IdeasHoist interview : Weh Yeoh, founder of OIC Cambodia
Feb 12, 2015
Born in Sydney, Australia, Weh graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in Physiotherapy…. and dreams of one day being the physiotherapist for the Wallabies.
In the meantime, while working in the public health system in Sydney, he realised the impact that he could have on the lives of people with disabilities. After a few years, he took time off to travel throughout SouthEast Asia and volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities. Struck by how little services there were for these people, Weh also began to realise he did not have the skills or experience necessary to be most effective.
He returned to Australia and worked at a non-profit specialised in helping those with disabilities, while at the same time pursuing a Masters in International Development at the University of New South Wales.
After working with Handicap International in China, Weh moved to Cambodia in 2012. Struck by how little services there were for people with disabilities, Weh began working with a local organisation, CABDICO, which helped children with disabilities in poor communities.
From there he started the first pilot program in speech therapy in Cambodia, which has now evolved into OIC Cambodia.
He saw how local people were creating change for themselves, and wanted to support them.
Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?
I’ve always been enamoured by the power of local people in poor countries to create change for themselves. Working with a local organisation, CABDICO, for my first year in Cambodia, I realised how few resources these organisations have. And yet, the best work is being done by these people.
While first working with CABDICO two years ago, I met a child named Ouk Ling. He’s an outgoing, intelligent child, in a poor village in rural Cambodia.
Taking one look at him, it’s obvious thsat he has a disability of some kind. He has cerebral palsy, damage that occurs in a young brain around the time of birth. As a result, he had problems speaking to the point where his language wasn’t clear at all.
When I met Ling, he was 10 years old and he had never been to school. He couldn’t read or write, or even bathe himself. He was completely dependent on his family.
Those around him labelled him “chqoot” – a Cambodian word translated as “stupid” or even “retarded”. Simply put, without help, Ling’s only way of earning an income would be a life of begging.
Around the same time, I also met Phearom, Ling’s community worker, who visits him at his home every few weeks. Phearom is a staff member of OIC’s major partner in Cambodia, CABDICO.
As part of our pilot program, we trained Phearom on speech therapy. This training taught her how to treat Ling’s communication problem. It has had a truly life-changing impact on his life.
For the first time, Ling could speak with his family. But Phearom didn’t stop there. She brought Ling’s teachers together to discuss how to get Ling into the classroom.
After months of hard work, Ling is now going to school, but not only that, he is coming number two in his class. He dreams of one day becoming an architect.
Ling now has a future, because of speech therapy.
Meeting Ling two years ago taught me a valuable lesson. There are children all over Cambodia whose potential is untapped. Often, all it takes is a little bit of help and a child’s future can be improved dramatically.
So, a little over a year ago, in partnership with CABDICO, I began the first pilot program in speech therapy in Cambodia, which has now evolved to OIC Cambodia.
“OIC” refers to that moment when you suddenly understand something that you didn’t before. Oh I see, you would say.
My idea was never to start another non-profit organisation when there are so many good Cambodian organisations doing great work. Hence, the project is part of CABDICO’s work.
Please explain your model
Our model is simple. In our pilot program, we have helped more than 100 children, but we still have a long way to go. There are more than 600,000 Cambodians need access to speech therapy. That’s 1 in 25 Cambodian people.
Our goals are clear: we want to provide training in speech therapy services across Cambodia, to reach all the people who need it, and we want to graduate the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists from a Cambodian university.
This is ambitious, but achievable. We want to emulate the success of Fred Hollows for the 600,000 people who have communication and swallowing problems in Cambodia.
30 years ago, nobody had any idea that eye disease was a huge problem that could be addressed in developing countries. Similarly, no one knows about the huge need for speech therapy today.
We’re not only going to tell people about this need, we’re going to address it.
How will we do this? The key to our success is in working with Cambodian organisations that already work in this field.
I have mentioned CABDICO a number of times; they are an example of a Cambodian organisation that has spent years working in communities with people with disabilities. They have the disability workers, the relationships in the community, and the knowledge of Cambodia. Up to two years ago, all they were missing is knowledge of speech therapy.
We want to build on the great work organisations like CABDICO are doing, rather than create another NGO.
We want to establish something bigger than ourselves, rather than establish our territory and become protective of it.
We want to work with other organisations, rather than work in a silo.
We will train staff from partner organisations in speech therapy, through culturally-appropriate and language-appropriate methods. We’ll hire trainers and use Australian volunteer speech therapists to train them.
Then, we’ll send Cambodian trainers out to the poor parts of Cambodia to train doctors, nurses, physiotherapists – anyone who comes in contact with people who need speech therapy. These people will then be able to help some of the 600,000 people like Ling out there.
Though we will start small, the number we can reach is large. We hope to reach 200 health professionals like Phearom in the next two years, who will then be able to reach more than 1000 people like Ling.
So that we can get children like Ling into schools, we’ll also focus our efforts on teachers. Using the same methods, we’ll reach 180 teachers in the next two years, which will then affect more than 5,000 children in schools.
We will also work with a university in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to partner with an Australian university to establish a speech therapy course by 2020. Once the course is up and running, and the entire teaching team is run by Cambodians, we’ll have a sustainable way to spread this knowledge in Cambodia.
Then, we won’t need foreign volunteers to train Cambodians on speech therapy. It will be Cambodians, learning from other Cambodians.
And who knows, then it might be time for OIC: The Laos Project.
What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months?
I’m now building the team that will tackle this enormous challenge. We’re recruiting both staff and volunteers. Also, because funding from donors for this challenge has been lacking, we’re coming up with our strategy to raise funds to support this kind of work.
Generally, I’m most excited by people. I’m looking forward to working with people who care about this issue, even if isn’t the most recognised of causes, it’s certainly one of the most pressing. To see equally passionate people working together on it is both inspiring and humbling.
How do you make ideas happen?
I’m a huge fan of the General Patton quote: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” I think once you recognise that you have a good idea of the approach you are going to use, you need to start working on it and then bring people along with you. If you’re genuinely passionate about something, people will notice and they’ll want to be part of it.
What does your typical day look like?
It varies a lot, but often I am meeting with people who have seen what we are doing and want to be involved. Or trying to get people who should be involved interested in doing this.
What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Cambodia?
The biggest challenge relates to why this is an issue that affects 1 in 25 Cambodian people, yet not much work has been done in it. Simply, it’s not on anyone’s radar. When you think of the needs of people in poor countries, most people would think of water, food and shelter. Yet, without communication, or without the ability to swallow food, you don’t really have much to live for.
Getting people to recognise that, particularly in an industry that is risk-averse, is difficult.
What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde.
Put another way, life is simply too short to work in an area or organisation that you do not align with.
What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry at the moment?
TAD Disability Services – my previous employer. They make equipment for people with disabilities where there is no alternative.
Speech Pathology Australia – have supported our work and are a strong advocate for the need for speech therapy.
Global Poverty Project – in terms of which organisations are working in areas that are needed, and are flexible enough to recognise need, GPP are doing a great job.
Epic Arts – great little organisation based in Cambodia who are working with people with disabilities and were responsible for this great video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awvtmlJQSMs
Also, Africa Responds.
Speaking of affecting social change, is there a particular charity you’d like our readers to support?
Well ours, obviously – https://www.oiccambodia.org
Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.
www.whydev.org – Critical insights into how to help in a developing world context
www.livescience.com – Great round up of science news that matters
www.lifehacker.com – Never fails to provide interesting insights into how to do life better
Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter.
Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?
We are always looking for supporters and connections. We’re always looking for volunteers to help with speech therapy, fundraising, communications, and translation, among other things.
People can get in touch via here: https://www.oiccambodia.org/contact-us
We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?
What is the one most useful bit of advice you can give to people who are trying to get other people to change their minds?
What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?
Feel Good Café, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
First Published in Ideas Hoist.