York volunteer Antonia Miles is spending the run-up to Christmas supporting young people in rural Cambodia. Laura Reid explores how UK aid work is helping to tackle poverty.
Whilst festive shoppers soak up the hustle and bustle of the market- lined streets of York, Antonia Miles is living a life quite literally miles apart from that on offer in her home city in the run-up to Christmas.
The village where she has spent the past 12 weeks in rural Cambodia is nestled among rice fields and just a stone’s throw away from the peaceful World Heritage Site of Sambor Prei Kuk, a collection of more than 100 temples.
Each day, Antonia leaves the house that she shares with a married couple and their 16-year-old son by bike, passing trees bearing mango, papaya, banana and coconut, to reach a project office that is helping to transform the lives of young people in Prasat Sambour, a district in the country’s Kampong Thom province.
Antonia has been based there since September, one of an army of volunteers from the UK working to tackle poverty in some of the world’s poorest communities as part of the Government-funded International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.
Led by development charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the scheme brings volunteers aged up to 35 from this country together with young people from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to work on projects geared towards sustainable development, reducing poverty and empowering change.
Antonia, 25, is a team leader on a 15-week placement focused on developing youth clubs. The aim is to support young people to develop skills and to give them a voice in their local community.
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“The main income of most families here is the growing and harvesting of rice, raising of cattle or the local police force,” she says. “The main difficulty the community faces, which directly relates to our work, is the percentage of youth who drop out of school.
"There is still a large number who drop out in grade seven or eight (aged around 12) to work and they therefore miss out on a large majority of their secondary, high school education.”
Antonia, who studied History and then a Master’s degree in Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University, helps to oversee a team of 19 UK and Cambodian volunteers, whose focus with local youth is on volunteering, entrepreneurship and employment. They are the third, of five VSO teams, to work in Prasat Sambour.
“The main aim is to give youth a voice within the community and to ensure whatever work we do is sustainable for when VSO no longer work here. We have done this by establishing youth clubs and electing a president, vice president and administration to take responsibility of each club.
“We have encouraged them to deliver peer-to-peer learning sessions in each youth club, speaking to the rest of the group about a topic they have chosen and researched. This helps to develop their confidence and presenting skills as these are things which aren’t always focused on at school in Cambodia.
“We are also working closely with local businesses and facilities in the community, developing a learning centre for everyone to use, which includes information on the job centre and a vocational training school where people can learn skills such as mechanics and then use this to work or start their own business.”
The VSO teams have also worked with several schools and encouraged marginalised youth to get involved in local projects. “We are also working with a local self-help group on their ideas to develop their business, such as by raising chickens and selling homegrown vegetables,” explains Antonia, who raised £800 for VSO before heading to Cambodia.
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"This is really important as it is a group of people who either have a disability or have a family member with a disability and it ensures that they feel part of the community and can also work towards being able to support themselves and their family.”
Whilst more than 6,000 miles from her home in Yorkshire, Antonia, who returns to the UK on December 21, is living with a host family. Her host mother, Ming, sells toys and second hand clothes outside the home and her host father, Po, is a police officer.
“As a family, they are very self-sufficient,” Antonia says. “They grow garlic and chilli in their garden and have banana, mango and papaya trees. They also regularly go and source their own seafood such as fish, crabs and snails from the local rice fields.
“Ming is amazing, she made me feel welcome and at home as soon as I arrived and she is always making sure I am OK and that I am eating enough, despite not speaking any English. her house is an open home, with neighbours, family and friends regularly coming around to chat or help her organise the clothes she sells.”
The difference that the work of young volunteers like Antonia makes is highlighted by ICS in its latest annual report. The programme claims it doesn’t offer ‘voluntourism’. Instead, its projects are making a “meaningful contribution towards reducing global poverty”.
It has supported more than 37,000 volunteers in the UK and abroad since its launch in 2011, with 3,334 taking part in projects last year. In doing so, it has helped people to earn a decent living and to access services and information to stay healthy, as well as supporting children to get the education they deserve and empowering people to become active citizens in their community.
“ICS volunteers like Antonia are doing amazing work around the world everyday,” says Felicity Morgan, ICS director at VSO. “We’re incredibly proud that UK aid is supporting young Brits to bring about positive change in some of the world’s poorest communities.”
But it’s not just those in poverty that benefit. According to the report, a total of 77 per cent of volunteers identified personal development as one of the top three things that they had achieved from their placement and 68 per cent said what they were doing now had been influenced by it.
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For Antonia, whose interest in humanitarian aid came from a visit to Rwanda with a group of students on a sports coaching volunteering trip last year, the experience is helping her to develop her leadership skills and means she can see first hand how international projects can empower youth and improve their futures.
“I decided I wanted to do more humanitarian work whilst learning and experiencing a new culture,” she says. “International development is important as if we can all help each other to have better working systems, through education and sharing knowledge, then we can all contribute to a sustainable world.
"It is through working in international development that you can gain a better and wider understanding of worldwide issues, a perspective you don’t get from first world countries.”
To find out more about ICS or to apply, visit www.volunteerics.org