This week I am beginning a three-month voluntary placement in Cambodia, where I’ll work to support microenterprises in the country’s agricultural north-east.
This project is part of the International Citizen Service (ICS), a programme introduced by the Department for International Development in March 2011 to be delivered by the UK’s leading aid agencies.
The aim is to partner young people from Britain and host nations in order to collaborate in meeting development challenges around the world.
It is the Government’s hope that by the end of this year, 14,000 volunteers aged between 18 and 25 (half from the UK and half from developing countries) will have been united in efforts to share ideas and expertise to solve complex problems abroad.
Each ICS volunteer works with a counterpart and lives with a host family within a community that has specifically requested British support.
My project is run by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and is focused on assisting small businesses around the Mekong River in Kratie province.
Like Northumberland, Cambodia’s economic activity is driven largely by agriculture.
However as a result of its troubled history, much of Cambodia’s farmland is inaccessible for food production due to landmines.
Many men have left for the cities where they are economic migrants while women have remained in the countryside and are seeking ways to diversify their commercial opportunities. Nine colleagues and I will support these efforts and in doing so directly benefit 158 families.
Countries where women have equal political and economic opportunities are consistently found to be more peaceful and more prosperous, and as such, female economic empowerment is one of the UK’s development priorities.
Rural Cambodians have often relied on unsustainable farming practices and their produce has been predominantly low-value.
Many have struggled to maintain or expand their businesses due to a lack of business skills and understanding of markets, inadequate collective bargaining power and insufficient access to credit.
ICS Entrepreneur aims to facilitate economic growth by achieving sustainable development and tackling unemployment.
Our work will involve developing business plans to increase the profitability of our enterprises and widen access to microfinance.
We will also work with community groups to establish robust governance and regulatory structures, as well as train partners in areas such as business growth, human resources and market understanding.
In working toward sustainable development in Cambodia, our efforts will reduce the need for British aid in the future.
People sometimes wonder why the UK provides assistance to developing countries. That’s understandable at a time when departmental budgets are stretched and many Brits face hardship and uncertainty.
In our globalised world, with increased interdependence and connectivity between cultures and economies, it’s more important than ever that we recognise the potential for challenges and opportunities elsewhere to impact us here at home.
A health or environmental crisis in one place can quickly wreak havoc globally, just as increased peace and prosperity in another promises benefits for us all through reduced security threats and greater commercial opportunities.
That’s why I’m proud that the UK is one of few countries to honour the United Nations agreement to commit 0.7 per cent of our gross national income to overseas development.
It shouldn’t be difficult to see the high return on investment in international development. Working to ensure that security, healthcare, education and economic opportunity can be enjoyed by people in the developing world is absolutely in Britain’s interest.
Countries like Cambodia are simply at a different stage in their development journey to the economies of the West.
Just as European states developed and found solutions to similar problems during the 18th and 19th centuries, so will they.
And when they do, the UK will need to understand them and build positive relationships with them.
The Asia-Pacific region in particular is home to more people than the rest of the world combined, and claims several of the world’s fastest-growing, most promising economies.
Now and in the future, these countries can be significant trade partners and targets for foreign direct investment.
The millions of people climbing the ladder out of poverty each year present an opportunity to engage potential new consumers of British goods – whether cars, tuition, food and fashion or financial services.
So sending young Brits to exchange skills and knowledge in collaboration on development issues is one cost-effective way of ensuring that the UK plays its part in fighting poverty while developing understanding of and building relationships with the emerging markets of the future.