Conversations with Foreigners

February 21, 2009 at 6:34 pm 20 comments

EDIT
June 9, 2010

I’ve noticed that this page still comes up when someone searches for CWF and I wanted to add that in retrospect, my memories of volunteering with CWF are very positive. Since my time with them, they have updated their webpage to include more accurate information about where the money that volunteers pay towards the house may also go: “This fee also covers the costs of running the volunteer program and improvements to the house. If there are less volunteers than expected, you won’t have to pay more, and if there are more volunteers than expected, the extra money will be added to the money raised by the school.” They have also purchased a computer with internet access for the volunteer house, which is pretty awesome!

——

I’m officially free although i’m still in the house. On Monday i’ll transfer myself and belongs to a guest house although i have still to find one. I have gone back and force in my decision to discuss the school and i have decided that i will just provide a summary.

If you are a potential volunteer at Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia feel free to reply to this message and i can clarify further on my experiences with them.


Conversations with Foreigners sounds like a perfect project. An English school run by locals, providing inexpensive lessons to young adults, and using the profits to develop the Cambodian countryside. CWF was founded in 2006 by a graduate of the progressive Maharishi Vedic University, the only rural university in Cambodia. Several years earlier, other graduates of the university founded the Cambodian Rural Development Team in an effort to develop the countryside which is largely ignored by government and public policy. Unlike most NGOs in Cambodia that rely on foreign expertise, CRDT hopes to bring Khmer experts to work directly with their countrymen. The intended purpose of CWF at the time of its inception was to generate funds for CRDT.

CWF works on the premise that its teachers are volunteers and work for free. Since 2006, it has had 10 groups of volunteers from all over the world (although Australia is home to the majority). Unlike many other projects that seek international volunteers, CWF does not require its volunteers to contribute financially (meaning pay to volunteer). Out of the 14 volunteers in group 10, at least half had chosen it for this reason alone.

Volunteers may choose to live on their own or in the volunteer house provided by CWF. The cost of living in the house is $850, which the website and CWF staff confirmed many times over goes towards living expenses. My group of volunteers is the first group to pay $850; the living costs for previous semesters were only $650. The 23.5% rise in price is attributed to inflation and rising costs.

Upon arrival, volunteers are greeted by the volunteer coordinator, Sopheap, who will remain a source of support to volunteers throughout their stay in Cambodia, even after they’re done volunteering. Teaching at CWF is highly enjoyable. The students are enthusiastic and appreciative. Teaching is informal and the relative closeness of age of students to teacher allows volunteers to better understand Cambodian culture.

However not everything is so rosy about CWF. When we requested to see the financial data we discovered that the fees collected from volunteers living in the house were viewed as profits and combined with the earnings generated from students. After much anxiety and several meetings, the management confirmed that volunteer money is used to pay staff salaries, marketing costs, and a “buffer” in case of a rise in food and rent costs during future semesters. So despite having nearly $50,000 in savings after 2.5 years of running, the management considers it appropriate to allocate volunteer money for the running costs of the school.

Putting the burden of these administrative costs on volunteers (who live in the house) without our knowledge and consent is deceitful. And yet, CWF refuses to acknowledge misrepresenting or taking advantage of us.

Volunteer 1: “Has CWF done anything wrong?”
Director: “Me personally, I don’t believe so.”
Volunteer 2: “Did the $850 go towards living in the house?”
Director: “Yes but it was spent towards other things too…”

Some of the volunteers, feeling betrayed and exploited, requested a refund for money that was not directly spent on them. They calculated that over $300 had been taken under false pretenses. But the board of directors rejected the plea for a refund. Instead they have decided to allocate the money left over towards “capital investments” in the volunteer house. Surely we should feel honored that CWF is going to make such a charitable contribution on our behalf? Here we are: living two to a room, without air-conditioning, hot water, a microwave, and study tables; shouldn’t we feel satisfaction knowing that future volunteers will have some of these things because of our (involuntary) contribution?

The goals of CWF are admirable and maybe one day it will live up to them. Volunteering with CWF has been bittersweet. I loved teaching and my students surely benefited from the lessons i provided them. In some ways, the management of CWF is even like a family. But I leave CWF feeling exploited and dissolutioned. On their website, they write of their commitment to sustainability and in my personal exchanges with the staff they often spoke of their desire for transparency and integrity in business. But what of it?

Advertisements

Entry filed under: travel. Tags: , , , , , .

February 18, 2009 waking up from hybernation

20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Teachingchris  |  February 22, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Sounds like par for the course! Minor misappropriation, actually…though that isn’t comforting to you, perhaps. You really see the dark side of “charity” when you live in a third world country, eh? Do some digging on World Vision, for example – how much of that $25.00 actually makes it to the child you’ve sponsored. Well, no one knows – because World Vision Canada (or USA, or wherever) gives a portion to World Vision International, who sends it to World Vision Cambodia…who have no publicly accessible financial records. All we do know is that WV Canada and International take a nice chunk of the $25 for marketing and advertising. Sick.

    Reply
  • 2. Yelena Shuster  |  February 24, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I know, it’s minor. And i still believe that the organization’s effect is quite good. The students really enjoyed the ability to interact with foreigners and the volunteers really enjoyed interacting with the students. I just wish the management had more interest in integrity.

    Reply
  • 3. greg  |  March 2, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Yelena,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the experience with CWF. I personally never really felt exploited with the housing situation. I also didn’t look into the books though. But I found that they were upfront with everything the told us the costs and what we would be getting, we also had the option to live on our own, and I think I saved money living and eating at the house, and I personally thought it was a god experience. Oh by the way your group wasn’t the first to pay $850 for housing my group also paid $850 (I thought we were the first).

    Another thing to consider is the cost of housing changes from semmester to semmester. I was heard that one semmester there was only a few volunteers living in the house and they actualy lost money on the housing. Now that CWF is more established they probably won’t have to worry about losing money on housing, and they should use any future surpluses into providing things for the volunteers.

    I think it is a good thing that you brought it up to them. Maybe it will change how things are done in the future.

    Reply
  • 4. Yelena Shuster  |  March 2, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    thanks for the reply Greg.
    I forwarded a copy to Sambo. I don’t want to bring CWF down but i want to make them more accountable and sensitive to the needs of volunteers.

    Reply
  • 5. Geordie  |  March 4, 2009 at 8:09 am

    Hi Yelena

    As the co-founder of CWF, it hurts to read about your experience. After putting three years (I returned to Australia last September) seeing it through from an idea and no money to the bussling school it is today, I never imagined that volunteers would see it all in such negative light. I’m sorry that the organisation I helped to create was a bittersweet experience for you. For a long time before CWF, I was a disgruntled volunteer cynical about aid and development – and I feel strange that I’m now experiencing being on the other side having to defend an organisation that I believe was founded on integrity and trust.

    Your main point is correct in that the website (which I wrote most of and still update in my informal advisory role) doesn’t tell volunteers that if they stay in the house, their money will help cover the cost of the entire volunteer program (including website, marketing, wages etc) and not just cover food and accommodation. This was never meant as a deception – it has simply never been an issue raised. The biggest sadness for me was that you didn’t feel that it was your organisation that you were part of that you could help to improve by making changes.

    Regardless of whether volunteer fees help to cover wider costs or not, or what level the fee is, there will always be a difference – shortfall or money left over – in running the volunteer program. Again, you are right that it needs to be clearly stated on the website that if there is money left over (profit) it will be used to buy things for the house or donated to CRDT. But again, this has never been an issue raised. The overwhelming input from volunteers has been that it is very cheap living and that they would not want any money from the school to be used to cover volunteer costs. There is also the complication of what period of time should be covered when thinking about breaking even – one semester, one year, or even longer? In the early stages we were making losses because there were only a few volunteers but rent still needed to be paid – so should that be considered?

    As I said, the main sadness is that instead of this being an opportunity to improve the organisation, the entire integrity of the organisation is questioned. This will mean people may chose not to come to CWF and may be more cynical about the world in general! Ironically, my goal for CWF to be fully managed and goverened by Cambodians instead of by foreigners (as much of the sector is) may have contributed to volunteers not trusting the organisation because there may be differences in communication (ie when there is an issue raised) and in not understanding the motivation of volunteers (obviously no matter how experienced and professional a Cambodian Board of Directors is, they can never put themselves in the shoes of a foreign volunteer in Cambodia).

    Would you consider giving your ideas? What changes would you recommend? Do you think it is mainly about informing people better or do you think there is a problem with volunteer fees covering wider costs? If so, why? Would you give any money left over back to volunteers each semester? Would you reduce the fee so that it is less likely money will be left over? If so, how many volunteers would you budget for and what would you then do if there was a shortfall? How would you account for things like new furniture (eg fridge) and equipment for the house? Would you be available to draft any changes to the website? How could the issue have been handled better? How else could CWF improve their transparency?

    I feel bad for you and I would personally like to offer you a full refund of your $850 as some compensation for your negative experience. The whole idea is for people to enjoy their experience while raising money for rural communities – not feeling like they were ripped off by the organisation they are not only a part of, but in which they play the vital role in. I love CWF and all the people in it’s growing community and it hurts for the integrity of CWF to be questioned. Please let me know and I can transfer the money to you.

    Cheers

    Geordie Smith
    Co-founder, Coversations With Foreigners (CWF)
    geordiesmith@gmail.com

    Reply
  • 6. Yelena Shuster  |  March 5, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Geordie,

    CWF took funds under one pretext and spent them on another. This is called deception.

    Despite this obvious incongruity (even you admit that the website misrepresented volunteers) CWF has never admitted wrongdoing.

    Do you know the meaning of accountability?

    As regards the volunteer fee, i recommend two possible options:

    1. Alter the text on your website
    2. Keep the $850 figure and return the left-overs back to the volunteers to choose whether they want to donate them towards CRDT or the volunteer house or neither.

    I’m sort of amused that you question my feelings for CWF when i’ve spent 3 months of my life trying to be a really good teacher for their students. About the refund, does this offer apply to other dissatisfied volunteers? Two weeks ago, returning part of the fee could have help alleviate the betrayal many volunteers felt.

    Yelena

    Reply
  • 7. Geordie  |  March 5, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Hi Yelena

    Thanks for your reply.

    Deception:

    I now see that the website doesn’t give enough information (and Sambo has said it will be changed because the issue has been raised), but I don’t think saying that the money “covers accommodation and meals” amounts to deception if the money covers accommodation and meals but also goes towards other costs of the volunteer program or donates any extra money to the same cause as CWF was set up to raise money for. I see you don’t believe me, but the issue had never been raised, and CWF certainly never tried to hide anything deliberately. Why would they? But, let’s let your readers decide! (I’ve included the entire section from the website below).

    From CWF website: [Cost: There is no cost for volunteering at the school. If you choose to live in the volunteer house, it will cost US$850 (payable on arrival), which covers accommodation and meals (except on school holidays) for three months.]

    I think it’s also worth noting a couple of points to your readers to judge whether CWF is “deceiving” or “exploiting” volunteers (bearing in mind that the website will be changed). Firstly, that there is an option to volunteer at the school without paying anything by living independently of the share-house. Secondly, the cost of living in Phnom Penh (including rent, bond, set-up costs, food, bills, travel etc) for three months in Phnom Penh is likely to be far in excess of $850. A large part of our motivation for CWF was so volunteers didn’t have to pay thousands of dollars to an organisation based overseas to get the same experience as applying directly over the web.

    Accountability:

    I’m not sure why you ask me this. I just googled it! (accountability: “to be responsible to someone or for some activity”). I wish I could express how hard Sambo and I and the team worked to make the organisation a place that volunteers love and trust, and how disappointed and sorry I am that you feel betrayed and exploited instead.
    I know the CWF Board is currently getting the first professional independent audit of the finances done. In terms of transparency, I now see that more information is needed on the website. If there are other ways of being more transparent and accountable to stakeholders (volunteers, students, CRDT, rural communities, Government), it would be great to get more suggestions.

    Suggestions:

    Thanks for your suggestions. You don’t address the question of what should be covered in the $850 or how to account for any left-overs (ie what period of time is taken), but perhaps it’s better to leave it as I was naive to think this was a place to discuss improvements, especially given that neither of us are in a position to make changes anyway!

    Questioning your feelings for CWF:

    I’m not questioning that those are your feelings or that they are somehow wrong feelings – I’m just sad that your experience with the organisation I helped create resulted in such feelings (“I leave CWF feeling exploited and dissolutioned”), and I’m also sad that the entire integrity of CWF is being questioned (“what of it? (integrity)”) and wanted to give your readers another insight into CWF. I certainly don’t question your commitment and admire that you continued your efforts for you students despite not being happy with other things.

    Refund:

    As I can’t afford it at the moment (I will give you the money, not CWF), I can’t offer money to other volunteers at this time (your blog is the first communication from a volunteer that I have seen).

    Again, thanks for your reply and willingness to have a discussion. Good luck and I hope your future journeys and experiences are more positive.

    Cheers

    Geordie

    Reply
  • 8. Leah  |  March 6, 2009 at 7:02 am

    I also was a volunteer in this group. I made the decision when I boarded the plane home to try and leave behind the disappointment and anxiety I experienced trying to help CWF make the necessary improvements regarding the accommodation charge issue. This is my first communication since leaving Cambodia and it is difficult for me –I truly believe this issue could have been sorted out quickly and efficiently to the benefit of all parties: Leaving CWF with an improvement, and the volunteers feeling fairly done by and able to focus on the amazing experience of being teacher to such wonderful students. After 5 meetings over 3 weeks with CWF specifically discussing this issue, volunteers putting suggestion/solutions forward and repeated discussions just like the one in this blog. I came to the realization that no matter how much energy and time was expended, and how high I got my hopes each meeting that this could be resolved for the benefit of all– I felt that CWF were really not listening. In the final meeting the Operations manager fully acknowledged the issue at hand and agreed that the information on the site was not representative. Yet no solution was actioned.

    Unlike many other projects that seek international volunteers, CWF does not require its volunteers to contribute financially (meaning pay to volunteer). Out of the 14 volunteers in group 10, at least half had chosen it for this reason alone. (Yelena)

    I was one of these volunteers. This is the first check on my criteria when volunteering. It is paramount.

    The biggest sadness for me was that you didn’t feel that it was your organisation that you were part of that you could help to improve by making changes. (Geordie)

    Geordie, this is well put, and is my feeling also. I was actually told word for word that “it is none of your business” by a western staff member of the partner TEFL organisation in the final meeting. He proceeded to become aggressive and even after the meeting he verbally intimidated me. This was witnessed by other people. I felt very upset and intimidated and certainly like an outsider to an organisation I became so passionate about over my 3 months in Cambodia. I cannot describe my disappointment and hurt. This was the point for me that I needed to move on. No matter how many meetings, explanations, solutions being put forward. No action was being taken. And we were told it was not our place to comment anyway.

    ..not feeling like they were ripped off by the organisation they are not only a part of, but in which they play the vital role in. (Geordie)

    yes, we gave 3 months of out time, and the teaching was truly rewarding. I still enjoy hearing from my students and how they are doing. And really the issue at hand should not have become such a big issue if it were seen to immediately. The questioning of integrity etc..was never an issue bought up in any of the meetings – I believe this is so because, like in many organisations, when an error is made, and everyone agrees that there has been an error – it is expected to be rectified immediately. CWF acknowledged the error but offered no rectification. This is the issue. It should be rectified. My recommendation has always been that 1) Changes need to be made to the website to ensure this error does not repeat itself. And 2) the situation is financially rectified with affected volunteers.

    These words I have typed – I feel I have put forward a million times, all to ears that have not listened. I am tired, and very saddened by this. To come back and revisit this issue after I felt I had moved on is not ideal. But reading the above I feel it is necessary and the right thing to do.

    Ok! Enough is enough:) Wishing you all the best. Leah

    Reply
  • 9. Bertha Dawang  |  March 13, 2009 at 1:02 am

    My husband and I were volunteers in Yelena’s group. Being the director, myself, of a non-profit project in Montreal, I was surprised when the financial statement was requested by some volunteers and there was some indignation on the part of the administration.
    The financial records presented (3 different times) varied each time they were presented. It was explained that one was predictions, another was ?, etc. There should have been accurate financial records from the first year on. I was amazed that only in the near future was an audit to be made! Did not the board of directors demand accountability? It was acknowledged by Sambo (where was the financial officer of CWF?) that the records for the school and the volunteer house should be kept separate. That was the only admission made by Sambo.
    Being a professional educator and a director of a non-profit project, answerable to a board of directors and professionally audited from day one, I had many questions for Sambo. I was terribly upset that he had listed a $200.00 payment annually to the president of the Board of Directors of a non-profit project and that there was a surplus of funds in relation to the expenses of the house, which was considered by him to be a “voluntary donation”. Our definitions of “voluntary” did not jibe. It should be remembered that the volunteers that lived independently did not make such a “voluntary” donation. The $200.00 payment was later removed. I do not remember his reason for this.
    On at least 3 occasions I apologized to Sambo for my behaviour. I made the mistake of treating Sambo as a professional and finally realized that he was a business man and I had overestimated his skills and training as a director. At a meeting of all the volunteers, Sambo could not admit that an error had been made. The web stated that the $850.00 covered the living expenses in the house- this was not accurate. An error had definitely been made. The honourable solution should have been the offer of a refund and the admission of an error. I stated this at a meeting of volunteers- I and my husband would then have made the donation to CWF. The issue here is the integrity, visibility, accountability, and professionalism of the administration. It would also have been helpful if a member of the board of directors had been there to answer to the decision of not offering refunds, since Sambo said that they were the ones to make the decision.
    The issue was never the money. It was the principle of the matter. The volunteers, on which the project depended, were not shown the respect they deserved. Many were disappointed by this. They were also disappointed that the goal of the conversation classes was not quality and being so professional, they were frustrated by this statement.
    The teaching part of CWF was wonderful! This is an excellent project and I stated this publicly at the volunteers’ party. We are very happy that we contributed 3 months of our lives to such an admirable cause. I am communicating with many of my students and wish I could help them more. A few of them would like to come to Canada to study. However, financially this is not possible. Unfortunately, the quality of their university education also excludes them from scholarship awards for further study. Sambo is a prime example of this. He would find even our undergraduate programs an unaccustomed challenge..
    I have been an educator for over 50 years. In my judgement, the group of volunteers who asked the questions were a bunch of mature, intelligent, professional individuals. I have explained to Sambo that these individuals have been educated by western standards to ask questions and that henceforth if he accepts only naive, innocent, immature non professional individuals, he will avoid being questioned re the administration of CWF.

    Reply
    • 10. Graham Godden  |  June 25, 2010 at 9:54 am

      Bertha,
      My wife and I have signed up with CWF in Phnom Penh for this November. As we are both in our 60’s it would be good to talk to people of a similar generation about their experiences. Would it be possible to email you?

      Thanks,

      Graham Godden

      Reply
      • 11. Angela Wiseman  |  June 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm

        Graham How was your experience? I’m in my 60s, recently retired and very attracted to this project. I’d appreciate any advice you can give.

  • 12. Tobey  |  October 17, 2009 at 8:30 am

    But, putting aside the administrative and monetary issues, was the experience worthwhile and rewarding? I’m trying to decide to go.

    Reply
  • 13. Yelena Shuster  |  October 17, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Hi Tobey,
    Yes, it was rewarding and worthwhile.

    Reply
  • 14. Andrew  |  June 15, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Hello,

    Just came across your blog, and thought I’d add some of my experiences to it. I taught almost a semester during 2009 at CWF, will elaborate more on the “almost” part later on. During the semester I was there, there were 4 of us there who were expats based in phnom penh. We had our own accomodation, and hence no need to stay at the volunteer house. In my case, I’m also married, and need more personal and living space than what the volunteer house provides.

    You mention you were charged $850 for accomodation; I’m assuming this was over the 3-month period, and included meals (for what they were worth)? The management actually gouges its volunteers more with this sum than the volunteers themselves realize. To give you guys some idea, I’ll give you a rough breakdown of my wife & I’s living expenses. At the time, we were living in a 2-bedroom flat, with aircon and hot showers, near the roundabout at Psar Dum Tgau, about a 5min walk from the old CWF location. For that, we were paying $120/month in rent, $3/month for satellite TV with 82 channels, and utilities (including unlimited broadband internet) came to about $70 a month.

    These days, I’m currently back in australia for a good part of this year, and the missus feels she has no need of such a large place. So we’re currently in a studio about halfway between Psar Toul Tompoung and Sovanna Mall, behind the American Intercon school. The place is up on the 3rd floor, with no previous tenants. When we moved in, there was no hot water available, but $80 bought a decent shower system and the landlord installed it for us at no cost (granted, it probably improved the value of his property somewhat). No aircon here, but with 2 ceiling fans and a pair of freestanding fans of our own, large windows on 2 sides and some good ventilation, don’t really need aircon in most cases anyways. And for this, we’re paying $45 a month in rent, $3 a month for the satellite TV, and about $50 a month for utilities (including unlimited internet). cooking ourselves, food costs under $10 a day for 2 ppl, eating comfortably with a good variety in our diets, from all the major food groups. If you were to eat in local markets, you could easily get by on around $5 a day. From the few times I’d been invited over to the volunteer house for meals, I’d have to say that the food in the markets is better. So total expense for independent living in the vicinity of CWF comes to … about $250-300 a month for singles, or $400-500 for a couple sharing.

    Another point of contention that came up for me was Sambo’s lack of management skills: in particular, his inability to deal with unpaid volunteers, as opposed to paid staff. Using my situation as an example: I was able to volunteer my time teaching at cwf because I was, at the time, doing legal consulting work for a major electronics company based overseas. However, this meant that my paid work had to come first, since that job was paying my bills, and hence, allowing me the opportunity to teach at cwf. About 2 months in, I was called overseas to consult for an upcoming merger, and needed to take 2 days off from teaching. Another of the teachers (well, 3 in fact) had offered to cover my classes for those days. When we (myself plus the teachers who’d offered to cover my classes) approachd Sambo to let him know, his response to me was: “You have to teach next week. If you’re not here, you don’t need to come back at all.” Fine. So that was the ultimatum I was offered. Forced to choose between a well-paid job with 3 years left to run on my contract, and a volunteer position under a manager with very poor social and organizational skills, I made the obvious choice. I informed my students that I would no longer be able to teach them, and of course, that led to the inevitable questions about why. In my defense, thses discussions with the students took place AFTER my classes had ended. Sambo barged in during one of these, and swore at me in khmer in front of my students (and yes, I DO understand enough khmer to khnow what was said. My wife is Cambodian, and I’ve been based in cambodia for several years for work.)

    As an aside, I DO support the idea of providing low-cost or free english language training to low-income khmers who may not be able to otherwise afford lessons; however, it’s more with the way CWF is run, and in particular, the management staff in direct day-to-day contact with students and volunteers, that brings CWf much of the negative feedback that it receives. After I returned from my trip overseas the following week, some of my previous students approached me asking whether I would consider teaching them a little longer. We eventually set up an agreement where I would give them a 2-hour lesson 3 times a week, using a combination of CWF teaching materials and some of my own. We conducted these lessons in the home of one of the students who lived nearby, and these sessions were fairly well-attended until the current semester at cwf ended, and my work commitments forced me to go overseas for an extended period.

    The experience itself? The teaching part was rewarding, and the students were lovely to teach. But by the end of it, the administration had become such a pain to deal with that it became easier to deal directly with the students. The one beacon of light in all this was Sopheap. Pheap, if you’re reading this, thankyou for supporting the volunteers, and taking our side against the administration. If not for Pheap, I suspect many more of the volunteers would have felt bitter or at least upset about their experience with CWF.

    Graham: message me if you still want to get more feedback. One of the expats in my group was around your age, and from our chats, his experience was similar to mine, ie. a very rewarding teaching experience, but constant headaches dealing with Sambo.

    As a final note, I would like to mention that the comments attributed to my name in the CWF blog in regards to feedback on the CamTEFL course and teaching at CWF, are not the original comments I wrote. They have been edited (by who, I don’t know) to make my commens much more positive about the whole experience than had been intended, and all contructive criticisms were removed. the moral: don’t believe everything you read, especially when it comes to feedback on the “official” blog … dissapointed. In some places, that’d be misleading advertising. And when it is a factor in generating income for the organization, then perhaps it should constitute fraud?

    My 2 cents,
    Andrew.

    Reply
    • 15. sars  |  September 16, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      For what it’s worth, I lived in Phnom Penh for 1.5 years and was ultimately living off of $400 a month as a single person. I ate at the market a few times a week, cooked most of my other meals at home, had all of my lunches comped by my work, rarely drank, avoided the club scene like the plague, had an unusually cheap living situation for a foreigner, and thus was able to live a very frugal life. I certainly wasn’t able to live this cheaply when I first arrived in the country as I hadn’t yet discovered the good street food and didn’t know how to avoid foreigner pricing.

      Most of the people I know who live near CWF spend $150-$250/month in rent. Toul Tom Poung, the neighborhood where CWF is located, is becoming increasingly popular with foreigners, so rent is going up. Obviously, the farther afield you get, the less you will pay, but that comes with its disadvantages. I don’t think I know of any foreigner who is able to spend as little as $250-300 per month and also have any sort of a social life. Maybe that is what you would spend on the bare essentials, but that’s it.

      You didn’t mention how much you paid to run that aircon and hot water. Power is expensive in Cambodia.

      Ultimately, the volunteer house is $850 for 3 months, or $283 per month. If you want to live with other volunteers, have all of your meals cooked for you, and don’t want to deal with the hassles of living alone in a foreign country, it’s a great place. I can personally attest to this. I lived there for 3 months myself. If $850 seems steep to you and you think you can do better (very difficult to do if you’re new to Cambodia!) then great, live somewhere else. One of the great things about CWF is that you don’t HAVE to live at the volunteer house if you don’t want to. The staff will even help you find your own apartment!

      I had a great experience at CWF, as did many, many other volunteers that I met along the way. I enjoyed working with the entire staff and find it very hard to believe that Sambo would barge in anywhere and swear at anyone. To be honest, it’s kind of a funny mental image. I guess anything’s possible, but it leaves me to wonder…was there another side to the story?

      Reply
  • 16. sars  |  September 17, 2011 at 12:18 am

    I would like to add that I would almost assume that the rent CWF pays for the volunteer house is on the high side because THEY TOO are getting the dreaded foreigner pricing from the landlords. It’s a house that is inhabited by as many as 14 westerners at a time. Do you honestly think that the landlord would charge them normal Khmer prices?

    Reply
  • 17. Andrew  |  September 18, 2011 at 10:18 am

    sars: if you’re curious as to the other side of the story, ask sambo for his take on it … as for the “dreaded foreigner pricing”, yet to experience that in phnom penh … have been maintaining a flat in PP for close to 5 years now, prices haven’t gone up much over that time, and remains much cheaper to keep paying rent for a place to store my gear even when i’m out of the country for up to 6 months a year …

    however, each to their own i suppose … as long as you’re happy to pay whatever you’d paid …

    Reply
  • 18. sars  |  September 19, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    That’s fine, Andrew, but did you run your own numbers before posting them and claiming that CWF is “gouging its volunteers?” Let’s say I’m renting one room of your $120/month apartment. That’s $60/month. I’d pay half of the utilities too, at $35/month. You say that someone can expect to eat for $5 per day. That comes out to $150/month. Already I’m paying $245/month…very close to the $283/month that you’d pay at the volunteer house! You haven’t yet factored in transportation to and from school, which is included in the cost of the volunteer house (CWF has moved to a new location on St. 271 since you were a volunteer). If it’s the middle of the hot or rainy season you probably won’t want to walk to school and back twice a day. That’s $30 for a crappy push bike or even more for motos/tuk tuks every day. Ultimately, it seems like everything just about evens out in the end.

    There’s a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the costs of the volunteer house here: http://volunteerincambodia.org/docs/Cost%20breakdown%20Sept%202010%20v5.pdf

    Coincidentally, the breakdown is an estimate for the semester that I volunteered and lived in the house (Feb-May 2010) and at no point did I ever feel like I was being taken advantage of.

    I look forward to hearing Sambo’s side of the story the next time that I see him.

    Anyway, I’m out. I don’t really want to get in an argument here, and I don’t know you or your story. I just hope that a potential CWF volunteer that stumbles upon this blog doesn’t immediately write the program off, because it’s been an amazing experience for many people, myself included.

    Reply
    • 19. Lena Shuster  |  September 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm

      hey sars,
      i wrote this post in march 2009 and it stemmed from the frustration that many members of my volunteer group felt at Sambo’s inability to show the figures on how the volunteer house money was spent. we just wanted to see an accurate financial statement and Sambo could not provide one. this is why you now see all that info on the CWF website. it was all the trouble that my group caused that pushed CWF to improve. we don’t hate CWF, many of the people in my group wanted them to stay true to their goal – which is transparency and accountability. we didn’t feel it was happening so we pushed for it. i’m proud of CWF and the progress they’ve made and my experience there was excellent other than this financial issue described above.

      however, just one clarification: you keep arguing that a volunteer living on their own would pay X much which is almost as much as life in the volunteer house costs. keep in mind that the costs of living in the volunteer house (rent + utilities + cost of food + salaries) costs the school less then they end up charging the volunteers who live there. for the same price basically volunteers could have their own private room with ac and a hot shower had they rented a flat-share independently…

      i kept my post online not to scare people away from volunteering with CWF but to keep the discussion open and because of the many comments that do say how great the experience was. my own comment above my post also says this. the truth shouldn’t hurt.

      Reply
      • 20. sars  |  September 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm

        Of course, and keep in mind that CWF openly gives volunteers the option of living independently if they want to, and even helps them find accommodation. I was replying to Andrew’s estimate of the costs of living independently (which,based on my own experience, seem low), and suggesting that his assertion that CWF is “gouging its volunteers” is an overstatement. I was not really replying to the initial blog post at all.

        I fully agree with the importance of transparency and accountability and agree that your group’s questioning helped the school improve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 12 other followers

Archives


%d bloggers like this: