Friends International – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

T-shirt bag made by Friends International.

I first fell in love with Friends International, when I came to visit Cambodia with my parents in 2014.  I stocked up on handmade journals from their gift shop for all my girlfriends back home.  To this day, they say it’s one of the best journal/gifts, out there.  In 2015, I was lucky enough to check out their sister restaurant and store in Laos.  Since living in Phnom Penh, I’ve been able to visit their Friends ‘N’ Stuff fair trade gift shops and their vocational training restaurants Friends the Restaurant and  Romdeng.

Friends-International was born on the streets of Phnom Penh in August 1994. Initially provided services to the street kids found in the Cambodian capital in the aftermath of years of genocide and conflict in the country. The original Friends project, Mith Samlanh (which means ‘Friends’ in Khmer – all programs use a local language version of ‘Friends’ in their name) became a local NGO in 1999.  Friends then went on to expand both programs and partnerships in the following years, developing social business and child protection elements to ensure comprehensive and creative solutions and services for all the marginalized youth and communities they now work with. The 17 children whose lives they changed in 1994 have grown to 100,000 in the ensuing decades, thanks to their innovative partnership model of ‘Together, building futures’.

Hundreds of millions of children  are pushed onto the margins of society around the world. Friends works with children and youth who lack opportunity or are among the most marginalized, and with their parents and their communities. The problems they face have consequences on the whole of society.

“When children experience poverty, poor health, malnutrition, stress, violence, abuse, neglect, inadequate care or a lack of learning opportunities, particularly during the first years of their lives, their ability to fulfill their potential is at risk.” (The State of the World’s Children, 2016, UNICEF.)

  • Unemployed youth – International Labor Organization (ILO) statistics put the number of unemployed youth worldwide at 71 million.
  • Child migrants/refugees – UNICEF estimates that there are nearly 50 million children currently in this category.
  • Children Living Outside of Family Care – UN sources estimate there are up to 150 million children living outside of family care in the world today.
  • Out of school children – recent UN estimates show almost 65 million adolescents between the ages of 12 to 15 years old were denied their right to an education, in addition to 59 million children of primary education that were out of school.
  • Working children – currently stands at 168 million children (source – ILO). More than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work.

More than 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day. Poverty forces parents in this situation into desperate measures. These include sending their children out to work (often dangerous work with health and safety risks), and keeping them out of school to do that. In some cases, parents will give up their children to institutional care which is detrimental to the child’s well-being.

Poor communities face a multitude of risk factors – these include lack of basic services such as water and electricity, and little or no access to health and education provision. These communities normally have high levels of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse and crime, and are far from the ideal environment for children to live and thrive in.

People in impoverished communities are often seen as a ‘problem’ by authorities and others, something that is best moved further out of sight into ghetto or slum areas where in reality the ‘problem’ festers and grows. Communities such as these across the world face multiple challenges from poverty and deprivation, creating environments where ‘forgotten’ youth can easily fall into crime, drug abuse and radicalization, and become seen as even more of a ‘threat’ to society.

As individuals, and with Friends businesses, often react emotionally to what they see as the plight of these children.  Friends wants to help.  Friends wants to do something for them.  Friends wants to donate their money and time to them.

Traditional ‘pity charity’ approaches invariably fail because they most often don’t look to the longer term. Throwing money at a problem does not tackle the root cause, but often our emotions are exploited to fund approaches that simply do not work.  We need to ensure that public and other  funding is directed toward empowering and sustainable approaches

Residential Care Institutions (orphanages) are one example. All the evidence points to them being actually bad for children, causing physical, mental and long term emotional harm and stunting development. In fact 80% of the children in orphanages are not true orphans, and could (and should) be reunited with their families. However, we are sold the idea of the orphanage being best for them, despite the fact that supporting institutional care is much more expensive than supporting family based care! A whole industry has grown around this in countries such as Cambodia, exploiting not just the children (the ‘commodity’ in this transaction) but also the good intentions of volunteers, led to believe they can really make a difference to these children’s lives as a part of their holiday.

Friends came up with a set of creative solutions. These make up a holistic approach to tackling all issues children and young people face on their path to becoming productive citizens of their country. From saving their lives to building their futures.

Their innovative social services provide best practice sustainable social integration of children, youth and their caretakers and their communities.

They started many social businesses that support the reintegration of children and youth and make their work financially more sustainable.

Friends International Elephant Tote Bag

ChildSafe is a global Movement protecting children and youth around the world. They give everyone a way to protect children.  The ChildSafe Alliance is a partnership that brings together organizations with a desire to build futures for marginalized children and youth.

Have you ever been to Phnom Penh, Cambodia?  What NGOs did you learn about?


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