All posts by Weh Yeoh

Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/wmyeoh) and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.

Five ways I hope to avoid founder’s syndrome on my project

“Oh, so you’re the founder?” the young blonde woman asked coquettishly, as she batted her eyelids and flicked her hair back suggestively.

While only 10% of the above sentence is factual, it’s true that we often view founders of organisations with awe. Everyone remembers the Steve Jobs, the Richard Bransons, the Somaly Mams. We identify with organisations through the person who represents them. This is no surprise, considering that many organisations take on the personality of their founder.

And yet, founder’s syndrome, or founderitis, can be a huge problem if left unchecked. Romanticising the role of founders is hugely dangerous, as supporters tend to gather around the person, not the cause. If a founder falls from grace, people are suddenly less inclined to support their cause, no matter how worthwhile it is.

People were drawn by the founder’s personality, not the cause itself.

I recently launched OIC: The Cambodia Project. OIC aims to bring speech therapy to Cambodia, for the more than 600,000 people who cannot communicate or swallow properly. The absence of speech therapy is the biggest health service gap for people in Cambodia.

As a founder, how do I hope to avoid founderitis? Here are five ways:

1) Starting a project, not an NGO

Cambodia has over 3,500 NGOs. That’s about one for every 10,000 people. Put another way, it has the second highest per-capita number of NGOs, behind Rwanda.

In the field OIC works in, there are at least 11 small Cambodian organisations doing elements of the same work. One of the things I hear our co-founder Brendan Rigby say most often (second to “You are the wind beneath my wings”) is, “Don’t start your own NGO.”

OIC: The Cambodia Project is a project, not an NGO. This means we did not establish an organisation; rather we work with existing partner NGOs, to build upon what they do best. They don’t need another foreigner to come in and start something from scratch.

2) Working with people who disagree with me

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” -Ralph Nader

The easiest thing in the world when starting something is to hire people who agree with everything you say. The more counterintuitive thing, but something far better in the long run, is to hire people who disagree.

The first person to join OIC was Allison Smith, who was charged with the difficult task of telling the story of OIC. Allison’s the best person I know to translate a complicated program into something people can understand, without dumbing it down. She is also someone who’s unafraid to disagree. As irritating as this can be at times, it’s hugely vital to making sure our work is headed in the right direction.

Allison and Weh laughing it up on a dusty road in Siem Reap
Weh and Allison hard at work in Siem Reap. Photo by Anna Bella Betts.

3) Working with people who are better than me

Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players and C players hire D players.

I am not a speech therapist. Therefore, the first person who joined me to volunteer at OIC was Dr. Chyrisse Heine, a dual speech pathologist and audiologist with over 20 years of experience. Chyrisse is, in every sense of the word, an A player (I’d give her an A+++ if possible). An invaluable person to have on the team? Yep. Better than me? Absolutely.

4) Knowing when to get out

Starting OIC has been far and away the most difficult thing I have done, professionally, in my life. Here is an issue that affects 1 in 25 Cambodian people. Thousands of children are unable to go to school because they can’t communicate. Thousands of people are dying because they don’t receive treatment for their swallowing disorders. The enormity of the challenge has taught me a lot about myself.

It takes a certain type of person to look at that situation and decide to do something about it. I’ve realised that it feeds a part of my personality that likes to fight for the underdog. But the kind of person who wants to start something isn’t necessarily the person who should continue it.

If the day comes when OIC’s work would be better off without me, then I will step aside.

5) Making it about the work, not about me

The incredibly wise Daniela Papi coined the term “NGegOs” to describe egos that are masquerading as NGOs. The danger, she says, in focusing on the individual is that we tend to immediately trust individuals who work for social good (whereas we distrust those who work in corporations). When the sh*t hits the fan, as it has done on numerous occasions, often the good work of the organisation falls to pieces.

The reality is that, while people and organisations are fallible, a cause doesn’t have to be.

These are five ways in which I hope to avoid contracting that most deadly of diseases, founderitis. Certain causes gain support through the mysticism and dynamism of the founder. This is an effective avenue through which to attract followers, but it isn’t sustainable. OIC: The Cambodia Project needs to be about what we are trying to achieve, not about me.

OIC: The Cambodia Project launch extravaganza

Come and hear Weh talk about the cause, not himself, at the OIC launch extravaganza in Melbourne on 12 November. Enter BONO4AFRICA to receive a 50% discount – good for the first 20 WhyDev readers!

Featured image is Weh Yeoh and Roum Phearom traveling outside Siem Reap. Photo by Anna Bella Betts Photography.

Disability is not our priority area

An open letter to organisations that don’t fund disability-focused projects.

Dear Funding Body Rep,

Thank you for your reply to our expression of interest. In rejecting our submission, the main reason you gave was, “Disability is not our priority area.” I’d like to explain why it has to be.

There are over one billion people with disabilities in the world.  And in the poor countries where you work, up to 20% of the population has a disability. If you ignore 20% of your target group, you’re not really working to help the most vulnerable.

You say, “Our focus is health. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

Of those with disabilities, 98% do not have access to basic health care services. However, because of complications that arise from disability, and the fact that they’re usually poorer than most, people with disabilities are usually in greater need of health services. Amongst the people that need services the most, they are often the most excluded.

You say, “Our focus is education. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

This is Ouk Ling. He’s a child I met recently who lives outside Siem Reap, a town in the north of Cambodia. From looking at him, most of the people in Ling’s village thought that he was stupid. After receiving a basic health care service, speech therapy, he has been able to show that he isn’t stupid, he just has a communication problem. After some simple therapy, he’s now going to school and has worked his way to become second in his class. Hopefully, one day he will use his education to be a contributing member of society.

Photo credit: Anna Clare Spelman
Ouk Ling with CABDICO Child Rehab Officer Chea Phearom. Photo by: Anna Clare Spelman.

Ling is one of the lucky ones. 90% of children with disabilities will never go to school. If we want to reach universal primary education, Millennium Development Goal Number Two, then we all need to do something about this.

Of course, getting children to school is not enough. We also need them to learn.  Statistics from around the world have shown that funds, controlled by people such as yourself, have helped an enormous number of people. Currently, 84% of adults in the world are literate. This is a great achievement.

However, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities doesn’t make for pretty reading. 97% are non-literate. For women, it’s even worse: 99% of women with disabilities are non-literate.

You say, “Our programs must be gender-inclusive. Disability is not our priority area.” But the two are inextricably linked.

Is your work inclusive of one of the most marginalised groups of women in the world? Women and girls with disabilities face triple discrimination: they’re female, they have a disability, and they’re often poor.

If we really want to improve the lives of the women in this world, let’s start with the ones who are the most vulnerable.

Here’s what one woman had to say about her own experiences:

“I think the outside world does not really understand what the real difficulty is for women with a disability. I repeat again and again, for women with disability, it is really hard to live, so please include us.” 

Josephine Namirimu, from Uganda's Young Voices program.
Josephine Namirimu, from Uganda’s Young Voices program.

Would you be comfortable telling this woman, “Disability is not our priority area?”

There is a wealth of information out there on how to better include people with disabilities in development and healthcare programs. This is not to say that including them in mainstream programs is the panacea. We also need resources to do disability-specific work.

However, it’s not a lack of resources that’s the problem. It’s the will. There are over 1 billion people in the world who must become our priority.

Yours sincerely,

Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder, WhyDev