Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Raksa Koma Foundation’s Serey Chea: “NGOs can succeed without foreign funding”

5 min read

By Foo Boon Ping

Central banker and philanthropist Serey Chea shared her motivation behind launching an NGO to support mental health issues in Cambodia. Her personal agony motivated her to offer a voice for vulnerable communities. Capitalising on her position, she has been involved with numerous initiatives in education, health and women empowerment through her organisation.

Serey Chea, co-founder and chairperson of Raksa Koma Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation (NGO) based in Cambodia that focusses on the welfare of underprivileged Cambodian children and raises awareness on mental and physical disability. She shared how her journey into philanthropy started with a personal experience that sensitised her to work for the welfare of the less privileged. 

She talked about the taboo around mental health issues and how these go untreated due to the stigma attached to it. Therefore, she launched an initiative called “Stop Hiding” to facilitate conversations around mental health and offer professional counselling services through a phone call. Her NGO relies on volunteers and is also a partner of local organisations. It is funded through charity events like Chea’s painting exhibitions and music recordings. 

Through her work, she strives to change the negative perception that NGOs in Cambodia currently carry. She believes that NGOs can complement government efforts and help reduce reliance on foreign funding. Chea believes she shares her mother’s values of working for the welfare of the less privileged.

Following key points were discussed:

Below is the edited transcript:

Foo Boon Ping (FBP): Good afternoon, everyone. This afternoon, we are very happy to be speaking with Serey Chea, the founder of the Raksa Koma Foundation in Cambodia. In this conversation for Wealth and Society, we would like to explore the founding of the foundation, the motivation of Serey in setting up the foundation, some of the work that it is working on, as well as how the foundation is getting the wider community to be really involved in bettering the life for children in Cambodia, that's the main goal of the Raksa Koma Foundation. Thanks so much for taking time to join us for this interview and conversation. There's a lot that we're looking forward to. You have a full-time job as the assistant governor of the National Bank of Cambodia, and you have set up this foundation. Tell us the motivation of setting up this foundation. How does it square with your regular job at the National Bank?

Every child should have access to good healthcare

Serey Chea (SC): First of all, thank you for having me. Like you said, I have a full-time job as a central banker, but I also co-founded a foundation called Raksa Koma Foundation in 2013. It started off with a very personal reason. My first daughter was diagnosed when she was four with a rare genetic disease. As a mother, it was devastating for me, obviously. I was trying to take her to different places around the world to get a second opinion. That's when I realised how lucky I was despite the fact that my daughter was diagnosed with that disease was because I was still able to bring her and see the best doctor and meet the best possible expert in the field. One day, she had a seizure episode, and I admitted her to a local hospital here. Outside of my daughter's room was another child who was very sick with dengue fever. Dengue fever, if you know about it, it's a curable disease. But if you leave it for too long, then the child would possibly need blood transfusion. If you don't do all this, it could be fatal as well. At that time, that child was admitted to the hospital quite late, and the child needed blood transfusion. The parents couldn't afford it. I was in my room worrying about my daughter and I didn't know about this story. The last thing I know was that the child passed away because it was too late. When they finally got the blood to transfuse, it was too late. The child couldn't take it in. For me, I was very disappointed. I was very sad and devastated also because it was just under my nose. I thought I could do something. Since then I made it my mission that I would make sure that children, at least those without me, will have proper access to healthcare. It was in my head, but I couldn't do something about it, I was too busy. And I've got my second boy and I went through a lot of examination to make sure that he had none of those genetic diseases. But unfortunately, he was born with cleft palate. That's when I couldn't understand about this disease and I thought my child would never be able to speak. I cried, and then I saw a doctor. He explained to me that it was okay, it's curable, we can fix it. I overheard on the news about an organisation called Operation Smile, that was giving free surgery for children with cleft palate and lips. That's when I thought, okay, I want to do this. I started joining this foundation. Eventually, it just rolled and spun into other things that I wanted to do. I met with a lot of children that were not just needing the surgery to repair but also other services. So I set up the Raksa Koma Foundation in 2013. A lot of focus is really on healthcare. Compared to what I was doing in my job, which is more sort of financial inclusion, I thought that healthcare was also very important. For me, if you look at the SDG priorities, I think we can do anything, but if you don't have the health, somebody who's poor and have a very poor health couldn't do anything. Whatever you give to him, you can make financial service cheap, you can make education affordable, but if they don't have the health to absorb and to do something about it, then it's useless. I was really focused on that and continue to be focusing on healthcare mostly.

FBP: Tell us in terms of the objective of the foundation, it is providing primary healthcare to children and family, obviously, who are underprivileged, who can't afford them. What are the motto or the objective for the foundation, and what are your key impact indicators? Is it set up as a purely philanthropic charity? How important is the tracking in terms of the impact and over the years, the number of lives that you have impacted, families that you have impacted? 

Mental health issues go undiagnosed due to the societal stigma attached to it

SC: Initially, it was set up as a charitable organisation. We did a lot of things on an ad hoc basis. Because it was co-founded and it was financed by families and money that I raised. It’s funny, I sing and I put up an album and I sold it for the foundation. Now I paint and all the proceeds from my paintings go to the foundation, I have the freedom to do things that I feel very passionate about. Initially, it was helping children who need financial support in healthcare, but also women who needed that. We also work closely with an organisation called Hope Cambodia, where we do free ear checkup for children in the villages and orphanage, those who couldn't access proper basic healthcare. Rather than a curative approach, we wanted to do a preventive approach. We do our part to prevent this. I also work with an organisation called Khmer Sight, where we provide free eye surgery. With cataract and glaucoma, we've done for more than 10,000 people across the country. We also work on mental health awareness on a regular basis. We do something around is an operation called Unchained Operation. It's not Unchained Melody, but it’s unchained where we fly to unchain people with mental illness that wasn’t understood by the families so they got chained in their own house by their own families so that they're not going around the villages, etc. That's really when I was in contact with a woman who was a migrant worker initially, and she sent money home to her parents, and the money was misused by the family. She got very depressed and her mental health situation deteriorated. She couldn't take care of herself, she was raped. For the first time she gave birth to a child, second time, she gave birth to another child. I ended up adopting the child who is with me right now. I link the work that I do on the ground with what I can do with my official job, which is a central banker on financial inclusion and cross-border transfer, as well as making payments services cheaper, and because of her situation, because the money that she worked hard for wasn't used into the purpose that she wanted to, which is renovating the house, help her mother set up a proper business, she became very depressed when she fell sick and went back home. That depression just got worse. That's when she just completely lost herself and got herself into a very messy situation. I thought if I could help all these migrant workers, somebody like my child or my mother to be able to send money home cheaply, and for the right purpose, let's say to the hospital, to the school, or whatever that is, that the money is supposed to go to, then I can make a lot of changes for these women, but also family as well. I think as a society, everyone would benefit. That's also where I try to connect work and also this passion that I'm doing. Recently, during COVID-19, we shifted our attention from healthcare, because there's a lot of medical mission that we can't do because of the COVID-19 situation, like the ear checkup and eye surgery. We were shifting our focus towards mental health. It has always been our focus, but we just want to give emphasis on mental health more. So we launched a campaign called “Stop Hiding,” where we help people to talk about mental health situation rather than just hiding, which is a very ancient culture to be very prejudice on people's mental health situation. We provide helpline where people can call in and share about their concerns, worries or frustrations. We have qualified therapists who would help guide them through and if they need special help than they would be invited to the clinic. I also wanted to focus on access to education. A lot of it really come from personal experience where I have four children studying at home, and they all have access to devices. The only thing as a mother is what would the other mothers do if their child can't have access to those devices. So we distributed tablets across the country to different organisations, mostly orphanages around the country but also public schools in remote areas. We also have been able to partner with some internet service provider companies to provide cheap access to internet for their centres and families as well. That’s the reason for the focus that I did, but all the funding really came from my two art exhibitions that I've done so far and others who have been very supportive, even though I'm a new artist. They were very supportive on the work that I'm doing on the ground.

FBP: The foundation does a lot of work from what you just described. Very obviously you have a passion, you have a heart for the underprivileged, especially the children and the mothers, and how helping them can help them and lift them out from the situation that they are in. You're involved in so many fields of area, from primary healthcare to eye surgery, as you mentioned, and now into mental health and providing education going to the schools as well. Tell us in terms of the setup of the foundation, do you rely mainly on volunteers? And how are the work implemented? How is that organised in the foundation? Outreach to the family, do you depend on doctors who volunteer their time, their resources? How do you execute the work that you get?

SC: I rely a lot on volunteers, as I said, who like what I am doing and want to come and help with their times and their brains, of course. Because a lot of the things that we do, we do it in partnership with existing organisations, we don’t do something on a silos, we always find partners, because we don't have the people to do it and we don't have the expertise to do it. What we do is we actually try to select the NGOs whose missions are aligned with ours. We work with them on a programme and we finance that programme. We're more like a funding organisation. But the real activity is executed by the existing NGOs, who we worked closely with, those who have real experts in the field.

FBP: The fund raising is done, as you mentioned, when you first set it out, it was done through an album that you launch, and then subsequently is through annual painting and art pieces that you put together. When it was first set up, how much funding did the foundation start with, and subsequently, annually, what's your annual budget for running all these programmes?

Through her initiatives, Chea advocates issues such as mental health, good parenting that tend to receive lower attention in society 

SC: We started off with very little, I think it was about $50,000 or a bit less than that when we sold the album. Subsequently, we have donors who come and say they want to help us on an annual basis, we have few thousands and a few hundreds. Those who have heard what we've done, they'll just very randomly help us. I think the main funding came from the art exhibitions that I did. We don't have a particular sort of number for annual activities. What we do on an annual basis is a Hearing Day, which is something that is also aligned with the United Nations International Hearing Day, to raise awareness about people with hearing disability. The event that we organise usually try to match people with disability with employers, and a lot of the employers that attend our event are within my networks, and my friends who have a restaurant or factories or whoever will come and help. That's the only annual things that we do. In addition to donations to the different hospital and foundation, I think annually would probably be around, in the past, about $10,000 to $20,000. Recently, in 2021 we've been spending much more on the mental health campaign, on helping the elderly to cope with the the COVID-19 situation. A lot of elderly have children working overseas and they can't come back and so they're facing a lot of difficulties financial wise and others. When they're sick there is no one taking care of them. We help with that and also on parenting. Again, there's an organisation that we sponsor to roll out some programme on parenting where, especially during COVID-19 being a parent can be very stressful. During this COVID-19 time, we've done a lot more than we used to and on our budget we spent about $100,000 so far.

FBP: Tell us in terms of in Cambodia as a developing economy or emerging economy, what's the attitude towards philanthropy and towards charity, especially among the corporate, private sector, and obviously, among the privileged, the wealthy? We talk about our social contact where the fairer distribution of wealth and so on, so forth, and one of the ways is through philanthropy, or through charity, through impact organisations such as Raksa Koma Foundation. What’s the attitude towards this?

Cambodia is home to most NGOs per capita for any country globally 

SC: I think people do a lot of charity here in Cambodia. They donate a lot. I do see charity, but I don't see real philanthropy, something that is more strategic in a way. People have always been very wary about NGOs. So if you’re an NGO, there's a lot of negative perceptions about them. Cambodia count the most NGO per capita for any country in the world. And, the majority of those NGOs, were set up after the Cambodia Civil War in the 90s and they have remained. There's also a mix of understanding that there's advocacy NGO, there can be developmental NGOs, they can be so many kind of NGOs, but the negative perceptions about NGOs here is that they're always criticising the government, they're always saying something negative about the country, about whoever that’s governing. People tend to stay away. Something that I wanted to break with this perception is that, I want it to show that there are NGOs that are doing very good job, and that are actually necessary, and complementary to government efforts, that's one. The second is that we can set up a successful NGO without having to rely on foreign funding. Interestingly, a lot of the NGOs here are funded by foreigners, foreign donors, or foreign aid agencies, etc. That, again, is something that add on to the prejudice or the negative perceptions to NGOs. We can do it ourselves, the country has experienced incredible growth over the past two decades, people have built wealth, our middle class is growing. We can probably look back and say, well, we now we can help ourselves. That's also an intention with the NGO and I tried to talk about it, I talked to the friends around my networks and say, look, there are NGOs that can do great things, there are NGOs that can be locally funded. It's possible. That is something that I tried to share, but one thing I think is also difficult is that the tax credit on donation is not clear yet.

FBP: Which you are in a position to help kind of shape.

SC: I will try and I hope that my interview here won't create any problem. But it's still very unclear on this. A lot of the donations are still taxable and very few cases where I see it can be deducted. For corporate, this is not very encouraging. But thank goodness, I think corporates here have been doing a lot within their means. They're still contributing as much as they can. But I hope that we can have more clarity on this taxation. The new tax administration has been very proactive, and they're using a lot of digital infrastructure. Of course, they have other priorities than this, but I hope that when they touch on this point, I will be able to contribute to that effort as well.

FBP: In line with that, in order to have a more friendly tax regime for charity, it is also to a certain extent incumbent on NGOs and charitable organisations in terms of improving how they run their operations, in terms of governance, in terms of transparency, in terms of financial transparency, financial reporting of their proceeds, and what they spend. From your own experience with the foundation, you work very closely with the NGOs, what are some of the markets that you look for, in terms of deploying some of your funding towards their programme? What do you require in terms of reporting from them in terms of impact that they are creating, or the use of funds and just in terms of financial transparency? Give us some insights into those areas. 

SC: The first probably criteria, it's not absolutely, but probably something that I would first pay attention to is to make sure that it is a local NGO that has impact but lack funding. When you try to approach NGOs, who used to get funding from foreign donors, they tend to be more, it’s a bad word, but it's more arrogant in a way when you have your local NGO approaching them. Because obviously, the funding that you'll be able to give them is very tiny compared with what they get from overseas. They would usually pay quite little attention to us. But for the locals, the smaller one who rely on local fundings, they're more perceptive on what we have to say. That's number one. I want it to be local, also about the perceptions I mentioned to you is, I just want to show that locals can help locals. Second is about what they're doing whether it is aligning with our mission, which is a lot of it has to do with healthcare and usually the things that I do is not the usual sort of activities that a Cambodian will finance. Things like mental health, that is not something that many Cambodians actually understand and want to get involved with because it's a stigma really. If you fund such activities, they say, well, maybe you have something to do with it, maybe you have some mental issues, and they tend to shy away from it. These are areas that I would go in and say I want to do this. Something like parenting is also another subject that is quite taboo, where we believe that everyone has their own parenting best practice. There's no one way of doing it. This is something again, that a lot of Asian parent or Cambodian parents tend to shy away  from because they think they do best. But I think there's a lot that can be learned from how the West raised their kid into being open minded, they are more daring in exploring new activities and being scared by traditions, the neighbours’ perception or whatever, I think there are good elements that we can embed in. And there's a very good example of parenting skill. If you look at the ways the American companies Google, Facebook, these came from college dropouts, but they are in a culture where they promote children to explore, to fail, to try again, then you've got something very innovative, in their country, in their societies. Whereas when we look at Asian, what we want to do is to raise our children to go to into a good school, get a good job and stay there. Very rarely Asian parents will encourage their children to go and do business, unless they already have a business themselves. But mostly is to get a good education. And there's a very funny stereotyping of Asian, about being a lawyer, doctor.

FBP: Expectations, to excel.

SC: There is this stereotyping about Asian family and it's true in a way where we want our children to go to school, get high degree, get a good job and stay there. That in a way has also impacted the way our society and the way our economy grows. It has been changing over the years. Now, we see a lot of innovative solutions in our part of the world, which is great. But these fears of the parents on letting their children fail and explore is still there. When I mentioned that I found this NGO that does programmes on parenting, a lot of people would open their eyes and say, “But why?” This, in a way, I think is also important. It's long term, it takes a lot of time as well. A lot of the things that I do are something that are not very common here, which I'm quite happy to support. Art is another thing that through my own of art, my own painting, I've also encouraged many other professional women to explore their artistic skill. I only started last year when COVID-19 started, where I stopped travelling, I stayed home, didn't know what to do. I started painting and so I had my exhibition only a few months later, and I was painting two to three canvas per day. Some of my friends come over and say, “I didn't know you have this hidden talent.” I said that I didn't know either. I started painting. When I share it on social media, and a lot of the women and friends say, how do you do this? I said, well, you just have to start. And they started and turned out quite well for them. That’s another thing that I also helped to promote, to explore your hidden talent in a way.

FBP: You come from an established well-known family, the Chea family. Your father is the governor of the central bank. How involved is your family in the foundation? In what way do they help support the work that you do?

Chea’s mother supports monks’ access to  quality education through scholarships 

SC: They are not involved with the foundation at all, actually. They have their own activities. My mother is very involved—she's very religious so she’s very involved with helping building a school for a goddess but also giving scholarships to monks. And her philosophy is similar to mine, although we don't usually talk about all this at home. My mother believes that people listen to monk as a religious person, more than anything else.

FBP: For advice.

SC: To her, if the monks are not educated, then they won't be able to give proper advice. They can lead the whole village to a completely wrong direction and using religion as an umbrella. She embarked on giving out scholarships to monks. One of the monks that received a scholarship from her will get a post-doctoral degree at Harvard University.

FBP: Wow, impressive.

SC: She also sent many others to Sri Lanka where they have very good religious and India as well. She built universities, like the building, to make sure that they have a proper facility to study in. So all the monks that have been studying this Buddhism principle come back and teach so that the monk that will go out and do all the teaching can properly teach the principles. Buddhism is more like a philosophy of life in a way so it's a very peaceful religion and that's what they're doing. So they are more of philosophical kind of area, for me it's more healthcare and mental health and all this. So we don't usually do work together on this area.

FBP: Her social consciousness, awareness and the passion to help obviously rubbed off on you.

SC: That's where I got from her as well. So that's what I got from her. But she let me do my own things, doesn't want to intervene and she would do her own things. If there is anything that she wanted me to pay attention to, she would let me know but it will be at the end up to me whether I want to take action or not.

FBP: Earlier, we discuss in terms of taxation incentive for charitable or philanthropic organisation, the attitude towards local charities, and also the fact that foreign NGOs have got a few gripes about officialdom, so to speak, for their work. In your opinion, what can be done more in terms of improving this area of social impact in Cambodia? Having come from this side of the fence where you're running a foundation, working day constantly with the NGOs, seeing the challenges that they face, what can be improved in terms of governance or government policies to help improve in this area to increase the space for NGOs, and philanthropic organisations, such as yourself to operate it?

She hopes to act as a bridge between the government and the social sector 

SC: I think a lot of the time, it's the misunderstanding. The government organisation does not understand the NGO and the NGO don't understand the government. And there's always a negative perception towards each other. And this is why wearing both hats, I hope I can be a bridge between the two and try to create some dialogue between government entities and NGOs. So that's the communication, the dialogue is the first step to do. There are a lot of the forum for that already, but it's mostly with advocacy NGO. I don't want to go into politics, but I think a lot of the time, it's the misunderstanding. At least for developmental, there are a lot of the NGOs, a lot of NGOs are doing great things, and they need government support, and the government do actually need them as well. A lot of the activities that we do in healthcare, we have been contributing indirectly to the social welfare, by helping the government, taking off the burden of the government having to care for people with blindness, with hearing loss. There is this mutual complementarity. I hope that I'll be able to connect the two worlds together. Second, in terms of policies, it may not just be taxation, it could be others as well. But again, there are certainly a lot of reform that have been made in the taxation. It’s been much more transparent using digital or electronic transfer for tax, etc. You eliminate a lot of red tape there. It hasn't reached to the tax incentive for philanthropy yet. As I said, it's new, it's even new to the concept of it. It's not one of the main priority for sure, but I hope that they would eventually touch down to this given the COVID situation, we need all possible stakeholders to come in together. Here again, being a central banker, I understand the economy and understand electronic payment, digitisation, etc. I hope that I can also help to this. Again, the mere perception come from the fact that the government does not understand who the NGOs are, the funding, transparency of it, and the NGOs don't understand where the government is coming from. Here again, there is an NGO law that has been enacted. I hope that it would help create more trust between the two worlds in a way where NGOs are more transparent to the government on what they're doing because there's nothing to hide. But then at the same time, the government should also, for instance, give some benefit of me being transparent, what do I get? That is something that would be an ongoing discussion. Cambodia is a developing country. Our economy has also been starting off for about 20 years only, we still had a civil war in 1998. Until then, if I were to travel to the provinces, I can't stop for a toilet break halfway through because you know, there's something maybe gunmen coming to rob our cars or something from the Pol Pot army, the Khmer Rouge army. It's a very young country. And I think with what we've achieved so far is really amazing. But the concept of philanthropies and all this, which is, even to the Western world, it's only fairly recently that it's kicked off in Asia as well. It's still new, but it's coming, we are known to be able to leapfrog a lot of things. I hope we can leapfrog that concept as well.

FBP: Especially for an emerging developing country like Cambodia, where a lot of the burden of the social focus is for the government, increasingly, there's a bigger role for the private sector. So policies, taxation, incentives to get private enterprises or private individuals involved in social work, so to speak, to expand the space, that is one area, which you address in terms of changes in policy on both sides, right, in terms of how this organisation is being run, and possibly required to be transparent in terms of practices, in terms of policies, and so on, so forth. The other area that you also mentioned is in terms of local NGOs and foreign NGOs, in that area the foundation works mainly with local NGOs. What are the opportunities for more foreign—they have been in the country for many years, since the end of the Civil War, a lot of interest are in Cambodia from this foreign organisation?

Chea strongly believes in collaborating with local NGOs to amplify her work further

SC: There are a lot of foreign NGOs here and by me specifically targeting local NGOs, it doesn't mean that the foreign ones are not doing their job and they are doing their job very well. It's just that I wanted to help those who are then underprivileged, like I said, well, I have underprivileged children and families, but also want to help underprivileged NGOs, those who are not receiving funding, yet doing a great job on the ground. Also for me, it's a way to diversify and not put all eggs in one basket. We know that these foreign NGOs are doing, certain activities, they're probably focusing on certain area. But then there's another small NGO,that is doing pretty much the same thing, but focusing on a different geographic area. Why would I still want to go to the foreign one where I know they have enough funding to do it, most of the ones who are doing the same thing, but elsewhere, and who's not receiving funding. That doesn’t mean we compromise on the governance and so on. We did help Teach for Cambodia, which is an organisation that received a lot of funding from overseas as well, but during COVID-19 they have dried out because of COVID-19. But I believe that they did a great job. So we still, you know, give support to them, and help them get funding during difficult times and be able to continue their activities. It's not solely because they're foreign that we exclude, it’s more because the local ones they need it more.

FBP: Thank you so much, Serey Chea, for speaking to us and also giving us an insight into this whole world of the foundation and the charitable and impact sector in Cambodia. 

Keywords: Awareness, Charity, Disease, Education, Foundation, Government, Healthcare, Mental Health, Mission, Non-profit, Philanthropy, Scholarship, Underprivileged, Women Empowerment, Covid-19, NGO
Institution: Raksa Koma Foundation, National Bank Of Cambodia, Hope Cambodia
Country: Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka
People: Serey Chea, Foo Boon Ping
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