for one, and of course, you get donations (free money). Plus, the label facilitates many activities (as I had just learnt at customs).

I didn’t register Bloom as an international NGO, even though it’s very easy and straightforward, having seen my friends at Riverkids do it. I didn’t because very simply, I think this country has too many NGOs. Cambodia is, to a large extent, an NGO economy, which is to say there is so much money from NGOs in this country that if they were to pull out, Cambodia’s economy would be severely affected (if the garment factories were to leave at the same time, it’s not a joke to say the economy could collapse).

One thing that bothers me is how reliant Cambodians are on foreign aid. One of the most common phrases you will hear as a foreigner is “Som, mui roi” or “Please, (give me) 100 riels.” Maybe I am making too much out of a simple beggar request, but I am convinced it’s more widespread than that—it’s almost like part of the culture here to ask foreigners for handouts.

As I always tell Bloom’s workers*, Cambodians have to learn to be self-reliant. What happens if economies turn bad, and donor nations cut aid? I wanted to demonstrate to our workers that a social enterprise is possible, that Bloom’s workers are capable of running a successful business. I wanted our workers to know they can make money even after I’m gone. It’s the old adage about teaching a person to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Of course this is just a dream at this point, since we’re not yet profitable. My aim is to hand the business over to Bloom’s workers* when we are profitable, so I can move on and hopefully, start a similar project elsewhere. Just writing this is making me stressed. I feel I really have to make Bloom work because there is so much at stake.

*I use the term “Bloom’s workers” or “our workers” and not “my workers”, because as Alan reminds me, the workers do not belong to me. I do not own them. I have also started using the term “workers” consciously, rather than “staff”, because I think there is pride in being a worker. In Singapore, we have come to associate the term “worker” as belonging to a low-class profession, so everyone says “staff”, as in “the company staff”, or even worse, “executives”. I fail to see how being someone who executes is better than being someone who works.


deelady said...

hi, i'm deenie from singapore
i'm 19 this yr
i will be leaving for cambodia this coming march for my sch's attachement. if u dont mind i wont like to ask lots of questions abt cambodia coz i will be away from singapore for 5.5 months. lots to learn abt there i hope u are able to help me. is it possible? u can email me at

deelady said...

if u dont mind i would* like to ask lots of questions abt cambodia

Diana Saw said...

hi Deenie,

yes sure, you can send me an email at and i'll do my best to reply your questions. i'm very happy to hear you're coming to Cambodia. Not sure what you'll be attached to, but I hope you'll find time to volunteer while you're here. I think Singaporeans as individuals (and Singapore, as a country in terms of its foreign policy) can do so much to help our neighbours, because we're educated and comparatively, much wealthier. So do drop me a line and I'll see you soon in Cambodia!


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