First person: Tes Sopheat
An MCC partner reflects on his experiences serving rural communities in Cambodia like the one where he was raised.
Sometimes the reason you do things is not only about money, but to serve. Sometimes you just help people.
I became executive director of Organization to Develop our Villages (ODOV) in 2005 after working with MCC since 1995. I’m coming from a poor family so I ask, “How can I use my resources and my capacity to help the poor?”
ODOV’s vision is to see Cambodian people live in a positive environment, which means dignity, good health and peace. We want to improve capacity and empower vulnerable groups and community organizations. We work with the most impoverished families in the community.
When I was young, my father had a job, but he got just a small salary. I worked very hard to help my mother do housework, work in a shop and raise pigs. In the town of Prey Veng we had a river. When I was around 12, I would catch fish there. We needed them to eat. In high school, I worked as a construction worker in addition to going to school.
My father was a very smart man. He taught me English and he speaks French well. Then when I was in high school, I taught people who came here from other countries how to speak and write Khmer. Even then, I thought someday I want to lead an organization. I imagined I could do this.
But in 1993, when I was finished with high school, my family could not afford to send me to the university. I continued teaching Khmer, including to an MCC agricultural technician. I also worked for the United Nations one year.
I became a translator for MCC in 1995 and then a project officer, training farmers in business development in Prey Veng Province.
During that time, I became interested in the community. With MCC staff, I visited farmers from house to house. I learned a lot from MCC staff on how to work with the community people. I learned facilitation skills and how you can communicate with other people.
When I became a program coordinator for MCC in 2000, I needed to learn and research more, but during that time there were very few Khmer books. So I learned a lot by reading English books about community development and by working with MCC staff.
ODOV became a registered Cambodian nongovernmental organization in 2004, and I became executive director a year later. I knew I needed to develop myself in order to have the capacity to lead an organization. I did my bachelor’s degree from 2004 to 2007 by studying on the weekends. I finished my master’s degree in general management in 2010.
Right now ODOV’s main program is food security and vocational training for youth. We try to mobilize all the farmers to work together to solve their own problems through agricultural cooperatives. Right now, the goal of the agricultural cooperatives is to help members obtain resources and get fair prices.
MCC helps ODOV develop proposals for projects funded through MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and MCC helps us develop the capacity to connect with other organizations that can fund our work.
I am happy with the way that MCC and the Foodgrains Bank partner with ODOV to help farmers to help themselves, not just depend on outside support.
ODOV provides them with ideas, and if they are interested, we send our staff to help them start up. The resources — supplies for raising chickens and fish and growing gardens — we never give them free. We require them to pay back the money (to the agricultural cooperatives) so it can be used for others in the community. It’s long-term development.
When I was an MCC staff member, I learned how to motivate farmers to try new activities. Some farmers just say, “I cannot do, I cannot do” because of different reasons. We ask them to start with a little first. They start with a little, they get the benefit, they see the results, and you motivate them to expand.
I encourage my staff to think positive. I tell them, “You have to believe that our strategy can help people to improve their lives. If you believe, then you can motivate someone to believe also.”
When I work with community leaders, I urge them to think about something that is not just money but helping others. Your time, your energy can help a lot of people.
I have a lot of opportunity to work in Phnom Penh, where I would make more money, but I don’t feel good about that. I don’t want to be famous or have a high lifestyle. It’s not my values. I still want to work with the poor and would like to help them improve their quality of life.
Tes Sopheat is executive director of MCC partner Organization to Develop Our Villages (ODOV).