Combating the legacy of weapon contamination in Cambodia
Mom Phireak is Programme Coordinator for Mine Risk Education/Risk Reduction at the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) in Phnom Penh. In 2005, at Mom's instigation, the CRC started an innovative micro-credit project to support the economic integration of people who are vulnerable to landmines and other explosive remnants. He spoke with Claudia McGoldrick about the project and its success.
What made the Cambodian Red Cross decide to start a micro-credit project for victims, and "potential" victims, of landmines and ERW?
There have been huge efforts over the past decade or so to tackle the problem of mines and ERW in Cambodia. On the part of the Cambodian Red Cross, these effo rts were largely based on the more traditional methods of mine risk education and mine awareness. Children were taught about this in school, and evening classes were given to adults.
But it became clear that education and awareness alone were not sufficient to prevent mine/ERW related accidents. The vast majority of people falling victim to mines or ERW did so because they were engaged in risky activities such as collecting scrap metal or farming in contaminated areas. They were effectively forced to take risks in order to make a living and meet their basic needs. For example, in 2004 there was a rise in the price of scrap metal, and consequently a clear increase in the number of mine/ERW-related casualties.
I was fortunate to attend various annual mine action meetings organized by the ICRC, where representatives of National Societies from other mine-affected countries shared their experiences of how to change behaviour in the community. Clearly, providing mine victims – and potential victims – with alternative sources of income in order to prevent them from engaging in risky activities was the way forward. From this came the idea to implement a micro-credit project for victims of mines and ERW in Cambodia.
With financial support from the German Red Cross, and since July 2007 from the Australian Red Cross, the project has expanded considerably from just 18 beneficiaries when we began in 2005, to more than 400 direct beneficiaries so far in 2008. About one third of them are mine victims and the other two thirds are " potential victims " whom we hope to prevent ever becoming actual victims. But when you consider the families of these 400 beneficiaries, you can say that the micro-loans actually have a beneficial impact on about 2,000 people. By the end of 2008, we expect this number will increase further, to approximately 560 direct beneficiaries.
How does the project work?
In the areas of the country worst affected by mines and ERW, particularly in the six provinces along the Cambodia/Thai border, communities themselves identify the most vulnerable mine/ERW survivors as well as " potential victims " . Red Cross volunteers then interview these candidates to basically assess their motivation and their existing skills. If appropriate, they then help them with all the necessary paper work such as a business plan, loan request, contract and so on.
The maximum loan is US $200, which can be used for a variety of income generation activities, such as small-scale farming; raising animals such as pigs, cows, chickens; setting up a grocery shop or a small restaurant. The loan is given on a revolving fund basis. It is interest-free, but must be paid back in cash within 12 months. The repaid loan is immediately reinvested in a new beneficiary. So the loan system is continually revolving and growing.
Has the project been successful?
Well, in 2004, before the micro-credit project started, almost 900 people were killed or injured per year by mines or ERW in Cambodia. Between 2006-2008, that number has dropped to between 350-450 casualties per year. That indicator alone reflects a significant achievement.
However, our project is of course only one contributing factor to this success. There are various other factors too. For example, the government has introduced a policy that makes the purchase of scrap metal illegal. The economy as a whole is also improving, so scrap metal activity is less attractive and less necessary. Mine clearance has further helped the situation.
Apart from the micro-credit project, does the Cambodian Red Cross carry out other activities to address the problem of mines/ERW in the country?
Through its large network of volunteers, the CRC is responsible for gathering the vast majority of all data on mine incidents throughout the country. This enables mine action organisations to plan and prioritise mine clearance and other related activities. The CRC also carries out more traditional activities of mine awareness and mine risk education particularly with migrant communities that are constantly on the move, and for whom the micro-credit programme would not be appropriate. First aid training in communities is another important activity. Yet another one is identifying victims in the community who have not yet received prostheses, and transporting them to ICRC physical rehabilitation centres.
Does the ICRC play a role in supporting these activities of the Cambodian Red Cross?
The ICRC has the lead role within the Movement for weapon contamination, as mine action is now called, so is in fact responsible for helping National Societies such as ours to plan and implement activities. The ICRC provides us with technical support, policy and planning advice and helps us to develop strategies. It also plays a coordinating role with other National Societies, particularly with regard to helping to secure funding for our activities, and allows us to share experiences and best practices.
Read also the feature "Promoting economic security among victims of landmines"