Scam or Gem ?

Below is a lengthy denouncement of AAD which was sent to us. We have since received a message from a long-term AAD volunteer which strongly rejects what is written here (see bottom of this page). We at Independent Volunteer have no affiliation with either and merely make this information available to the volunteering community. Use your own judgment: critical thinking AND and open heart are necessary in any such endeavor.

This Report sounds very discouraging, however we think that even in such a situation a volunteer can have a positive impact.

* NOTE: names have been changed.

I went to Cambodia in January 2007 with the aim of volunteering with ANON. I had been looking for volunteer opportunities in Cambodia and had read about ANON which was based in Siem Reap. Conscious and wary of the plethora of organisations/ NGOs that mask themselves under the name of charity but are only out to scam donations from unsuspecting donors/volunteers, I wanted to be sure that ANON was worth my commitment. Hence, I started doing my 'homework' and background check into ANON. There were a few websites about it and the feedback I received about it all seemed really favourable. Thus, after a few months' of research about ANON, I decided to take my chance with it.

Touted as an NGO that is aimed at helping people with disabilities in Cambodia, ANON is fronted by its founder and director. The story sold is that the director wants to help Cambodians with disabilities find self-sustainable ways of living by providing skills/job for them so that they do not have to beg on the streets. He is depicted as a 'from zero to hero' figure who overcame all odds to help his fellow countrymen with similar fates. Encouraged by what I read about him, I made ANON my first priority on the list of charities in Cambodia I had finalised.

I was happy and fortunate to arrange a live-in stint with it as it gave me an opportunity for a first-hand experience in learning about ANON. The best way to learn/know/understand a person is to live with him/her as living under the same roof can often expose some otherwise usually 'hidden' habits/behaviour. My two-week stay there was definitely a testament to that doctrine. Though I had initially planned for a one-month volunteer stint with ANON, I found it increasingly impossible to do that with new foundings about The director each day. My conclusion after an intensive two-week observation of The director and ANON was that the whole ANON idea was just a facade of The director to scam donors of donations. He was not sincere about helping the people with disabilities at all. He was only interested in siphoning money for himself. An incredible show master, he paid excellent lip service and put up pretentious shows that marketed him as a compassionate man who was keen on helping people with disabilities. I saw how he behaved in front of and behind people. I witnessed his beautiful front-stage performances and ugly backstage realities.

In the two weeks that I was at ANON, The director did not give me any directions to work in at all. I am aware that "As an ANON volunteer, you can write your own job description" (according to its website), but at the very least, an orientational meeting to brief/discuss on ANON's structure, background, functions, work it does, etc and most importantly, how I may be of help would be useful. None of that at all. I was keen to find out about ANON's work so that I could start work as soon as possible. Sadly, he could only parrot 'I'm very glad that you have come to help ANON" all the time and "I'm very busy" when I tried to initiate any meeting to talk about ANON/my possible contribution. I finally managed to secure a meeting with him after a week-long wait and letting on that I was getting a little frustrated that I seemed to be wasting my time, just waiting for him to 'get back and talk to me'. He reluctantly agreed to 'talk' to me about those topics, but in a very brief manner with him sidestepping all those important issues with curt and evasive answers, which I later found to be lies.

One of the projects at ANON was a theatre performance put up by the ANON members. This project was originally conceived by three female volunteers who wanted to seek a way of self-sustenance for the ANON members. They created the performance and helped to train the members. They even managed to help kickstart the performance at a very prominent hotel in Siem Reap, giving an important opportunity to showcase and introduce it. The project was taken over and managed by a school teacher, Tim (who had been helping ANON a lot on a voluntary basis but with lesser credits given to him) after they left Cambodia.

Eventually, Tim took on the thankless role of being the manager for the performance. For all the relentless work required for his 'job title', Tim was only given a token sum of 10% of the show earnings to cover the expenses warranted by his job. Our ANON Director, who typically did nothing to contribute to the performance, demanded a whopping 25% cut of the performance fees, simply for the fact that the performers are ANON members. And mind you, that 25% was not going towards the living expenses of the ANON members, as he had categorically stated. The excuse for seizing such a huge cut was to go towards the ANON funds (which ironically, did not include providing for the ANON members!).

Anyone who knew the real The director would not have any difficulty knowing where that money was really going. If he were to channel the funds received for ANON into helping the members as he claimed to be and which should rightfully be the way, I would have no qualms apportioning 25% of the earnings to him. But the sad and harsh truth was that, all the money disappeared into The director's own pocket and I really hated to see everyone else working so hard to line his pockets and not being able to say/do anything about it at all. There were other excuses that he came up with to grab more of the money pie – 'Driver's fee' (the driver was a paid staff of ANON and by default, the transporting of the ANON members was included in his job description. The feeble claim to 'cover petrol costs' was bulls**t. Petrol may be expensive but certainly did not cost that much. Again, not difficult to see why this was made an official 'share partner' of the show earnings and where that money would end up in), Community funds (a sub-project initially conceived to bring the theatre performance to the community that would not be able to afford the show fees. The estimated sum of putting up the performance had been reached but to date, no news of the show being staged at the community level.), etc

As The director was constantly in MIA mode (he was seldom in the villa) and did not give me anything to work on, I decided to just take it upon myself to try and 'sell' the theatre performance to the hotels. That was the only thing that I knew enough about to be able to talk to people. I started making cold-call visits to the hotels in Siem Reap after drawing up a list of them. I was working independently on my own with no help from ANON at all. Later, I roped in the manager of the performance, Tim to help me. It was only the two of us working at selling the performance. All The director ever showed any concern to my volunteer work was the one time he asked the question: "So how many hotels are buying the performance?" and when the answer did not satisfy him, he never cared to ask anything about it afterwards again.

It was clear that The director's idea of volunteers who want to help ANON meant donating money. At least that was what happened with me (and a few other volunteers, which I learnt later). He tried to get donations out of me several times and after a few unsuccessful attempts at getting money out from me (I had already grown wary of him and was not going to give him any donations until I could ascertain where that money was going), he became uninterested in my volunteer work at ANON. And he was quick to show that disinterest very blatantly - his behaviour and attitude changed completely soon as he realised that he was not going to get any money from me. Frankly, if it were not for the members at ANON that I had grown to love so much, I would have left much earlier.

Accounting of the cash flow in ANON was non-existent - only The director handled the money and knew how much went in and out of ANON. Or rather, how much went into the organisation and how much went into HIS pocket? What was public (aka ANON) and personal was a very blurred line. And that line was drawn by The director himself. He made up the figures according to his whims and interest. Eg: He recently bought a car that cost USD$1800 but told people that it was only USD$800 (to give the idea that he was not spending a lot of money). He told everyone that he only spent a little (USD$800 is considered a little...for an organisation that claimed to be very 'poor') on the car as it was a necessity for his work. But in reality, I saw him and his family use the car more for their own use than 'official purposes' - going to the markets, driving around town when they got bored, etc.

Another example, he claimed that a paid staff by the name of Sam who helped with the administrative work in ANON was paid only a 'measly USD$100' (I understand that a typical government office worker in Cambodia gets a salary of about USD$40-$50) and had to work long hours- in other words, his claim was that Sam was an underpaid staff because ANON was 'poor'. In reality, Sam drew a monthly salary of USD$200 which he openly admitted. And for that 'measly salary' so-claimed by The director, we (Tim and myself) were clueless to what Sam did at ANON. I seldom saw Sam there and he was NEVER there when there was work/you needed him. In the two weeks that I was volunteering at ANON, whenever I needed anything, I could never find Sam. It's a mystery to me what he really does at ANON. If The director was not managing the ANON funds unsuitably/inappropriately, why did he lie about them?

His undesirable behaviour of heading ANON aside, his treatment of the ANON members appalled me. I had seen how his family ate. His family ate very good food - always meat (eg: pork, beef, chicken, etc and they ate the best parts – eg: the chicken thighs) and lots of food at each meal. I was pretty surprised at how well they ate, considering how The director was always complaining that they were 'very poor'. I would say that if what they ate at the table was anything to go by, I would definitely not put them in the 'poor/needy' category. Sadly, that was untrue for the members living at ANON. They did not get to eat the 'good food' that the family was having. Only measly vegetables and little rice. Their diet was definitely what I call 'a poor person's feed'. I felt so sorry and dismayed at the stark contrast.

Before I got there, I had heard of how humble a person The director was (there again confirming the saying to never believe what you hear completely). So when I witnessed the distinction he made between the 'lowly members' and his own family, I was very dismayed by my observations. Members could not eat at the main table - they had to cook separately at a make-shift stove outside the house and huddle around the stove and eat their meals. The director's family would eat 'properly' at the table. Although I understood that as a 'director', he may want that esteem of a 'head of the organisation', I could not excuse him for his condescending attitude towards the members.

It was clear that the family regarded the members as 'lowly people' who were second-class citizens living in the house and treated them as such. The way they talked to them and 'ordered' them to do things, you would have thought the members were their servants. Even though I did not understand Khmer very well, I could see that very plainly. The sad thing was that, all the members would not speak of the truth about their predicament there for fear that they would be thrown out of the place. So nobody ever bad-mouthed The director at all. Not openly anyways. You would have to earn their trust before they would dare to speak about the truth at ANON. It took me nearly a month to get them to admit those truths. Initially, whenever I tried to ask anything, they would always give me the politically-correct answers - answers that would certainly camouflage the truth from a non-suspecting visitor.

All these were cleverly hidden from visitors and were initially veiled from me too. It took me a while before I could establish the truth of each hearsay I heard about. So, it took me a long time to figure all these out and I really had to observe very keenly. It was never a full story that got revealed one-shot - always bits and pieces of information/observations here and there that I had to piece together to get the picture. I am lucky enough to be able to witness and know the true story behind. But even I do not have the complete story of all the happenings yet. My time there was too short. I only lived with them for two weeks and even though I maintained contact with the members after I moved out, it was still very little and limited that I could know.

It was also my observation that The director was a power/control freak. He did not delegate work in ANON for fear of people finding out what went on exactly behind the smokescreen, especially the financial matters. Thus, he attained and retained absolute power over everyone there. When I showed up and starting asking questions (about ANON), he became defensive and was quick to let me know that my place was not to ask questions but to help him only. And yet, he did not give me any directions to work on at all. Perhaps, I had scared him off with my questions. Like I informed before, his idea of my helping was to donate money. That, I got, very clear.

I am deeply concerned by The director's wrong-doings and how increasingly obnoxious and ridiculous he has become. When I first left ANON, I had no ill-feelings towards him but just thought that he was not a suitable person to head ANON. But as I got to learn more about him, I got more disgusted by him. Sadly, I only learnt about the truth until very late – too late to do anything at all. I have already left Cambodia and much as I would like help, my assistance, if any, will be remote and slow. There is only so much you can do when you are not on-site. Together with some past volunteers of ANON, we are all very concerned about what is going on at ANON. Recently, I learnt that the members were not only not eating well as usual, but that the situation had worsened. They were starving and had no food. So much so that Tim was thinking of 'asking' for some food donation from another visitor to ANON. Another ludicrous idea that The director racked up was that he wanted to collect rent from the ANON members living in the house - an 'assistance' that he advertised to donors.

In conclusion, The director is just a dubious director of a debatable organisation interested only in lining his own pocket. He may have started ANON with the best of intentions and could initially be genuine in wanting to execute his mission statement. But maybe the comfort brought by the influx of help and donations through the years have since caused him to sidetrack or forget ANON's mission statement. ANON receives a lot of overseas help. Assistance from donors/volunteers/helpers in Japan, Australia, America and the UK especially, have been tremendous sources of relief and are steadily sustaining ANON (or The director?). Pity they are not truly aware of how the money is being used or where it is really going. No doubt The director has also put up many shows to 'prove' ANON's 'credibility' – just look at the 'many activities' claimed on ANON's website. Some of them are true while most of them are just ornamental shows. If anyone were to delve deeper and look hard or simply put him under the microscope, it is not difficult to see that 'inputs do not equal outputs' – the funds received by ANON are not proportional with the help/'results' so claimed by the shady director. Some may think I am too harsh on him but after knowing what kind of a person he is, I spare no punches in exposing him or giving him any benefits that he does not deserve.

I do not condemn ANON entirely as I have seen and known the members. They are real and truly need help. I even think it is still worthwhile to go and volunteer with ANON - but just not making any substantial monetary donations. I think helping the members directly is more concrete. That's what I did - while I was there and even after I left ANON, I was teaching the members English and computer skills. Even a simple thing like going to their performance is a way of showing my support, I think.

What I hope to achieve with this verbose tale of my experience is to bring awareness of the happenings I witnessed in ANON. I call it 'the truth' because I am genuinely convinced of what I know about the man and his doings (or not doings). Others may have a different opinion and continue to side with The director. But I sincerely hope that donors will be more prudent with their (monetary) donations – current donors to review their assistance and new donors to think twice before they make their next donation to ANON.

If you have any experiences or know about ANON, it would be great to share them. Maybe I really got the 'wrong idea' about it (and 'accused' the wrong people)? But I am truly convinced of 'my' truth.

I do agree that it is still worthwhile to go and volunteer with ANON - but just not making any substantial monetary donations. I think helping the members directly is more concrete. That's what I did - while I was there and even after I left ANON, I was teaching the members English and computer skills. Even a simple thing like going to their performance is a way of showing my support, I think.



I have been a volunteer here for years and am totally amazed at this post because of its inaccuracies.

There are several long time residents, including doctors and clergy and business professionals that support ANON because it is a very good NGO and nothing close as portrayed by this crazy lady. I was there when she came to volunteer, and she was NOT there to help.

Thank You
volunteer at ANON since 2004