Millennial Missionary, CFI’s Executive Director Has The Answers

In a  Q&A with Effie Magazine, Community First Initiatives (CFI), Executive Director, Pierre H. Mainguy breaks down the goals and philosophy of his organization,  the future of philanthropy and the Millennial Generation, as well as what Westerners need to know about Cambodia, past and present.

Click here to learn more about the Millennial Generation and The Millennial Kingdom.

Mainguy has been splitting his time between Pasadena and Cambodia, since 2007, but his ties to South East Asia go much farther back in history. His great-grandfather served in the French Colonial Marine Infantry in Vietnam, in 1919. His father was a Rotarian some years ago in France, which prompted Mainguy to join the Pasadena Rotary Club. The organization boasts a group of “dedicated members contributing to the well-being and growth of the community, region, and world.” Mainguy’s involvement with Rotary led to a powerful connection between the two organizations, and huge advancements for the people of Sen Sok. Earlier this year, the organization donated $25,000 to CFI to build water wells that will provide clean/safe drinking water to 9,000 villagers by the end of the year.

In addition he’s teamed up with filmmakers to develop web-documentaries, “Sen Sok: A Story of Villagers in Rural Cambodia.” They have completed four episodes, so far;  Episode 1 – Water & AgricultureEpisode 2 – Public HealthEpisode 3 – EducationEpisode 4 – Small Businesses. In addition, filmmaker, Victoria Hungerford recently publsihed a video that focuses on gender empowerment and women’s leadership role in the villages, titled “Women in Sen Sok.”

EFFIE Magazine: What is the first or most important thing westerners need to know about Cambodia?
Pierre Mainguy: Wall Street Journal writer Stan Sesser’s 1994 book, “Lands of charms and cruelty,” explores the countries of Southeast Asia (Burma, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, and Borneo) with the constant reminder that there is a very disturbing truth and heritage behind the enlightened smiles on their Buddha statues. Today’s average tourist is totally unaware of the region’s violent history as they experience the exotic scenery of monks in their saffron robes against the back drop of electric-green rice fields.In Cambodia, that history is represented by the Khmer Rouges and Brother Number One: Pol Pot.

It is essential for people to remember and understand the degree of the violence that occurred there. Over the course of a few years nearly a third of the population vanished, either executed in the infamous Killing Fields or worked and starved to death in labor camps. And while the movie of the same name is renowned for rendering an accurate account of this era, most of my Cambodian friends will comment “if only it had been that easy” when I mention the movie starring John Malkovich.

During that time, poetry and music were illegal, rhymes would get you killed, and everyone had to wear black. Religion, folklore and culture were also outlawed. The remnants of this brutal era are the thousands of bodies still being discovered throughout Cambodia in the mass graves of the “killing fields.”

EM: Have you ever stepped on human remains by accident?
PM: The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule are still revealing themselves today. In August 2012, when we begun filming the Sen Sok documentary, a mass grave containing 35,000 remains was found about 10 miles southwest from the villages of Sen Sok. (Learn more from the Aug. 6. 2012 report from The Telegraph).

What a westerner must understand is that our world remained silent and came up short of condemning this brutal regime. In effect, the western world tolerated such evil based on the adage that the enemies of my enemies are my friends, as Pol Pot was Ho Chi Minh’s sworn enemy.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouges in 75, a long a bloody civil war ensued with broad support from France, Germany and the United States. As a westerner who was born in German, raised in France and now lives in the US, I feel it is important that not only do we not forget, but also that we remind others of this horrific piece of humanity’s history that simply never made it to history books and, sadly, probably never will.

Journalist John Pilger’s work has, however, been very essential in preserving the memory of this misguided western support of the Khmer Rouge. (Watch Pilger’s documentary on YouTube).

EM: Why was Cambodia chosen by CFI versus other 3rd world communities?
PM: Because of the above-described heritage, Cambodia has become the Millennial Kingdom! With a third of the population disappearing ‘overnight,’ the country’s age distribution pyramid is very, very unique.

As with most 3rd world nations it has a broad base, which tends to shrink between years 2 and 5 due to high child mortality rates. But the striking thing is the very segments representing the elderly, those few older adults who are the survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Today, about two-thirds of the population is under age 25.

Again, it is very often the case that 3rd world countries are “young” countries in contrast to the “older” western nations. But what is striking in Cambodia is the distribution of the age groups.

In essence, most individuals in Cambodia were born owning, or in proximity to, a cell phone. All currently know of or use the internet on a regular basis. Monks do emails, and my NGO staff posts pictures of their activities in the villages on social networks without my having to ask. This is simply not the case in other 3rd world counties.

Photo courtesy of CFI

Photo courtesy of CFI

EM: How did you become involved? What was it about John Whaley and his mission that inspired you?
PM: Once upon a time, in what now seems to be a distant, other life, I was a private equity financial analyst whose sole responsibility was to ensure that those who have, get to have more. The way I did this was to help ‘starving’ entrepreneurs make the best out of their ideas, concepts and technologies by working with them plus Venture Capitalists and Angels. This aspect of my work brought me a great deal of satisfaction, but the focus was not on the process, but on the bottom line. As such I was living in a world where money ruled, while it needs only to serve.

Enter Mr. John Whaley, a senior consultant in organizational development for non-profit organizations, and an extraordinary philanthropist himself. We met at the home of Pasadena Realtor, Kelly Brock during a St. Patrick’s Day party back in 2007. I shared with him the one aspect I thought was positive in my professional life – helping entrepreneurs.

In turn, John did the same thing and shared what he saw as the most important aspect of his life, which was not his work as a consultant, but his non-profit work in Cambodia. At that time he was servicing as chairman of the board of a Phnom Penh-based non-profit caring for children working as garbage pickers on the city dump.

John invited me to come to Cambodia with him to witness extreme poverty, and to meet with families who saw no other choice but to make a living from picking garbage.

Once I witnessed that, it became hard for me to imagine a secluded life in the ivory towers of downtown LA. In hindsight, I now realize that part of me intuitively knew there was no turning back from the moment I set foot on the garbage dump in Phnom Penh. To this day, the acrid smoke, terrible smell and the uncanny texture of the ground which felt like a bouncing house for kids (that’s actually what mountains of garbage feels like when walking on it) are still haunting me, plus the fact that those kids would never see a bouncing house and never have the care free fun I was blessed with in my life.

Instead their lives were going to be about disease and poverty and surrounded by death. A child once explained to John that whenever he found a dead baby among the medical waste of local hospitals, he would dig a makeshift grave in the trash so that the caterpillars moving the garbage around would not run over it. At that point, I knew there was no turning back…

EM: Who are the people that primarily benefit from your work? Young adults, children? What would these people have to resort to doing in order to survive?
PM: While on the dump, I met with families, and had the opportunity to interview some of them. The first questions in my mind were: “Who on earth would they accept such a livelihood?” and “Why don’t they move out of the city?”

As it turns out most were once small farm families who had been making a reasonable rural livelihood. But the story was always the same: predatory loans, illness of a family member or a failed harvest wiped out what little assets they had. The families then defaulted on their “micro-credit” loans resulting in foreclosure on their property. Having lost their rice paddy and having no shelter, a family had no choice but to go where individuals can survive selling their labor and bodies: the city.

Of course, poverty in the city is very different, and the dangers of urban life in poor countries prey on the most vulnerable. Stories of prostitution, drugs, human trafficking and slave labor were what those families had to share.

Part of me was overwhelmed by the horror of this, and my philanthropic sense started tingling. It was tempting to stay in the city to mend the wounds of those broken souls. But, my pragmatic and rational mind eventually kicked-in and pushed me to follow those families back to their small farms, back in time when they were struggling farmers at the mercy of “bad luck”. John and I then formed Community First with the core mission to empower rural families in specific communities, so that none of them would have to face the horrors of urban poverty.

When we met the people of Sen Sok, where we currently work, we sat with with them and discussed their challenges, and they explained to us that while they did their best to survive on their agricultural livelihood, it was not enough.

Very often, at least one member of the family had to renounce staying at home with their loved ones to seek income-generating opportunities in neighboring Thailand.

Relying on a migrant worker’s lifestyle, parents have to leave their families and children have to skip school to tend their small farm in their stead. Families are broken apart, and the vicious cycle of poverty is preserved, and reinforced.

By helping heads of household to provide for their families, while improving access to education, we help change communities one family at the time.

EM: What is the current political climate in Cambodia? What is the scope of disparity between the wealthy and the poor? Is there a middle class?
PM: The political climate is fairly stable as the same party has been in power for almost 20 years. The current ruling party (Cambodian People’s Party) benefits from tremendous goodwill due to the fact that it is made up of the same people who fought the Khmer Rouges and contributed to their demise.

However, with about 85% of the population being rural, a significant proportion of the economy is informal and the state struggles to levy taxes to fund the public sector and the country’s infrastructure.

The gap between the rich and the poor grows every day, as is often the case in “transitional economies” that are trying hard to move away from a model driven by central planing to a market-based approach to development. As such, the middle class is nowhere to be found at a macro-economic level, yet one is emerging in the cities.

Mainguy and  CFI staff with all the village chiefs of Sen Sok and the commune chiefs.

Mainguy and CFI staff with all the village
chiefs of Sen Sok and the commune

EM: What has been your experience in work with local government leaders? What is the average education level of local leaders?
PM: The local leadership is extremely helpful. We’ve adopted the approach of working from the ground up, building relationship with the Village Chiefs, who then would introduce us to their Commune Chiefs (compare with our townships), who in turn took us to the District Chiefs (compare with our counties), etc. This approach has reinforced the collaborative framework with the local communities and has earned us the respect of top-level officials (Provincial, and Ministry-level officials).

Village, and Commune chiefs are literate but have rarely completed high school. District and Provincial leaders will have completed some college education, and Ministry people will have completed a University degree. Top-level people will have studied abroad.

EM: What are the tools and resources that are required for you to conduct the work of your organization in Cambodia?
PM: Because we build infrastructure and need to fuel education and training, resources management is primarily a matter of funding. In addition, we focus our work and solutions on local sourced materials so that ultimately, they can be replicated by the local communities without needing us to import materials, equipment or other resources.

For instance, we encourage donors traveling to Cambodia not to bring in-kind donations such as school supplies as this increases the carbon footprint of our project, and is literally a sales opportunity taken away from local businesses. Instead, we encourage donations and fundraisers.

The other key resources, which is equally important is quality people. I take great pride in the genuine care my staff invests in their work, and their ability to empathize with their fellow Cambodians who were not as lucky as them. Support staff must have completed at least high school and staff & managers have gone to university. Further, investing in staff training is an essential part of our work as a non-profit employer.

EM: What has been your personal experience, as a Westerner, living in Cambodia?
PM: Living in Cambodia is simply an amazing experience. Between the (all organic) healthy Asian foods, cleaner air, and the fact that I end up spending most of my time out in the country side, I actually am much happier and healthier when over there!

I live in the city, not too far from the communities we serve, and near the archaeological site of Angkor – a UNESCO world heritage site. The town of Siem Reap has a vibrant nightlife and art scene and lots of creative people have decided to locate there as it truly is an up and coming Asian city. So, it is kind of hard to imagine how it can get any better than that.

EM: In 2012, the acting director general of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority announced that commercial extraction of oil and natural gas territorial waters was scheduled to begin sometime this year. How will that effect the economy? And, could that cause people to abandon the village communities that you are hoping to rescue?
PM: Correct. Oil extraction will begin this year, however, this oil site is quite small geographically. Cambodia has lost a lot of its coastline in past wars, which limits its territorial waters. So, the extraction is just in the one site for now. In contrast, Thailand and Vietnam have a much more extensive coastline enabling them to do more drilling. Still, that one location alone will be a huge game changer, and will at last provide some energy self sufficiency for Cambodia, which currently imports all of its oil and gas.

So, at best this will drive the cost of energy and items down in the long run and make a few people extremely rich, both overnight and in the future. Also, jobs will be created but are likely to be limited to the coastline where the drilling rigs and refinery will be. If past experience with the discovery of natural resources in poor country has taught us anything, this can be both a blessing and a curse, which is starting to show in Cambodia.

While people tend to say it will be either a curse or a blessing (e.g. US Ambassador), I think this vision is over simplistic. It will be a blessing for some, a curse for others, and there will undoubtedly be meaningful macro economic benefits.

EM: Who are the people that CFI is hoping to engage to become involved in the organization?
PM: Because the Millennial Kingdom is so young, and because our beneficiaries are too, I believe that members of the younger generations, who are eager to get involved in a meaningful and personal ways, will be excited to get involved with CFI. Travel and volunteering opportunities are likely to be especially exciting to those individuals.

Also, and while this is kind of ‘my story’, we also need “older” philanthropist to recognize that empowering this new generation is important to help fund the change through conventional philanthropy. In other words, we’ll need more people like John to get involved!

So far, the Rotary Club of Pasadena has taken a leadership role in making this happen and has helped us guarantee that by the end of this year all the 9,000 villagers of Sen Sok community have access to clean drinking water!

EM: How has the internet influenced involvement/support for CFI? And, how will that access to the “world” influence or improve the lives of the people you are trying to help, going forward?
PM: When I started working in Cambodia in late 2007, a small internet connection (125-256kps) would cost you over $300 a month, and came with a $500 setup fee. Internet cafes existed, but 10 minutes online would cost you several dollars. And if that wasn’t bad enough, connections were not very reliable, and mobile devices were on an EDGE/GPRS network at best, which functioned only in the country’s two largest cities, and, even there, only occasionally.

Today, things have changed quite a bit. The addition of optical fiber cables have changed all of that. Additionally, the steady growth of the Cambodian economy has attracted private equity capital that has bankrolled a lot of infrastructure in the telecom business, and 3G towers have popping up throughout the country.

Today, I can upload Instagram pictures to donors as we’re drilling the wells, which is kind of awesome. So, while internet was something that we could not rely upon when we begun our work, it’s become a common tool for our work on the field.

In addition, all of our Cambodian (Millennial) staff is showing a significant interest in all of these technologies and are very eager to use smartphone of their own as a work tool. Unfortunately, they’re still pretty expensive, and these young men and women have other spending priorities such as marriage, building houses etc. But I see a lot of potential for ensuring that they are connected when on the field.

It’s not just about uploading pictures to enhance donor experiences and satisfaction, but it’s also about doing our job better and more efficiently. For one thing, when we will drill water wells this summer in all 16 villages of Sen Sok, funded by the generous Pasadena Rotary Club, we’ll be able to log the GPS coordinates of each borehole, and link those to pictures. It’ll then be our goal to include those on the Google Maps “explore function.” That way, not only do donors know literally where their money went, but others will too!

But I think the most important “next stage” of development does not lie in the mere access to the technology, but in how to use it. At home, we’ve seen a drastic change in how people access information and how they use it. If anything, Wikipedia has changed the way students write papers. I remember index cards, and the good Mr. Dewey in the library, but, seriously, who uses that anymore?

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading a good print copy, and hanging out at libraries, but that’s really because I think printed books are beautiful objects, and there’s something about the smell of high grade paper and quality ink mixed with dust!

The point is that knowledge is no longer static, once a book is printed, it’s put on a shelve and revered as truth. But knowledge does not work like that, and never has, actually. The collaborative efforts of the folks at Wikipedia and their cohorts of volunteers, for whom I have the deepest respect, has made knowledge management and sharing more accessible. And, for some reason, industry, non-profit and for-profit alike, has yet to embrace that revolution…

Photo courtesy of CFI

Photo courtesy of CFI

My vision for Community First is to apply this approach to the world of non-profits. Firstly, by getting people to work online, like the volunteers of Wikipedia, but on the community-driven programs that we are developing for forgotten communities. The fact is that conventional non-profits will most often hire very expensive specialists, doctors and engineers to come up with the solutions, and those people are kept on staff and are funded on the donor’s dime.

By investing in online collaboration tools that revolve around such community-based solutions, program development costs will be driven down.

Secondly, it’s my belief that if a non-profit develops a technology that has the potential of savings or improving thousands or millions of lives, it should be kept in the public domain, just like the content on Wikipedia. My opinion is that doing otherwise is criminal…

Of course, I can already hear hard-core capitalistic conservatives shouting at me in the distance. And their argument is always the same: you need to protect intellectual property (IP) and focus on making tons of money on it instead of sharing your discoveries. That is only fair, because you’re the one who spent all the money on R&D…

The idea is that crowd sourcing talent online, on a volunteering basis, negates the need to recoup unbelievably high development costs for technologies, products and services. And, the life-changing solutions thus developed can and should become open-source.

It is said that Jonas Salk, inventor of the IPV Polio Vaccine refused to patent his discovery, and said in the an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “Could you patent the sun?.” While the truth is that the vaccine was simply not patentable based on the regulations at the time due to “prior art,” there is a raging debate in the scientific community as to the legitimacy of his intentions. But the fact remains, Polio is the one disease that we will be eradicating in our lifetime through massive inoculation. Why? Because it’s cheap and the laboratories manufacturing cannot “milk that cow.”

My question is what will happen when an HIV/AIDS vaccine is developed? How about Malaria? A cure for cancer? But even beyond the realm of pharmaceuticals, the same should also be true with water filtration, and agricultural solutions that could feed the world without endangering end-users or the long term viability of the land.

This is my vision for philanthropy and community development in the 21st century, and for the people we seek to empower as change makers, Millennials, to get that concept and to want this model to thrive. If anything, the recent Monsanto Protests and the occupy this and occupy that movements are all tied back to those concepts.

One day, the best of what the internet has to offer will serve open source intellectual property, and knowledge and solutions will be accessible in remote villages to help families better their lives. And, all a nonprofit or NGO will need to do is to provide internet access, translations services and training on how to use the IP available while driving the R&D efforts by rallying talented volunteers. At the end of the day, it will be more effective and cost efficient for organizations and donors alike.

But most importantly, the world poor shall finally be empowered and treated as equals, and not as disadvantaged and disconnected individuals in need of a handout.

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