This past week or so we have been working hard at Youth For Peace. We have traveled to Takeo province, which is way more rural than Phnom Penh, to lead workshops. We are also working on creating our own workshop on ‘personal goal development and self esteem.’ Tomorrow we will travel to Battambang province, to give a few different workshops to students as well! For this blog I would like to talk about servant-leadership, a topic we are studying, and how it is relating to my fieldwork with NGO’s. Servant leadership is an idea that was developed by Robert Greenleaf. Simply put, servant leadership is the idea that the best leaders are those who have the natural desire to serve others, and that many of the problems we face would be solved if these sorts of people were put in leadership roles. It has been made very clear to me that this is not the type of leadership that the Cambodian people receive. The people in control of the government are former Khmer Rouge members, many with little to no education; the idea of serving others is not part of what they do. Just one of many examples is how the government will evict people from their homes forcing them to relocate, claiming it is public land even if those people have lived and worked there for decades. The government has put anybody who advocates against this in jail, as they control the judicial system. If you want to learn more about this problem you can youtube ‘land eviction in Cambodia’ and there are a few short documentaries on the subject. Anyway my point is that in Cambodia the leaders are generally not working on behalf of the people, but rather they rape the land and the people for their own self-gain. These sorts of instances are why Greenleaf calls for servant leaders to help solve problems, though he talks more about situations in the U.S. I think it still applies.
Greenleaf also goes into depth about certain qualities that a servant leader should have. Though I cannot change all of Cambodia I think many of the characteristics are necessary for me to work on to be a more effective member of the NGO’s that I am working for. They are characteristics such as acceptance and empathy as well as listening and understanding. These concepts are crucial as they force someone who is a leader to listen to those who are not usually heard and to put their ideas first rather than the leader imposing ideas onto others. Ideas for change should start from the bottom, from the people.
On a small personal scale these are qualities I would like to work on but on a larger scale I have trouble with some of Greenleaf’s ideas. My problem with servant leadership is that he asserts that, “…the future society may be just as mediocre as this one. It may be worse. And no amount of restructuring or changing the system or tearing it down in the hope that something better will grow will change this…if the people to lead it well are not there, a better system will not produce a better society,” (Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, pg. 26). I feel that he relies to much on the hope that only a servant leader would be needed to help a society, because time and time again we have seen how a corrupt system will remain no matter who the leader is. In fact, in the recent protests against the failures to indict officers due to racist acts of police brutality in the U.S. the protesters were not protesting for new leadership instead they were protesting to ‘indict the system.’ This is because many citizens realized that no matter who the police officer is, the system that allows racism to be maintained and get stronger and leads to this violence needs to be destroyed in order to reach equality. Obviously the situation is different in Cambodia but I still believe that changing leaders would go only so far if all of the systems are full of corruption. This idea of making a small change while not fully addressing a larger problem is exactly why many have a problem with the work that NGO’s do. This website (http://www.incite-national.org/page/beyond-non-profit-industrial-complex) talks about some of the reasons why people feel that NGO’s aren’t the best way to handle situations. The article essentially says that those in power can use NGO’s to maintain systems of inequalities. They do this by only funding NGO’s whose mission is not too radical and doesn’t challenge the system too much. The article states that it is a way to, “redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society.” So, in short, some people feel that NGO’s are only a bandaid to a larger problem and in some cases even allowing systems of oppression to be maintained, under the veil of change. While this point may be true about NGO’s I do really believe they do some amazing work in Cambodia. In Cambodia, while I am sure many citizens would like to see a restructuring of some of these corrupt systems, people’s basic needs are not being met. While NGO’s cannot fix everything, they are providing basic services and to people such as free schools or free healthcare when both are supposed to be free and are not. For this reason I think that the work we are doing here is worthwhile.
I would like to also talk about the last dilemma I have been thinking about in relation to NGO’s and Greenleaf’s theories. This other problem with NGO’s is the idea that Greenleaf calls the “immorality of giving.” This phrase sounds very counterintuitive but what he was talking about is the idea that when one nation or organization is giving help to another it creates a divide, those that help and those that need help. Our actions give off the message that says that we have everything to give, and what they have to offer isn’t something that we value or believe is worthy of receiving. His solution to make it more equal by recognizing that other cultures who have traditionally been seen as those needing help have just as much to give to us as we do to them. I think this is true and I have read this article (http://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/) “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex” that further develops his idea. This article asks that instead of merely helping others out of guilt or something, we should join in their fight because it will benefit us as well. So for an example, rather than looking at my work with NGO’s as helping other people, which creates that unequal divide, I instead will be part of Cambodia’s fight to end oppressive systems because that will also help on a global scale to end oppression, thus liberating us all. I think that these above concepts would really help to make an international development program succeed. If you have the idea that you are going to a place to help because you know what is best for those who are receiving the help, and that you cannot gain anything from them, the result that would come from that development program would be that of cultural imperialism.