It’s coming to the end of the school year in Cambodia and Mom’s two oldest – Pisie, the oldest boy will be moving into grade 11 and Reaksmey, the oldest girl will be moving up to Grade 10. (A story for another day is the heroics Mom pulled off to keep those kids in school on $3-$6 per day gross income – jaw dropping for sure).
Anyway, one of the fundamentals in human development is enabling choices and education is a pretty potent choice in breaking the cycle of poverty in a population, if that choice is available. So, some time last winter, this conversation occurred by email. (I am abbreviating the actual back and forth.)
Me: So are your kids interested in going to University? Mom: University? My kids will never have the money to go to University Me: Well, maybe I can help some. What do you think about opening up an education savings account for each of the kids? Alcedia Bank has a really cool set-up for that. But maybe they aren’t interested in University. It’s up to you. Mom: I think that is a great idea, Pisie and Reaksmey are very good students and I am sure they would love to go to University. It sounds like a dream. Me: Well, let me know and I will send some money to start those accounts if you want. Mom: Okay, send the money.
So I sent $1,200 dollars and suggested that she open up accounts something like this: oldest – $400 (1 year tuition), next – $300, the two younger boys – $200 and the baby because she is 14 years away from University and we have time – $100. With this special savings plan, if the kids decide not to go further in school, they can cash the plan in but don’t get the accrued interest, so really no risk.
Along the way, I was also sending Mom money to help her kinda stabilize and get the younger kids in school and occasionally I had a fat overtime check and kicked some extra her way. Oh yeah, we had set her up in a small pig raising venture and there were some on-going expenses there until the first batch went to market. So over about 4 months she got a moderate chunk of cash (by my standards) to do stuff.
When I arrived in January, her first communication was “I have something important to tell you.” Me: What’s that? Mom: I didn’t put the money in the bank for the kid’s education. Me: I see. Mom: I bought a piece of land with the money, but I still owe $200 for it – it cost me $2,700, but I only had $2,500. Me: (scrambling to be cool) Well, I will give you the $200. Wow, now you own some land, that’s great! When can we go see it? Mom: (World class smile and sparkling eyes) Let’s go tomorrow.
So off we go the next day to see the land. It’s right on the major highway to Phnom Penh at a relatively important intersection about 20 kms. out of Siem Reap. Hmmmm, good location – what’s that they are building on the other corner? A new bus station, huh? Hmmmm. So, at this point I ask the translator who knows real estate pretty well – so how much is this land worth, do you think? He said, “At least $4,000 if she sells now, but it will go up. This is on the way to the new international airport the Koreans are starting to build this spring.”
I looked at Mom and thought, but didn’t say, “You just made enough on the stroke of a pen to fund at least 3 years of university for one of your kids. How the heck do you know how to do this? You have owned so little in your whole life. Boy, do I have a lot to learn!”
It is said that there are no mistakes in life, only lessons and if you don’t learn the lesson the first time around, it will come back again and perhaps a little more painfully. It is with a red-face that I admit this aforementioned lesson was on it’s second visit to me. (I may get around to blogging about the first visit some time.) So what’s the lesson?
1A – I should never assume that I understand enough about things in Cambodia to create a plan. 1B – The money enables the choice, it shouldn’t also make the choice. Giving people autonomy, dignity and real choices about their futures is probably a best practice. Ideas are okay I think – “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” but then ask “How would you do it?”, then shut up and listen hard. I was given a gift one time in a conversation, a chap I met for a brief 2 hours said to me “Ah yes, listening. The better you listen, the better the questions you can ask.”
Thanks for the lesson, Mom. Now what will it cost me to have you manage my investments?
End note: What may be the greatest obstacle that poor Khmer have, in changing their lives for the better, is the lack of access to capital. They have nothing to secure a loan with and they sure can’t save enough, when daily survival is knocking on the door asking to be paid. Interestingly, they really aren’t looking for a handout either – they are proud and want to pay a hand-up back. When you suggest that paying it forward would really make the most sense (help somebody else), they are pretty adept at getting on with that. Mom has since employed a single mom, of 3, to work with her and has scratched enough together from my subsidies to add another room to her house to shelter that family. I love the sound of echoes.