Permission to dream – soon granted in Cambodia?

Past, erased.

How do you educate the younger generations when all the intellectuals have been killed? That is what happened in Cambodia under the Khmers Rouges’ regime. No more books, no more teachers, no more schools. Only the rules, and religion serving them. Buddhism also teaches you to accept your place in the world and to be resilient, and that is exactly what Cambodian politicians have used over thousands of years to educate what they believe were their masses.

Children suffer in Cambodia, but they do not fight, they resist and their resilience is impressive. With the latest economical improvements not all kids have to battle to go to school, but most. Some middle class children now have access to public schools but also to more and more private schools: Montessori models, international ones, « Smart kids », « Bright Future », institutions which find inspiring names to attract the new money. The business of education is more about business now than about education.


Educational actors are numerous in Cambodia. There is the state, of course, but the public school system is gangrened by corruption, by teachers’s no-show when they find a better paid job and by the fees collected whenever it is possible. In Cambodia, you have to pay the school to take an exam, to get a photocopy, to have access to a book. For everything, you pay. Many children work to be able to attend school, at least part-time, but often the pressure parents put on them to work in order to help their family is too strong and they give up on learning.

Many ngos in Cambodia are addressing this issue, by delivering books in Khmer, organizing English lessons, welcoming the poorest children into boarding schools, opening vocational schools, training them to get jobs in hotels and offices. Most ngos are dedicated and professionals but not necessarily sustainable so they will never replace a system managed by the Cambodians for the Cambodians. Efforts to enable this system to emerge should become a national and international priority: capacitation.

The objective would clearly be to rebuild an intellectual ground and empower people to take responsibility for themselves and their families and also to develop personally and activities that will strengthen the economy too. But we are clearly not there yet.

The objective of schools in Cambodia now isn’t to allow people to dream and become who they want to be, it is to give them the basic toolset to make a living. There are some exceptions of course such as in certain universities – controlled by the state – which are developing and offering research degrees and more and more international partnerships. For example, the library of the Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh is always full, not a single empty chair! Every single day of the week people come to have access to books, movies, newspapers, even to a US corner sponsored by the embassy, and to “saint computers” made available to students and even to non-university members. People gather for group projects, they read, they write, they exchange and some, dream. But their dreams are carefully watched for by the administration as the Dean of the Graduate School of education explained: “In their soft skills class, students must look for a proverb that illustrates the values of the university, then they have to raise funds to print it on a banner and display it all over the campus. Therefore, the dreams of the community are visible to all and the walls remind us of why we are here and where we need to go”.


Visiting a country by looking more closely at its educational system is fascinating!

It teaches you about politics, economy, people’s lives, hopes and problems, about society in its core. Education is where it all starts and it all ends, it is a circle that never stops.

In Cambodia the same rules apply. People see education as an exit to a better life so they try to learn whenever they can. The ones who are the most hungry for knowledge and with the correct basics identify their needs at present or a problem they encounter and go get the answer in a classroom or online, more and more. They have integrated the concept of life-long education because they do not have the luxury to stop working on the side. Adults here are not familiar with the concept of holidays. They respect the religious festivals and comply with their religious duties but also fill their schedule with many, many things: family, work, English lessons, second job, third job, etc.

Luckily some teachers also follow that rhythm and it is often the sole condition for any improvement in classrooms. Teacher’ trainings are very bad in Cambodia, some university degrees are good but too few have access to them. Usually, teachers do not know enough to quit the very traditional way of teaching: they talk, students listen, no questions allowed. Only some young teachers are doing this job out of passion and keep studying to be able to bring the best to their students. They even sometimes save money to attend university at night to get their masters. The energy is there, but still lacks strengths and isn’t properly allocated towards the people who need education the most.


When asking a father about his dreams for his daughter, he replied: « discipline ».

When asking a 17 years old orphan, attending an ngo vocational business school about her dream, she replied: « start my company ».

Change is here when it gets the chance.

Our responsibility is this one: find solutions to unleash people’s own potential and empower them so they can take action.

Because they will!

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