A New Divide

When Sandy and I visited Laos and Cambodia in September we noticed some of the excellent work being done by NGO’s of all shapes and sizes – but things you would have thought would have been undertaken by their governments.

In Luang Prabang, in the north of Laos, we arranged to meet one of our World Vision sponsor children, with her father, the village chief and various social workers. The World Vision operation is substantial.

But we also came across much smaller, but no less impressive endeavours – like “Big Brother Mouse” which produces Laos and English-Laos readers and distributes them to children in villages via “book parties”. Every kid can have a book! But we also found that tourists like us could walk in off the street into their centre and converse with young locals who want to improve their English – which we did! One young man told me he wanted to enter the Buddhist monastery so he could have quiet from his many brothers and sisters and learn to read! Hence the important role Buddhist monasteries play in taking in young people and giving them an education – like boarding schools but without the fee!


In northern Cambodia we visited a friend, Tammy Para (above, left), who is using skills from her accountancy training and international development degree to establish a restaurant for “street kids” in Batambang. She is supported by the Australian Government’s excellent Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program. Again, we were struck by the grassroots efforts of many small non-government organisations in Cambodia. (Tammy is pictured on the left, outside the restaurant, which was being fitted out. Her friend from Uni days, Pippa, was also visiting with us.)

On our travels we noticed a clear gap between what governments can and can’t do, particularly those hampered by internal corruption, and the will of ordinary people to organise and bring about change themselves – often “with a little help from their friends”.

Ecumenical News International reports…

at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change…on the streets of Copenhagen, the world’s faith leaders and many hundreds of organizations linked to them are all blasting out their messages on what needs to be done about climate change. The atmosphere in Copenhagen is frenetic and, like many such international gatherings, government representatives are at one location and civil society in another corner, while up to 30 000 people are expected to converge on the city during an event that is expected to help define the 21st century.

This divide between government institutions and grass roots movements was also evident at the recent Parliament of World Religions when it came to linking with a global organisation. Religions for Peace is a more institutionalised organisation whereas United Religions Initiative links local grassroots “circles of cooperation”. One tends to be “top down”, the other “bottom up”.

Perhaps the difference of approach is reflected in the book “The Starfish and the Spider – the unstoppable power of leaderless organisations” which proclaims a paradigmatic shift in the way organisations may be managed in the Internet age.

What’s at stake is a question of leadership style and power – principles for development in a global world and empowerment at the local level. A divide is becoming more evident. Top-down or bottom-up, both are in need of clear ethical foundations.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: