In Cambodia, Students Learn They Don’t Have All the Answers

Americans working to solve problems in foreign locales have to be careful that they don’t unwittingly impose ineffective solutions onto the situation.

That’s what three University of Virginia undergraduates – rising third-year student Amber Bouchard and rising fourth-year Grace Muth, both in the Global Development Studies Program, and rising second-year Emily Ewing – learned while taking part in a three-week trip to Cambodia this past June to work with the Centre d’Etude et de Developpment Agricole Cambodgien (Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture), a non-governmental organization that promotes rural and agricultural development.

Advised – but not accompanied – by David Edmunds, a lecturer in the Global Development Studies program, and funded by a Jefferson Public Citizens grant, the trio worked on several projects that sought to promote farmer-led innovation in rural areas of Cambodia.

The Phnom Penh-based organization’s approach to agricultural development is to support and augment farmer-generated solutions to technical and social problems that are specific to the areas in which they live. Edmunds, who studies local innovation practices, said that CEDAC’s approach stands in stark contrast to the strategies adopted by other agencies, which often try to impose lab- or field-test-generated solutions to local problems.

“Some of these [lab-generated] solutions work alright, but many of them don’t because they aren’t appropriate for the local environment,” he said. “CEDAC says, ‘Let’s see what farmers themselves are doing to solve these issues and see if we can enhance them in some way.’”

June’s trip continues a relationship between the University and CEDAC that Edmunds has worked to develop for about two years, including leading a trip with two students last summer.

Muth said that the students didn’t embark with specific goals as to what they wanted to accomplish, but rather an intent to allow CEDAC to utilize their perspective and experience to improve the organization.

“[CEDAC] thought that we, as outsiders, might have fresh ideas and new ways of looking at the work that they have been doing and their plans for the future,” she said. “Our whole mentality was, ‘We are here to serve you in whatever capacity you think is necessary.’”

The students ended up working with CEDAC on a variety of projects. They sat in on meetings of different national networks, taking notes through an interpreter. Bouchard said the goal was to see how decisions and constraints formulated on a national level translated to the local level for farmers.

The students also helped test a soil amendment called Biochar. Produced by burning agricultural waste, Biochar may improve soil quality for agricultural uses and has been proposed as a method of climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration. The students gathered data collected by Cambodian university students in collaboration with CEDAC, and plan to compile the results into a study. If the study proves successful, CEDAC plans to incorporate Biochar into training sessions that they host for local farmers.

The students also interviewed farmers about their personal experiences and difficulties, and compiled these interviews into reports that CEDAC can use to address more widespread issues.

“The people higher up in the organization don’t have time to go talk to every organic farmer,” Bouchard said. “Trying to give an idea of what’s happening down low on the totem pole to the people making decisions could potentially contribute to more democratic processes.”

Though the students agree that their academic experience at the University was helpful, Bouchard said that over time, they learned the importance of abandoning preconceptions.

“You can build a lot more trust with the community you are trying to help if you don’t decide what is good for them,” Bouchard said.

Edmunds said he tries to teach all of his students this collaborative approach to global development studies. Often development work by outsiders – such as the students – will be more helpful if they don’t elevate their own ideas and plans over the needs of community partners like CEDAC.

“We’re trying to get students to be humbler in what they think that they can contribute,” he said. “The idea is not to generate questions here in Charlottesville, not to try to do all analysis and research here, but make it a more iterative and collaborative process.”

Edmunds sees the recent trip as a “relationship-building” encounter between the University and CEDAC, and hopes to send another group of students to Cambodia in the coming year to continue working with the organization.