I went to Cambodia in January 2007 with the aim of volunteering with Angkor Association for the Disabled (AAD). I had been looking for volunteer opportunities in Cambodia and had read about AAD which was based in Siem Reap. Conscious and wary of the plethora of organisations/NGOs that mask themselves under the name of charity but are only out to scam donations from unsuspecting donors/volunteers, I wanted to be sure that AAD was worth my commitment. Hence, I started doing my ‘homework’ and background check into AAD. There were a few websites about it and the feedback I received (after ‘asking around’) about it all seemed really favourable. Thus, after a few months’ of research about AAD, I decided to take my chance with it.
Touted as an NGO that is aimed at helping people with disabilities in Cambodia, AAD is fronted by its founder and director, Sem Sovantha, an amputee himself. The story sold is that Sovantha wants to help Cambodians with disabilities find self-sustainable ways of living by providing skills/job for them so that they do not have to beg on the streets. He is depicted as a ‘from zero to hero’ figure who overcame all odds to help his fellow countrymen with similar fates. Encouraged by what I read about him, I made AAD my first priority on the list of charities in Cambodia I had finalised.
I then began contacting Sovantha via the email address given on the websites. Aware that I am contacting someone from a less-developed country electronically, I did not expect prompt replies. Thus, even though AAD was tardy with replies (out of all my emails sent, I only received a reply, and it was a blank email with nothing at all), I did not blame them and found excuses for the tardiness (lack of proper IT infrastructure and knowledge/do not check emails often/poor grasp of the English language/etc). Fortunately, I met a kind lady, Rachel (who was living in Siem Reap and knew Sovantha) online who was instrumental in making my trip possible. It was only through the efforts of Rachel that eventually got me there - she was very helpful and kindly/tirelessly helped with co-ordinating everything on behalf of AAD when she learnt that I was unable to contact Sovantha. It was as if she was the co-ordinator from AAD, rather than him. It took me months to be able to finalise the trip, with much help from Rachel.
When I finally arrived in Siem Reap, I found things to be very different from what I have learnt from the web (as they always are). I found my way to Rachel’s place and learnt that Sovantha was out of town and would not be back for another four or five days, even though he had known about my arrival date beforehand. That would be my first taste of how extremely disorganised AAD really is. So I was left to my own devices till he got back. Thankfully, Rachel kindly helped me to get settled down.
Rachel had helped to arrange for me to stay with AAD in the commune that they called the AAD office/headquarters. The villa (as they call it) housed about 30 people, inclusive of Sovantha and his family. Most of the people there spoke very little or no English at all. So when Rachel and I arrived at the villa, nobody knew who I was or seemed to know why I was there/what was going on. After getting through to Sovantha on the phone who then spoke to one of occupants, I was introduced to my room. Though a rather spacious room, it was very bare. The only furniture, a crummy bed had some seemingly dirty sheets on it that did not fit. Of course I knew that I was in a NGO in a less-developed country and had not expected a suite accommodation. In fact, I was grateful already for a bed to sleep in, having been to places where I had to sleep on floors. But the state of the room still quite surprised me as it seemed to indicate that Sovantha was not prepared about my arrival at all. The dark and gloomy room was very dirty and looked like it had not been occupied for a long time. Swarms of mosquitoes greeted me when the door was first opened. As we stepped into the room, our footprints were left on the dusty floor. Rachel and her partner, Simon then helped me to clean up the place and tried to make it as livable and homely as possible, seeing that it would be my home for a month (I had committed to a month’s stay). We spent half a day doing the room up. Rachel lent me some of her furniture – a rack, stool and some cleaning tools while Simon helped me to install a lock for the door. All at their own expenses and time.
Even though I had learnt about AAD through my online research, I knew that there is and often a gap between online information and reality. No matter how thorough I may have done my ‘homework’, the truth may still be a distance from the hearsay. I wanted to understand and find out more about AAD before I commit my money, time and efforts to it wholeheartedly. In the days spent awaiting the return of Sovantha, I set about Siem Reap, trying to find out as much as I could about AAD and to my surprise, I actually found quite a lot of negative reports about it. However, I am not the type of person to take in hearsay wholesale and do not pass any judgements until I have personally experience it. Thus, I only took in what I heard with a pinch of salt and reserved my judgments for later.
I was very glad with the accommodation arrangement as it gave me the opportunity for a first-hand experience on learning about AAD. I have always felt that the best way to learn/know/understand a person is to live with him/her as living under the same roof can often expose some otherwise usually 'hidden' habits/behaviour. My two-week stay there was definitely a testament to that doctrine. Though I had initially planned for a one-month volunteer stint with AAD, I found it increasingly impossible to do that with new foundings about Sovantha each day. My conclusion after an intensive two-week observation of Sovantha and AAD was that the whole AAD idea was just a facade of Sovantha to scam donors of donations. He was not sincere about helping the people with disabilities at all. He was only interested in siphoning money for himself. An incredible show master, he paid excellent lip service. He was just an excellent 'talker' - great at talking and putting on pretentious shows that marketed him as a compassionate man who was keen on helping people with disabilities – but not ‘walker’ at all. He never walked the talk. Least not where I had seen. I saw how he behaved in front of and behind people. I witnessed his beautiful front-stage performances and backstage realities.
Initially, Sovantha had boasted about his elaborate plans for my volunteer stint, saying he wanted me to do this and that. One job he came up with was for me to appeal to tourists for donations at Angkor Wat where AAD had some members putting up a music performance playing Khmer music. But without knowing heads or tails about AAD, I was unable to speak about the organisation at all, much less appeal to donors. I could not ‘sell’ what I did not know. Any marketeer/salesperson knows that it is impossible to sell a product if you do not even know what it is. Thus, I was keen to find out about AAD’s work so that I could start work as soon as possible. But in the two weeks that I was there, Sovantha did not give me any specific directions to work in - only parroting 'I'm very glad that you have come to help AAD" all the time and "I'm very busy" when I tried to initiate any meeting to talk about AAD. I was left on my own most of the time. Thus, I ended up catching up on my sleep quite a bit too since there was nothing to do while waiting for Sovantha to get back. I was keen and wanted to start working but could not do anything because I did not know anything at all. There was nobody to help me at all. The only people I saw/met were the AAD members who did not speak much or any English so they were unable to tell me anything. There was an American missionary who also lived at the villa but he did not know much about the inner-workings of AAD and was unable to advise much too.
I was interested in learning more about AAD - the organisation's structure, background, functions, work it does, etc and particularly in the accounting of the cash-flows (the cynical and prudent sides of me were still keen to determine whether AAD was a scam or a gem). But of course, he was reluctant to talk on anything related to those issues. He clammed up whenever I tried to broach any of the above subjects and always found some excuses to get away. After trying for a week to 'talk' to him and letting on that I was getting a little frustrated that I seemed to be wasting my time, just waiting for him to 'get back and talk to me', he reluctantly agreed to 'talk' to me about those topics. The precious one and only meeting that I managed to secure with him after a week of trying was not a fruitful one. It was conducted in a very brief manner with him sidestepping all those important issues with curt and evasive answers, which I later found to be lies.
One of the projects at AAD was a theatre performance (not the same music performance that was going on at Angkor Wat) put up by the AAD members. This project was originally conceived by three female volunteers who wanted to seek a way of self-sustenance for the AAD members. They created the performance and helped to train the members. They even managed to help kickstart the performance at a very prominent hotel in Siem Reap, giving an important opportunity to showcase and introduce it. The project was taken over and managed by a school teacher, Tola (who had been helping AAD a lot on a voluntary basis but with lesser credits given to him) after they left Cambodia. Eventually, Tola took on the thankless role of being the manager for the performance. For all the relentless work required for his ‘job title’, Tola was only given a token sum of 10% of the show earnings. Our AAD Director, who typically did nothing to contribute to the performance, demanded a whopping 25% cut of the performance fees, simply for the fact that the performers are AAD members. And mind you, that 25% was not going towards the living expenses of the AAD members, as he had categorically stated. The excuse for seizing such a huge cut was to go towards the AAD funds (which ironically, did not include providing for the AAD members!). Anyone who knew the real Sovantha would not have any difficulty knowing where that money was really going. If he were to channel the funds received for AAD into helping the members as he claimed to be and which should rightfully be the way, I would have no qualms apportioning 25% of the earnings to him. But the sad and harsh truth was that, all the money disappeared into Sovantha’s own pocket and I really hate to see everyone else working so hard to line his pockets and not being able to say/do anything about it at all. There were other excuses that he came up with to grab more of the money pie – ‘driver’s fee’ (the driver was a paid staff of AAD and by default, the transporting of the AAD members was to be included in his job description. The feeble claim to ‘cover petrol costs’ was bulls**t. Petrol may be expensive but certainly did not cost that much. Again, not difficult to see why this was made an official ‘share partner’ of the show earnings and where that money would end up in), community funds (a sub-project initially conceived to bring the theatre performance to the community that would not be able to afford the show fees. The estimated sum of putting up the performance had been reached but to date, no news of the show being staged at the community level.), etc.
As Sovantha was constantly in MIA mode (he was seldom in the villa) and did not give me anything to work on, I decided to just take it upon myself to try and 'sell' the theatre performance that the members of AAD were doing to the hotels. That was the only thing that I knew enough about to be able to talk to people. I started making cold-call visits to the hotels in Siem Reap after drawing up a list of them. I was working independently on my own with no help from AAD at all. Later, I roped in Tola to help me. It was only the two of us working at selling the performance. All Sovantha ever showed any concern to my volunteer work was the one time he asked the question: "So how many hotels are buying the performance?" and when the answer did not satisfy him, he never cared to ask anything about it afterwards again. I did not mind hard work but when people that you were helping started giving you attitude, I thought it was time to reconsider things.
It was clear that Sovantha's idea of volunteers who want to help AAD meant donating money. At least that was what happened with me. He tried to get donations out of me several times and after a few unsuccessful attempts at getting money out from me (I had already grown wary of him and was not going to give him any donations until I could ascertain where that money was going), he became uninterested in my volunteer work at AAD. And he was quick to show that disinterest very blatantly - his behaviour and attitude changed completely soon as he realised that he was not going to get any money from me. Frankly, if it were not for the members at AAD that I had grown to love so much, I would have left much earlier.
Accounting of the cash flow in AAD was non-existent - only Sovantha handled the money and knew how much went in and out of AAD. Or rather, how much went into the organisation and how much went into HIS pocket? What was public (aka AAD) and personal had become a very blurred line. And that line was drawn by Sovantha himself. He made up the figures according to his whims and interest. Eg: he recently bought a car that cost USD$1,800 but he told people the car only cost USD$800. I knew that he lied because I had chanced upon the receipt (which was surprisingly written in English) for the car which was lying around on a table (I think he probably left it there accidentally). He told everyone that he only spent a little (USD$800 is considered a little...for an organisation that claimed to be very ‘poor’) on the car as it was a necessity for his work. But in reality, I saw him and his family use the car more for their own use than 'official purposes' - going to the markets, driving around town when they got bored, etc. Another example, he claimed that a paid staff by the name of Sovann who helped with the administrative work in AAD was paid only a ‘measly USD$100’ (I understand that a typical government office worker in Cambodia gets a salary of about USD$40-$50) and had to work very long hours - in other words, his claim was that Sovann was an underpaid staff because AAD was 'poor'. In reality, Sovann drew a monthly salary of USD$200 which he openly admitted to Tola. And for that 'measly salary' so-claimed by Sovantha, we (Tola and myself) were clueless to what Sovann did at AAD. I seldom saw Sovann there and he was NEVER there when there was work/you needed him. In the two weeks that I was volunteering at AAD, whenever I needed anything, I could never find Sovann. It's a mystery to me what he really does at AAD. If Sovantha was not managing the AAD funds unsuitably/inappropriately, why did he lie about them?
His undesirable behaviour of heading AAD aside, his treatment of the AAD members appalled me. He and his family were well-dressed and did not look 'poor' at all (just look at the jewellery and gold watches they were wearing. Yes, I knew that they were all fakes and not real Rolexes but the fact remained that they could afford to dress well and buy these accessories which would have not been items for considerations for people who kept lamenting that they hardly had enough to eat). I had seen how his family ate. His family ate very good food - always meat (eg: pork, beef, chicken, etc and they ate the best parts – eg: the chicken thighs) and lots of food at each meal. I was pretty surprised at how well they ate, considering how Sovantha was always complaining that they were ‘very poor’. I would say that if what they ate at the table was anything to go by, I would definitely not put them in the 'poor/needy' category. Sadly, that was untrue for the members living at AAD. They did not get to eat the 'good food' that the family was having. Only measly vegetables and little rice. Their diet was definitely what I call 'a poor person's feed'. I felt so sorry and dismayed at the stark contrast.
The way Sovantha and his family treated the members shocked me too. Before I got there, I had heard of how humble a person Sovantha was (there again confirming the saying to never believe what you hear completely). So when I witnessed the distinction he made between the 'lowly members' and his own family, I was very dismayed by my observations. Members could not eat at the main table - they had to cook separately at a make-shift stove outside the house and huddle around the stove and eat their meals. Sovantha's family would eat 'properly' at the table. Although I understood that as a 'director', he may want that esteem of a 'head of the organisation', I could not excuse him for his condescending attitude towards the members. It was clear that the family regarded the members as 'lowly people' who were second-class citizens living in the house and treated them as if they were sub-standard people. The way they talked to them and 'ordered' them to do things, you would have thought the members were their servants. Even though I did not understand Khmer very well, I could see that very plainly. The sad thing was that, all the members would not speak of the truth about their predicament there for fear that they would be thrown out of the place. So nobody ever bad-mouthed Sovantha at all. Not openly anyways. You would have to earn their trust before they would dare to speak about the truth at AAD. It took me nearly a month to get them to admit those truths. Initially, whenever I tried to ask anything, they would always give me the politically-correct answers - answers that would certainly camouflage the truth from a non-suspecting visitor.
It was also my observation that Sovantha was a control/power freak. He did not delegate work in AAD for fear of people finding out what went on exactly behind the smokescreen, especially the financial matters. Thus, he attained and retained absolute power over everyone there. When I showed up and starting asking questions (about AAD), he became defensive and was quick to let me know that my place was not to ask questions but to help him only. And yet, he did not give me any directions to work on at all. Perhaps, I had scared him off with my questions. Like I informed before, his idea of my helping was to donate money. That, I got, very clear.
I am deeply concerned by Sovantha’s wrong-doings and how increasingly obnoxious and ridiculous he has become. When I first left AAD, I had no ill-feelings towards him but just thought that he was not a suitable person to head AAD. But as I got to learn more about him, I got more disgusted by him. Sadly, I only learnt about the truth until very late – too late to do anything at all. I have left Cambodia and much as I would like help, my assistance, if any, will be remote and slow. There is only so much you can do when you are not on-site. Together with some past volunteers of AAD, we are all very concerned about what is going on at AAD. Recently, I learnt that the members were not only not eating well as usual, but that the situation had worsened. They were starving and had no food. So much so that Tola was thinking of 'asking' for some food donation from another visitor to AAD. Another ludicrous idea that Sovantha racked up was that he wanted to collect rent from the AAD members living in the house - an 'assistance' that he advertised to donors - he proclaimed to donors that he housed and fed over thirty people in the house (actual fact is after deducting his own family and kin of about twelve, only about twenty-odd folks are AAD members living there). And they all work for their keeps, nobody is really living there for free. The members were to maintain the housekeeping of the place and any ad-hoc activities/duties/etc required by Sovantha and his family. Whoever could do anything, would have to do something, if not everything. All these were cleverly hidden from visitors and were initially veiled from me too. It took me a while before I could establish the truth of each hearsay I heard about. So, it took me a long time to figure all these out and I really had to observe very keenly. It was never a full story that got revealed one-shot - always bits and pieces of information/observations here and there that I had to piece together to get the picture. I am lucky enough to be able to witness and know the true story behind. But even I do not have the complete story of all the happenings yet. My time there was too short. I only lived with them for two weeks and even though I maintained contact with the members after I moved out, it was still very little and limited that I could know.
In conclusion, Sovantha is just a dubious director of a debatable organisation interested only in lining his own pocket. He may have started AAD with the best of intentions and could be initially genuine in wanting to execute his mission statement. But maybe the comfort brought by the influx of help and donations through the years have since caused him to sidetrack or forget AAD’s mission statement. AAD receives a lot of overseas help. Assistance from donors/volunteers/helpers in Japan, Australia, America and the UK, especially have been tremendous sources of relief and are steadily sustaining AAD (or Sovantha?). Pity they are not truly aware of how the money is being used or where it is really going. No doubt Sovantha has also put up many shows to ‘prove’ AAD’s ‘credibility’ – just look at the ‘many activities’ claimed on AAD’s website. Some of them are true while most of them are just ornamental shows. If anyone were to delve deeper and look hard or simply put him under the microscope, it is not difficult to see that ‘inputs do not equal outputs’ – the funds received by AAD are not proportional with the help/’results’ so claimed by the shady director. Some may think I am too harsh on him but after knowing what kind of a person he is, I spare no punches in exposing him or giving him any benefits that he does not deserve.
Of course, the corruption and scam charitable organisations stories are not something new in Cambodia (no offence meant for that stereotype but just being realistic about the facts) or any Third World countries, for that fact. What makes this particular story warrant such attention from me is my personal involvement in it – I had volunteered with AAD, known and grown to love the AAD members and my indignance at seeing Tola and his troupe, all of them have become my friends, being exploited like this. The world is not fair and there will always be unfair happenings going on. Yes, I know that. I cannot always make everything right every time. But I try, when/where possible. What I hope to achieve with this verbose tale of my experience is to bring awareness of the happenings I witnessed in AAD. I call it ‘ the truth’ because I am convinced of what I know about the man and his doings (or not doings). Others may have a different opinion and continue to side with Sovantha. But I sincerely hope that donors will be more prudent with their donations – current donors to review their assistance and new donors to think twice before they make their next donation to AAD.
If you have any experiences or know about AAD, it would be great to share them. Maybe I really got the wrong idea about it (and ‘accused’ the wrong people). But I am truly convinced of ‘my’ truth. Still, I stand corrected.