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The power of a story


Last month, I attended the Contextual Analysis Workshop in Sihanoukville, organized by United Nations in Cambodia and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.  It aimed to look at the socio-economic and political issues in the province of Preah Sihanouk, the country in general, as well as regional and international issues affecting Cambodia.

We were given a story about the Alligator River. For you who have heard of the story and processed it, you would know where this post is going, but bear with me. For those who haven’t heard of it, this is the story.

So we were asked to answer the matrix by rating the characters based on who is the best to the worst character in column A. Column B had to be the answer of the seatmate. After that we were asked to talk to our seatmate and compare our answers and negotiate and put, on the final column what we agreed on. After that we were asked to process our answers by answering a few questions. The main question was: “can we really be neutral?” How did you understand the story? What were the questions on your mind? What were the blind spots? What were your assumptions? How do these assumptions influence your judgement?

As soon as these questions started to be asked, the story suddenly became more complicated that it seemed. Was Abigail a victim or harasser? Is Gregory a bad guy at all? Was Vana neutral or did they take a stand? Was Slug justified with what he did?

I personally thought that for stories like this, there are no straight answers. There are so many blind spots and the missing information is supplied by our own point of view, our programming and default answers.

After the discussion,  the story didn’t seem so straightforward after all. Although stories may appear flat, it could be as layered as the number of people reading it. It matters what the lens of the readers are in reading a certain story. What does multiple point of views bring into the picture, and how do they lead to insight?

In this example we can see the power of a story. A story could lead or mislead. A story could clarify or muddle. A story could inspire or provoke. A story could perpetuate the hegemony, or help emerge a new understanding, a new way of seeing.

So the other day, I had fun on Facebook posting this.

in my great

. I was having so much fun about it but I didn’t feel my fb fam were understanding about it. Well, I’m not actually the kind of person who would brag about my great and unmatched wisdom. But then like everyone on the net I do sometimes fall prey to the temptation of a humble brag. Still, I was wondering what people were making of it, if it simply was a joke or what? Here is actually the context of it. One morning I woke to the total meltdown of the American President on twitter:


I was tempted to post that, and I did so as a reply to one of the comments. But I did feel it kind of spoiled the fun I was having. Hasan Minaj never explained his jokes. You would have to be smart and well-informed enough to enjoy them. And it’s just “sorry, not sorry” to those who weren’t able to get it. That’s what connects the story teller to the listeners, if there is something common to them and highlighted in such a way that they “get” it, the story, or joke for that matter. It is how something reveals a meaning to the listeners or readers. It is what they take home from it.

Then a few days later, I posted this tiny vignette.

she he

There were only a few comments and reactions. But for me they are priceless, and so revealing. Those people who knew me personally, or were hopeless romantics, those who value grammar, or are more in tune with animals, each of them had their own interpretation, thus different reactions.

So what is the story about? Is it about two lovers professing love while baring each other’s heart out? Is it a man purposely demeaning children by comparing them to dogs? He must be non-vegan then! Or is it about a man who loves his dogs like his own children that he had to point out the fact? In that case, he is pre-vegan! Or is it a fable about a female goat and a male dog talking about their offsprings? What do you think?

A good story, no matter how terse, is never flat. It has layers and nuances and movement and message.

So what is the story really about? Have you made your guess? Actually, I’m not telling you. At this point you already know what you need to know. And that is exactly the point I want to drive at. A story could be or mean anything. It’s what you, as story teller or reader, make of it that matters. #SRC

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Investing in Women and Girls is Investing in the World

Last year, estimates show that there are 100 women for every 101 men. Women then comprise roughly half of the world’s population. However, globally, compared to men, women suffer more and multiple challenges including socio-cultural marginalization, gender income disparity, and lack of voice and agency. How is it that we are not considering it a global emergency that women and girls are not receiving the support they need to thrive and achieve their full potential? We are talking about almost half the population of the world.


A glimpse at the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HDI) of 2018 shows that in most low income economies women have lower HDI than men, which means that women are less likely to achieve their full potential because of their education and health, or lack thereof.


What exactly do women and girls, especially in lower income countries go through? In many cases, women are culturally excluded from having gainful employment. There are also some sector-specific regulations that keep women from certain kinds of jobs such as some manufacturing, mining, and construction. While 75% of men above 15 years old are employed globally, only 49% of women are.


Women are also over-represented in the informal sector. Informality is a double jeopardy for women. Aside from lacking opportunities in job market mobility for being low-skilled, women and girls receive lower incomes than men for the same amount of work. There is a deeply entrenched gender income disparity among men and women for which women are always at the losing end. Women and girls do unpaid work at home and community, and thus more often excluded from social protection measures often attached to formal work.


These already grave challenges will be compounded with the disruptions being caused by globalization and the changing nature of work. Retraining and re-skilling are only two of the solutions being offered to buffer the impact to lower-skill workers for their mobility in the rapidly transforming job market. However, more girls than boys are still not able to attend school. Or if they do, they attend less number of years than boys. And if girls drop out of school, there are higher chances of them getting married and/or having children before they are 18, which almost automatically excludes them from gainful employment or ties them to informal or unpaid work.


But given the cultural roles of women as carers at home and at work, the low level of social protection they receive cascade to their children, family, community, and country. The more women are excluded from social assistance and social insurance, the deeper the impact to the health and education of their children, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization and poverty. This also holds true for women’s education. The less years women attend school, the less they are able to access formal work, thus automatically excluding them from maternity benefits which contributes in the critical development phase in the first 1000 days of a child through proper care during pre and postnatal periods, more time to care for children, possibly even breastfeeding and other stimulation provided in the early years of a child.

Young mothers in Cambodia given information during the World Breastfeeding Week. Photo courtesy of Let Us Create Futures- Cambodia.

What does the world lose when women lose? Women contribute only 38% of human capital wealth globally. In lower income economies, they contribute a third, or even less. Assuming women would earn as much as men, the loss of human capital wealth due to gender inequality is a staggering 160.2 Trillion which is twice the global GDP.


By empowering women, raising their economic participation, and providing them the same income as men receive, the world gains by increasing human capital wealth by 21.7 percent globally, and total wealth by 14.0 percent with gender equality in earnings.


An additional year that women attend school gives them more access to information, services and resources from pregnancy to childbirth which positively affects how they raise their children. The more educated mothers are, the less stunting of their children, in turn giving children a fighting chance to escape the poverty that their parents experienced.


Providing women social assistance have proven helpful in improving education and health of their children. Initiatives such as the Universal Basic Income (UBI), an unconditional cash assistance provided regardless of employment status will ensure that women of low education and skills, and even women in unpaid domestic work will have access to critical support that they are often excluded from.

Typhoon Haiyan survivor in Ajuy, Philippines supported with cash transfer and entrepreneurial support proudly shows off her group saving book. Photo courtesy of PRC-BRC Haiyan Recovery Project

The World Development Report says that building human capital is a project for the world. Half of this project is investing in women and girls, and allowing them the opportunity to increase the returns not only for themselves, but for the society and economy as well.

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Justice is served!

Last week, I attended one of the best training I have taken part in, and I have participated some really good ones in Asia and Australia. It was called Better Development: Justice-Based Approach, and organized by a fairly new social enterprise called United Edge. The two co-founders and directors Daniel Bevan and Matthew Kletzing designed and facilitated all of the 35 training they have conducted in the last two years. Besides being a light-bulb moment training, it is something that I really admire because of its seamless delivery by Matt and Daniel, fun and practical activities, and most of all, walking the talk by being justice-based and ethical in all its aspects, including the food served, because justice should not only be exclusive to humans but to the environment, climate, and animals as well. Yes, the three-day training served an entirely vegan menu, a rare event in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

I took the opportunity to ask Daniel about how they managed to pull off a vegan training in Cambodia.

SRC: What are the reasons why you provide vegan food in your events?

DB: We aspire to live by what we believe. As an organisation working on social and environmental issues, based on compassion and love, we don’t believe that using any animal products can be conducive to living by those beliefs. 

SRC: Have you clearly stated the United Edge food policy in your organizational policy, or was it an informal, unwritten policy?

DB: Great question! We have planned to write up a formal policy but haven’t quite found the time. So right now we simply write on our website that we are 100% vegan.

SRC: Since when have you been offering fully vegan menus in the JBA training events?

DB: Since our very first event at United Edge. Both Matt and I, the founders, have been vegan for 8 and 18 years respectively so we knew right from the start that it was important for us to work for an organisation that didn’t make us feel hypocritical.  

SRC: How was organizing a vegan event in other countries as compared to Cambodia?

DB: It’s different in every country. Sometimes harder, sometimes easier. It always depends on the type of venue too. Some hotels that are a little stuck in their ways and used to holding large, fairly formal events often struggle. In Laos two weeks ago, the team went to a MASSIVE effort to make some incredible 5-star food that was both local and international food and included vegan cakes, croissants, and meat substitutes. One training in Malaysia was full of local dishes with vegan meat substitutes and everyone was very convinced that vegan food can be tasty! That’s always what we hope people will experience but it’s not always the case. In the Philippines we really struggled as the hotel really had no idea what to create, even with quite a lot of guidance from us. The first day in Papua New Guinea was quite awful but the hotel worked really hard with us in the evening to create more local vegan dishes. We always have to find a venue willing to make vegan food and then spend time going through the menu with them in detail. 

SRC: What were the challenges you experienced in the seven training events conducted in Cambodia in terms of food?

DB: We’ve held the training in three different venues and this was the first time in Hotel Cambodiana. It was definitely the best food. The fist venue was a nice place but it was mostly western food which wasn’t so popular with our (mostly Khmer) participants. The second was good but they didn’t put too much creativity into it. Often people assume that vegans just eat salads and that we don’t need the food to be tasty… so that can be a real challenge. Communication can be a real struggle.  

The third day lunch menu. From morning snack to lunch and afternoon snacks, Hotel Cambodiana served wholesome, diverse, and delicious vegan food during the training.

SRC: Can you share with me a bit more about the chef who prepared our food in Cambodiana Hotel? Was he the same one who catered the other six training here? 

DB: As mentioned, this was the first time in the Cambodiana. The chef – Mr Song Teng – was fantastic and really took pride in creating the menu. He checked with us personally every day too. He has cooked for the Royal Family on numerous occasions including the day before our training started. 

SRC: What is the general feedback of your almost 1,000 participants in terms of the food you have been serving during these events? 

DB: Even though we always explain why we serve vegan food, there’s always one or two comments from people who say that we should serve meat for lunch. I think many people attend training for some time out of the office and for some good food!! However, one or two people ALWAYS comment on how good it is to have vegan food as a principle. Overall, although people may not be vegan themselves, they understand why we don’t serve animal products. Even when someone doesn’t, at least it’s the start of a conversation! 

SRC: I have set up a Facebook group Vision: Vegan Cambodia in the hope of promoting veganism in Cambodia just before I came here in 2017. What do you think is the prospect of veganism being mainstream in Cambodia? 

DB: I really think the whole world will become vegan in the not-too-distant-future. How long can we enslave and torture other species without the need to do so? Plus, with the climate emergency, it’s even more important. Cambodia has a lot of food that is either is already vegan or can be easily made vegan. Plus, there are high protein substitutes like tofu readily available. I think in cities there is little excuse for using animal products. However, in impoverished communities in rural areas, animal products can be an important part of the diet as it is so monotonous. It may take some more time in those circumstances. There are quite a lot of vegan/veggie restaurants that cater to both Cambodians, Chinese-Cambodians and foreigners, VIBE Cafe and Artillery for example. 

I think serving vegan food in all events, especially those that advocate for social development and justice, should be the barest minimum. I also know that long before this is fully achieved, pioneering organizations such as United Edge will continue raising the bar, making even food in such events an expression of the principles of justice and sustainable development. Aside from being vegan, the food would be whole-food, organic, maybe oil and sugar free. Who knows, maybe even raw vegan!

The future is bright for most-affected communities, environment, climate, and animals when social development practitioners apply their principles of justice in every possible way. Makes me feel we are definitely on the right track. #SRC

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The saddest five-minute walk

I live in a small second floor studio apartment in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Every day, I take the saddest five minute walk from my flat to my workplace.

The moment I go down the street, I see trash everywhere. I have to navigate through muddy potholes and waste water from the outdoor kitchens. A couple of dozen beer cans litter a store floor, showing what men did in the night while some women started playing cards. Half naked kids play in the mud when they should be in day care or preschool. A little further away, open mixed waste burning.

I arrive to the office with a heavy heart. Its too much to take for a five minute walk.

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This Lent, watch Our Planet

I was born and raised in the Catholic tradition, but as I grow as a person I have ventured away from the Church and its outward ways. I have tried to seek other teachings, and continue to seek, not intending to leave what I grew up in, but to grow in what I learn from outside. I have also been a self-confessed environmentalist for most of my life and I don’t find anything in both that contradict each other. Rather, I find what is common, and try to understand that. Needless to say, I don”t find myself bound by age-old traditions, rituals or otherwise.

This Holy Week, my meditation would be through the Netflix documentary series “Our Planet”. I am only in the second episode but I have already teared up in some parts. It reveals so much to me of how we must act to take care our Mother Planet and her creatures who have nurtured humanity for thousands of years.

Animals are so very much like humans. Their need for survival, a home, their drive to keep their kind flourishing despite the odds, their evident intelligence, their struggles, their connections to their own family, their specie, their habitat, the unmistakable moments of care, which when we see in humans we call love, and probably there is a little difference except how we view and call it.

A lot of us know, at least in jist, what the Holy Books of the Christian tradition are trying to say. they are summed up in a number of commandments. But we often mistake those to apply only to humans, and rarely to other creatures, and the very planet that provides these creatures, including us, a home.

This Holy Week, I recommend three different ways to meditate about the suffering of Christ. First, I encourage you all to watch the series and meditate on it. try to understand what is needed of us to make a difference in this lifetime, and think for minute, that Mother Earth is the Christ that we have crucified. This, in fact, is not a new concept. In the Philippines at least, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was performed by well-known musicians, depicting Christ as nature. I managed to only find a terrible video of it, but it critically well received, if I was not mistaken, in the year 2000. Here is a video of rock star Jet Pangan as Pontious Pilate, with progressive musician Noel Cabangon as Christ.

Second, I encourage you to try and not take a life. a leg of lamb to for dinner to commemorate the rebirth of Christ is hardly a celebration of life. Please do not eat sentient beings nor take anything from them to celebrate Easter, whether it be any kind of animal body, milk and its products, eggs, or honey. They are not food but taken as such they represent death and not life. It is a story of death, and no major religion, as far as my limited knowledge allows, upholds death over life. I encourage you to be vegan.

Third, I encourage you all to reflect on our mundane life, individually and collectively, and find ways by which the little and big things we do impact the fragile blue planet we are in. whether it be our personal consumption, our use of energy, our support of politicians who do or do not uphold the welfare of the planet. There are just so many ways by which we can contribute in easing suffering in the world, whether by extreme weather events caused by climate change, fishing off the oceans, and using tons and tons of disposable plastics every day. I encourage you to be mindfully green.

I am definitely not the best person to take advise from during such a sacred time as the Lenten Season. In fact, I’m farthest from it. I have no moral ascendance over anyone to be offering this advice. Many people would mock me here online, within their circles, or in their minds for having the gall to offer an advise beyond the traditional fasting, prayer, and visits to a number of churches. I encourage you to take heed because this is not about me. This is not even about you. This is in fact about something greater than any of us, a planetary challenge to all humanity in the greatest crisis of our time.

I believe we live in a most auspicious time to do something of impact for our world, whether good or bad. Lastly, do not take my word for it. Please look into yourself and find out.