Weh Yeoh

Seeing the bigger picture with Weh Yeoh

Nov 1, 2015

Speech and swallowing disorders affect more than 600,000 Cambodians (much worse among children). No speech therapists, no awareness, no help from the government. Then Weh Yeoh went to work.

Speech therapy aims to treat people with communication and swallowing disabilities. These can include people with disabilities such as Down syndromecerebral palsy and brain or nerve damage. Often, difficulties in communication are overlooked by able-bodied individuals who underestimate the extent to which such a disability can affect a person’s life. Communication is a vital part of life and without it, it is difficult to go to school, get a job, or live a full life. By neglecting the issue of speech therapy, it is estimated that 4% of Cambodia’s population has been left behind (CABDICO, 2013).

Each year, an estimated half a billion US dollars of foreign aid arrives in Cambodia ostensibly to support and stabilize the country. There are more than three thousand NGOs working in Cambodia, but not one Cambodian university trained speech therapist. Two years ago, OIC Cambodia emerged with the aim of establishing speech therapy as a profession in a country where it is overlooked.

OIC stands for “Oh, I see!” The moment of understanding, the realization of what someone is trying to communicate with you.

Weh Yeoh, founder of OIC, has ample experience in the international NGO sector. Before arriving in Cambodia, he worked in China helping children with disabilities. His background as a physiotherapist and an international development expert helped prepare him to work with NGOs, but the actual experience of working on-site was an eye-opener. He often questioned the amount of money the organization was spending for him to be in China. Learning about donor funding, international NGO operations, and how local people work made him assess his contributions to the community. Soon after, he left China and headed for Cambodia, where he spent his first year with a local organization called CABDICO run by local Cambodian staff. CABDICO sends their staff out on motorbikes to the poorest parts of the country to help children with disabilities. One of the more experienced members of the organization, Chea Phearom, would ride an average of 70 kilometers per day on her motorbike to visit children. The lack of health centers and hospitals means that organizations like CABDICO are essential for providing basic care and treatment.

Phearom with 13-year old Ling, a child born with cerebral palsy

At the end of his first year in Cambodia, Phearom told Weh that 7 out of every 10 children she saw needed speech therapy. The lack of a trained speech therapist meant that the team lacked the skills to provide professional therapy in accordance with relevant standards. Weh did some research and found out that nobody had the skills to become a qualified speech therapist, or to teach others the skills in the entire country.

Weh realized that, despite there being over 3,000 NGOs and substantial foreign aid coming into the country, Cambodia lacks even a single university-trained speech therapist. In his view, the system of international development favors certain causes, with others being left behind. OIC aims to address a major issue that has been vastly ignored.

In 2014, OIC set up the first independently evaluated pilot project for speech therapy in Cambodia. They trained local staff, including those of CABDICO and a few partner organizations. They used what was developed in the pilot to show others, including the Cambodian government and the United Nations, why speech therapy is important in Cambodia. Recently, Weh was invited to speak in front of the UN and several other agencies to talk about speech therapy in Cambodia using the findings from the project as evidence.

Weh speaking at the United Nations

After catalyzing the discussion, OIC has worked with other organizations operating in Cambodia to train locals in speech therapy. This training has been invaluable for NGOs and government staff, and the population they serve. However, infrastructure to address the lack of speech therapy does not yet exist and universities have not started to train qualified speech therapists.

Weh understands that there is a lot to be learned given that OIC is pioneering speech therapy in a country where the profession does not exist and awareness is low. The organization seeks to learn, improvise, and adapt to the needs and limitations of their area of operation. Weh also understands that for OIC to grow, it has to go well past the founder; no one singular person has all the answers. OIC currently has over 40 volunteers and staff–Weh believes that the reason that their numbers have grown so quickly over the past two years is because of the willingness and attitude within the team to take on new ideas and use the skills and experience of each individual collaboratively.

3 Key lessons from Weh’s story:

  1. You’ll have to sacrifice more than just your time: Since founding OIC, Weh has dug through his savings to fund both OIC and himself. Cash flow is always going to be an issue and financial sacrifice is often the norm for NGOs. Fundraising is difficult, but for OIC it is extremely difficult because there is a lack of awareness about the issue. Traditional donors to Cambodian NGOs have little understanding about speech therapy and its necessity. Unfortunately, lesser known causes often receive less funding; so personal donations and commitment to these causes are often overwhelming.
  2. Engage with both members and mentors: Listening, talking to different people, and considering their advice is an essential part of being involved in an organization, nonprofit or otherwise. OIC currently has a small staff base, a large volunteer base, an advisory committee in Cambodia, and a fundraising committee in Australia. By listening to the staff, volunteers, and advisors who form the project, you’ll have a better view on what needs to be done than observing on your own. Being open to learning is a key reason why OIC has come this far and survived. Surround yourself with people who have experience, consider other perspectives to shape your thinking, and recognize that you might not have the experience or mindset that would best solve the problem. By bringing together people of differing experience, you are more prepared to deal with whatever situation is at hand. Weh believes that as a leader, his role is to bring in other people who are better qualified in certain areas than himself, knowing that one person cannot be great at everything. The success of OIC can be attributed more to the team that is behind Weh, than anything specifically related to Weh himself.
  3. Focus on the people you’re helping: You need to keep your mind focused on the people that you’re helping, not what you can profit from being involved. As a project of CABDICO, OIC aims to achieve its goal and then leave. Weh never planned to go into Cambodia with the intent of setting up the project, and he firmly rejects the savior complex that has overshadowed what needed to be done in favor of putting the spotlight on foreigners.

When you are foreign to the area you’re working in, you need to form close relationships with locals who can provide cultural and systematic insights that are essential for program success and longevity. Foreigners who want to work in countries like Cambodia need to acknowledge that much of the work that needs to be accomplished to keep organizations and projects like OIC going is not glamorous. Humanitarianism should never be commandeered for the purpose of resume or ego building. You have to avoid that mindset and remember that, as a someone engaged in development your goal from day one should be to make yourself redundant. The locals cannot leave as easily and they are the ones who need support.

First Published in Founding Stories.