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Really Good Bad Ideas

January 14, 2013

Today I reviewed some literature which was given to me.  As a publisher and one who works developing local churches in Cambodia, I often review literature.  My twenty years experience in Cambodia and more than fifteen years in publishing here along with my intimate involvement with the local church gives me a good handle on what would be useful and what would be a waste of time.

Today, I came across a great idea. . . but unfortunately would be a near waste of time to produce in its current state.

Most works I see start with a basic wrong assumption: They wrongly assume every person and culture thinks like me, or should think like me.  What I find useful, should be useful to everyone. What works in Iowa should work in Cambodia. All these assumptions are wrong and a recipe for wasting time and money.

Today’s good idea was an agriculture training course.  It has more than several DVD’s shot on location in Africa, and it also has several training books, complete with color photographs. For Cambodia, being 80% agriculture based, this sounds like the perfect tool to help people out of poverty. Yet, with my 20 years experience I can tell you it is not going to have any impact.


Let me tell you something which research has shown about Cambodia.

  • The average church leader in Cambodia only has a 7th grade education.  The average educational level of the entire nation is 2nd grade.  How many 7th graders, much less 2nd graders read 100 page technical agricultural books?  Hmmm. . . none.
  • 80% of Cambodians are subsistence farmers, not commercial farmers.  Most exclusively grow rice.  The material was all focused on corn production which is rarely grown in Cambodia. Furthermore, corn which is grown in Cambodia is all exported to Thailand with exclusive contacts.  Therefore, corn farmers are not free to learn new methods or even use your recommended seeds, because they are under contract to produce a certain way for a foreign company.
  • More than 60% of Cambodia has no electricity, much less a DVD player. Most farmers would have no way to view the DVDs.
  • All industries have their own terminology.  Farmers have theirs.  However, the translation of materials will likely be done by educated urban young people who likely have no idea about farming terminology.  Translation will be extremely difficult.  Only the best translation services (read ‘expensive’), with a long period of text testing with local farmers should be used.
  • Cambodian’s only experience with Africans has been UN soldiers who are generally accused of bringing AIDS into Cambodia and Africa perceived by Cambodians to be extremely poor, corrupt and an incredibly hot continent.  These prejudices, whether right or wrong, will have an effect on usage. Having DVD’s produced in Africa will likely be a deterrent to usage. Having a DVD from a Southeast Asian context would be much better, even if it’s not Cambodian.

Is there a solution to “fixing” this material?  Yes there is.  Many of the principles are excellent, but they need to be explained and taught in a way which Cambodian farmers can relate too.  The materials focus nearly exclusively on farming corn, yet Cambodia rarely grows corn, they grow rice.  Rice and corn are grown completely differently.  So, if you can modify the principles to teach about rice, then it might be useful. . . but it needs to be tested in the soil; in real world examples.  That means someone needs to spend some time here (probably a minimum of a few months and upwards of a decade just to implement it). Is anyone willing to do that?  If not, you’re probably just wasting your time and money on an irrelevant resource which will never be used.

Another basic principle is that anything which is taught in Cambodia needs to be modeled to be effective. Farmers don’t learn by reading books.  They learn by watching other farmers and learn by practice.  If you hold a classroom seminar for farmers (pretty much anywhere, not just Cambodia) they may grab some interesting information, but a farmer is not going to read a hundred page book on agriculture principles.  He is going to do what he has done for the last decade and replicate what his father and grandfather showed him.  Tradition and experience is more powerful than a book. So, are you prepared to open a model farm to demonstrate the principles?  Or at the minimum work with one or two farmers who are willing to “test” the material in a real world situation?  If not, it is likely the resources will never be of any use.

In summary, when considering how you help people in another culture or another country, consider the following elements.

Is it relevant?: Is what you want to share relevant to their culture and situation?  You need “cultural insiders” to discover this.  You need people who will honestly talk to you.  Realize that if there is money involved, you may never get an honest answer.  Inquire of people you can trust who have the integrity and courage to talk straight with you.

Do you have time?: If you could just fix every problem with a seminar or training book, the world would be perfect by now.  Most training materials and resources never get used and eventually fade away because the people who introduced them didn’t have the time to apply it and work with people who could implement it.  Implementation always takes time.  There is no substitute for time.

Do you have resources?: One of the scriptural laws of the harvest is “if you sow little, you will reap little; if you sow a lot, you will reap much.” Are you willing to sow considerably to see a significant?  Printing a book costs only $1.00-2.00; it’s cheap!  Are you willing to publish hundreds or thousands of books?  Are you willing to invest in setting up and training a few key people to implement the training?  Are you willing to do research and evaluate the real-world results to then made modifications to the original teaching?  This all requires financial resources to do correctly.

Are you committed?: If you don’t stand behind the training resources, the people you intend to use it will not use it either. Are you willing to work with local people to implement the training and stick with them through problems and difficulties until you can see success?

Will you get your hands dirty?: Notice I didn’t say are you “willing” to get your hands dirty. You need to get dirty. One of the modern disasters in the missions movement, in my opinion, has been turning missionaries into a type of lofty consultant which doesn’t speak the local language fluently (did you know that it is pretty rare nowadays to have a missionary that can speak a local language fluently. . . I’m not joking.  It’s shocking!).  They often live in missionary Mecca’s and not even among the people they are supposed to be ministering too.  This is a huge error.  “Missionaries” have become soft and spend their time on the internet and in strategy meetings, but most don’t connect and live among the people.  If you don’t partner with a real missionary, or a connected indigenous national partner, then it is likely your project will fail.  If you are not willing to get your hands dirty (literally), and also the ones with who you are working with, then it is doomed to fail.  Get your hands dirty!  It will be fun!

Nothing in life is easy.  Developing training resources to impact people’s lives will not be easy either.  I see really good bad ideas every day.  It takes work to make a good idea great! Make the effort!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2013 2:44 pm

    Great post, brother. Exegete the culture!

  2. January 15, 2013 12:10 pm

    Hi, Thanks for this post. I was really encouraged in reading it… I am not a missionary or anywhere near involved in agriculture, but I love Jesus and travel a lot; and at times, I’ve found myself extremely fed up with white “missionaries” who fail to truly get involved in the culture they’re in. I’ve traveled to places for 2 weeks and felt I learned more about the people/language/culture than missionary friends who were there for 2 years… Anyway, I’ve read several posts, and find your blog and your love for Cambodia completely encouraging and a challenge not to bag on the missionaries with methods I don’t agree with, but rather a challenge to rejoice in the good that is being done and to pray that God’s workers will empower each other in new and realistic ways!

    • January 15, 2013 1:02 pm

      Thank you very much for your kind words. I hope we can all do better!

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