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Saturday, May 7, 2005

Charity Weaves a New Cambodia

By Nick Cumming-Bruce

TBENG MEANCHEY, Cambodia - At the age of 19, Tom Ruen found herself one day lying alone and bleeding on a dirt road, one leg torn apart by a land mine. She was one more among the millions of Cambodians who had fallen victim to Khmer Rouge terror.

Now, at 36, Ruen is one of about 30 villagers in this remote corner of northern Cambodia, half of them similarly maimed by land mines or polio, who received contracts to work as employees of Weaves (Cambodia). 

Ruen is now a skilled and, by Cambodian standards, prosperous worker; she is also part of an enterprise that is acquiring international admirers.

From wooden looms lined up under an open-sided, palm-thatched workshop, a bone-shaking drive of six hours from the nearest town - and that is when the weather is good - Ruen and her fellow workers are weaving silk scarves and fabrics of a quality that is starting to attract the interest of upscale stores and boutiques in New York and London.

Weaves (Cambodia) offers governments and international aid agencies a rare example of the kind of enterprise the country desperately needs to overcome the abject poverty in which the UN estimates more than a third of its population still lives.

"When you see the product and where it comes from, it's a miracle," said Carol Cassidy, who studied weaving in Europe and the United States.

"You can't believe such beauty and quality come out of that dust," said Cassidy, an American.

Fifteen years ago, she set up her own business in Laos. In January she put her own enthusiasm on the line by taking over as owner and manager of this fledgling enterprise with the task of steering it to commercial viability.

To help Cambodia's recovery from decades of Khmer Rouge rule, rich industrialized countries have poured billions of dollars of aid into this country of 14 million people, much of it channeled through nongovernmental organizations running small-scale, community-oriented projects. Now, aid workers fear Cambodia is hooked on donor handouts that still account for half the national budget.

"New projects keep popping up like mushrooms because donors think they are good, but there are very few examples of projects that are sustainable," said Francesco Caruso, country director of Village Focus International, a nongovernmental group based in Portland, Oregon. "They are not business-driven; when the donor withdraws they collapse. They keep creating a dependency on aid."

Weaves and its workers started out in the same manner.

Bud Gibbons, who was working with Veterans International, an offshoot of Vietnam Veterans of America, to help Cambodia's legions of amputees had the idea of weaving silk, a traditional Khmer art in prewar Cambodia, and producing scarves and wraps for foreign tourists and buyers as the only market that could generate an adequate return. So in 1997, with more money from Vietnam Veterans of America, he brought in artisans to build wooden looms and sent half a dozen women to Siem Reap in western Cambodia to learn weaving.

The project soon hit snags. Gibbons and his workers started out planting mulberries and trying to produce their own silk, but found it cost them far more than imported Chinese and Vietnamese silk.

Lacking experience in the business, they also started off using cheap dyes bought from Thailand, only to find that the colors ran and the chemicals they contained were dangerous to their health. They switched to better but much costlier dyes.

Then there were problems with staff. One manager ran off with the monthly payroll, having had himself tied to a tree as part of a fake robbery to try to disguise his crime. Gibbons fired another when he found the man's family loan-sharking to the project's employees.

Then, Gibbons made contact with Cassidy, the weaver, who provided training and advice. The quality of their products improved and their work started to sell in handicrafts shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Some of the products found their way through Vietnam Veterans of America to celebrity events in America, where they won enthusiastic support from the country singer, Emmy Lou Harris, and were auctioned to Hollywood stars for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars each.

By 2002 it was clear, however, that Vietnam Veterans of America was unable to continue its support for the project. In 2003 Gibbons asked Cassidy to take over the operation. His message was blunt: "It's that or closure."

Cassidy, now 48, was not enthusiastic. "I have a perfectly good, creative, successful business in Laos," she said. "I wasn't looking for a new challenge. I definitely was reluctant."

Growing involvement in advising the project on products and designs was among the factors that drew her in; the response of the workers to her advice and instructions was another.

"When I say 'you have to make a perfect fringe,' they make a perfect fringe," Cassidy said. "When I say 'we'll do these colors,' they do them. There is no compromise on quality. They rise above the expectations people have of the handicapped. That's what's so wonderful to see."

They had sales last year of $78,000. The scarves now sell in New York's upmarket ABC Home & Carpets, the Smithsonian Museum's Freer-Sackler Galleries in Washington and the Craft and Folk Art Museum in San Francisco.

Burberry in London has expressed interest and an approach to Armani in Milan is planned for mid-year.

Costs still far exceed income, but Cassidy is confident that the workers' skill and commitment, coupled with her design expertise and marketing connections, can catapult the venture to financial viability.

Much remains to be done to adjust the Cambodian managers and workers from an nongovernmental approach to the harsh realities of the commercial world, but the idea has already taken root.

"Before we produced for fun," said Touch Sophorn, 27, the company's accountant. "The stock went into a cupboard; all the money was in there. Now we produce by order. We are working very hard, even at weekends; we want to finish the products for the customer."

Cassidy feels she has something to prove: that successful development ventures do not need millions of dollars to succeed. "There will be, if this works, an empirical model that can be applied by the World Bank, the UN - whoever it is that wants to give some hope to rural people that they can participate in the global economy in a positive way," she said.

 Nick Cumming-Bruce is based in Bangkok.