Tag Archives: Community development

A history and future of WhyDev

There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mae Sot. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge can be reached by following the AH1 for just a few kilometres west. A short bicycle ride, as trucks and lorries kick up dirt and dust, brings you to what is typical of any border town; markets full of electronics, home-wares and food. The bridge links two countries that couldn’t be more different, yet are seemingly forever linked by the presence in Thailand of over 500,000 refugees from Myanmar.

Durable solutions for refugees who have been living in camps for more than two decades is as seemingly out of reach, even as a political transition across the border opens the door to expanded operations from international aid, trade and diplomatic sectors. A question posed by Brookings last year asks, “whether the outpouring of foreign aid to Myanmar expected in the medium term (three to five years) will be more of a blessing than a curse”. It is a question that any student or professional in the humanitarian sector should seriously be considering. 

What makes Mae Sot remarkable for me personally is WhyDev. I spent a few weeks in the first quarter of 2010 in the town, having returned from India on an internship with the Centre for Refugee Research. My partner was researching education and language policy in the refugee camps with the same organisation, and I was visiting. We were both in the middle of completing our Masters in development studies at the University of NSW. I spent much of my time in Mae Sot either eating Burmese tea leaf salad or drinking tea at a cafe with free WiFi.

I had experimented in unsuccessful travel blogging while moving through India in 2009; unsuccessful in the sense that only mum read my posts. I started to study and read the aid and development blogging scene, or blogosphere, while in Mae Sot. (People were still using the term ‘blogosphere’ back then). We are spoilt for choice in writers, voices and platforms today, but this was not so in 2010.

J’s, of Tales from the Hood, first post was only in April 2009, Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters in June 2010 and Duncan Green in 2008. There was a lack of young voices questioning, discussing and debating what we were being exposed to in development theory seminars or right-based approaches to programming. So, I registered the domain name, thewhyofdevelopment.com.

WhyDev plans world domination. Credit: Beth Rosen

The rest is far from history. We had our Facebook moment. Mike Clay, friend of the site, suggested that we drop ‘the’ and shorten to ‘WhyDev’. (Thanks Mike!). I reached out to eight other Masters students at UNSW and friends to collaborate. We met at a cafe in the suburb of Glebe, Sydney. Four years, and 400 posts later, WhyDev is on the front lines of questioning everything we hold dear in global development.

One particular person stuck around after that meeting in Glebe. Weh Yeoh has been the other half of WhyDev since its inception, bringing new meaning to the concept of ‘bromance‘. He shares a spirit of critical inquiry, grounded in empathy and compassion. Together, with Allison, Daniel and Laurie, we are planning for the future of WhyDev. A future built on the foundations of an incredible community of engaged humanitarians, where the needs and strengths of those on the margins are prioritised. We are committed to getting development right.

Brendan, Huy and Weh
Brendan, Huy and Weh

This starts with Weh’s current work at CABDICO, a Cambodian NGO dedicated to supporting and empowering people with disabilities. Community development in action. He was recently featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighting the economic and moral argument for speech therapy for 600,000 people in Cambodia. On the back of it, they are also running a crowdfunding campaign that you must support within the next three weeks.

This is the future of global development; in particular, how humanitarian and development professionals work, support and empower individuals and communities. It is about focusing on the equitable distribution of knowledge, resources and capital within global development; moving from saviours to savoir-faire, top-down to bottom-led, duplication to replication, global development to why development?


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Valuing choice in education

What American holidays or festivals do you know?

american holidays

Believe it or not, this is taught in Cambodia.

The fascination with the Western world means that teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Cambodia is modeled on Western paradigms. This approach tends to take three forms.

First, the content draws heavily on Western lifestyles. Learners talk about their foreign vacations in Mexico, ordering food at drive through and booking train trips. Yet Cambodia has no trains, no drive-throughs and is not anywhere near Mexico.

Second, this approach is premised on the idea that the learners will be receptive to Western methods of teaching. It presupposes background knowledge amongst students which most here do not possess.

Lastly, English tends to be taught as a subject to master rather than as a means to communicate. The combined effect of this approach is to dictate irrelevant content rather than considering the students’ choices whilst at the same time imposing an arbitrary ‘gold standard.’

As with all development work, education can reflect bottom-up or top-down thinking. We believe that development organisations should include, value and act upon the needs and desires of those involved. Development cannot succeed without giving individuals the freedom to make their own choices regarding how they want their lives to change. This freedom is both a means and an end to development.

With this background in mind, we chose to engage students in the process of developing their own curriculum. This way we were able to recognize their choices regarding what they wanted to learn. We found out that they were eager to share their traditions and uphold their cultural identity. So the curriculum we developed drew upon on that by incorporating Khmer food, celebrities, travel destinations and ceremonies. This results in a cross-cultural dialogue between our students and their teachers, who come from across the world.

When a curriculum reflects the realities of Cambodian life, students are engaged and are motivated to talk about their culture in English.  This is effective not only in motivating students to speak and practice English, but also to promote a balanced exchange of ideas.

cambodian meat

In addition we use a transversal approach when selecting the topics for the different levels. This means students study the same topics across levels enabling them to share ideas with other students outside of class. This makes English a real-life communication tool. It empowers our students to become independent and confident users of English, which is essential given that the majority of their interactions using English will be with other non-native speakers. (See Seidelhoffer 2005.) In the context of regional integration, where English is the sole language of ASEAN and set to become the region’s language of the workplace by 2015, this is vital.

Addressing the challenge of teaching English in the development context is complicated.  We have to balance successful teaching, empowering and responding to learners and also avoid giving undue weight to the Western content. Key is rejecting the unnecessary ‘golden’ standard prevalent in English teaching today. The standard not only values knowledge of the West above host cultures, but also demands learners master a Western ideal of English.

Instead, we’d like to see the field recognize the primary value of English as being a communication tool for everyone. By tailoring our teaching to match student choices, we begin to achieve this.

David Picart and Eleanor Paton work with Conversations with Foreigners in Cambodia as Education Services Manager and Volunteer Recruitment and Marketing respectively. They can be contacted on Twitter @david_cambodia and@eleanorpea. More information on Conversations with Foreigners can be found at www.volunteerincambodia.org.