Teach a Child to Cook

A small not for profit in Cambodia offers a glimpse of what the government should be doing to beat poverty.

“Let me tell you, it hurts. It hurts bad,” says Johnny Phillips, explaining how distressing it can be drawing yet another $1,000 from an already dwindling bank account from an ATM in Phnom Penh.

Phillips is the founder of BuckHunger, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide free food to Cambodian children, while also teaching the requisite skills needed to become employable in the food service industry. Children who attend can learn skills in food preparation, sanitation, and the various other duties and responsibilities that restaurant workers must possess.

More immediately, though, 200 children each day leave BuckHunger’s building every afternoon with their bellies full after a hot and healthy lunch.

It’s a story that has played out in one form or other for centuries: wealthy foreigners swooping into less developed parts of the world to try to save the world’s poor. But there’s a problem here. Phillips isn’t rich, and his organization survives on donations alone. And he says that it’s now getting to the point where he can no longer keep things ticking along off the savings he built up over 40 years as a food service professional, mostly in Oklahoma.

Sadly, BuckHunger isn’t the only NGO in Cambodia struggling to find its feet – as I noted inThe Diplomat a few months ago, the issue of civil society’s role in Cambodia is extremely complicated, and was made more so by a planned law that would force NGOs to register with the government so that Phnom Penh could be kept informed of potential projects.

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The problems is that NGOs get so caught up in pie charts, power point presentations, and financial issues, that they end up donating much less of their energy than they should to the people they are actually supposed to be helping. Back then, I posed the question of how much good some of these bigger charities are actually doing.

Either way, BuckHunger isn’t an NGO, and it isn’t registered with the Cambodian government. But while it isn’t designed to make a profit, its work isn’t sustainable if it continues to bleed cash. The closing of the organization would be a real loss because it tries to do something a little different, namely offering young people some marketable skills, rather than just giving them the usual handouts.

The importance of this was underscored by a raid a few months back on a hostess bar in Phnom Penh that I wrote a story on. Prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, and since the bar owners apparently couldn’t pay off the cops to their satisfaction, the bar had to be shut down. What happened to the girls who worked there? They either went to another bar, returned home or hit the streets without another job.

Setting aside the argument of whether a country should or should not legalize prostitution, surely if a country has already made that decision, then it’s in the government’s interests to try to reintegrate women back into mainstream society by offering them classes and skills. Otherwise we simply end up with a revolving door.

Phillips said that he recently had to close the building’s doors one day for the first time because of a lack of cash. BuckHunger may only reach 200 kids and seniors a day in a nation where 30 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, but the work it does offers a glimpse of what a long term solution to some of Cambodia’s problems might look like.