Kathleen Doherty: Indigenous Education Gets Help from NGOs

A journey to visit the schools of the indigenous Tempuan and Kreung communities in Cambodia’s northeast province led second-year law student Kathleen Doherty away from the flat rice paddies of much of the nation and to a mountainous area filled with waterfalls, crater lakes and red, dusty roads.

Though the landscape seemed worlds away, the people there were surprisingly aware of their rights as citizen.

“I was just amazed at how educated they were about their rights,” Doherty said. The indigenous natives, which comprise less than 2 percent of the Cambodian population, are passionate about maintaining their traditional lifestyle and institutions, she realized.

Doherty set out to examine educational rights among the indigenous people and quickly realized that not all NGO programs designed to help actually do so.

“You get a sense of which programs are actually practically working and which ones aren’t. That’s something you can get from actually going to the country,” she said. The key to a successful program seemed to be “not going in with a set agenda, [and instead] going in and finding out what the community needs from them.”

Doherty looked at six pilot bilingual schools run by an organization called CARE, which is trying to turn the schools over to the government.

“There’s a will among the Cambodian government to address these problems, but they lack a lot of resources to do it.”

Doherty also talked to natives who wanted help, often with land rights issues related to their right to education and their own schools. Some NGOs are trying to register villages to help establish collective ownership. The drive to document village ownership is designed to help villages get services like schools.

“The toughest thing for me was trying to keep my objectivity,” she said. “You want to help somehow.”

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