By Rich Polt
Published November 08, 2013
"Mr. Ostenso ... is a rare gem indeed. I have met very few people in my life, willing to make the kinds of personal sacrifices he has to make the world a better place."
Nominated by Srey Chilat:
“I've been to Cambodia several times, and I recently met an impressive man doing great, smart work. Mr. Daniel Ostenso could be living a very comfortable life, with a high-paying job, but instead he has spent his life savings, and the past four years, to help women who desperately need it. He founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit (www.GetSet-Go.org) and operates a women's library in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Many women in Cambodia are locked out of basic education and that locks them into modern-day slavery (and makes them vulnerable to horrible abuses that are rampant in Cambodia). Women are severely devalued in Cambodian culture, to the point of being powerless. Rapes and domestic abuse are common and go unprosecuted. Few international NGOs are really helping women beyond subsistence. Most focus on children, and often because that's a much easier sell to donors. Simply giving women a job, or narrow trade-skill training (like sewing) merely helps them subside (though often it doesn't even do that) – it doesn't give them any opportunity to grow their lives and become empowered members of their communities. That requires education.
Mr. Ostenso has come up with a smart solution that actually addresses the problem in the most effective way. Because of the very long hours and below-poverty wages, women have no chance to attend regular classes. Having a 24-hour library lets them come to study whenever they can spare some time, and incrementally build an education that will open doors to a better life.
He opened the flagship library in Siem Reap because even a little additional education can open doors to much better jobs in Siem Reap's still booming tourist industry (home to Angkor Wat). And the women's library encourages more than that. They include high-level education, like classes on Web design and other 21st Century skills, so women can become leaders, rather than just consumers.
They are doing things that will generate sustainable, life-long benefits for women, and ultimately help women become equal members of their society. Cambodia is filled with ill-conceived, ineffective and vanity NGOs that spend more time on PR than they do actually helping people. And the “solutions” they offer are often based on their own beliefs, regardless of the actual needs on the ground or what will make lasting changes in people's lives.
So in my experience, Mr. Ostenso and the women's library is a rare gem indeed. I have met very few people in my life, willing to make the kinds of personal sacrifices he has to make the world a better place. The other reason I hope you will choose to feature him is that they are a very small organization with virtually no funding or PR/fund raising support. The founder is an education guy (former college prof.), and fund raising is not his strong suit (his words). I fear that without more exposure, the women's library will not be around much longer. For many Cambodian women, the library is the only access they have to education, and a way out of what is effectively slavery. So I think it would be a pretty tragic loss. Ever since visiting the women's library, I've tried to help spread the word. But exposure on your article could reach a much larger audience.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To give women in developing countries access to high quality education, so they can gain the power to repel abuse and exploitation and ultimately thrive as equal members of society.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
Perhaps the biggest change has been in my understanding of the true nature of human trafficking and the exploitation of women in places like Cambodia. It is not, as I previously was in the habit of thinking, really “about women”.
It's about money. A lot of money. The predators are not driven by a deliberate anti-female philosophy as much as they are driven by the desire to make huge and easy profits. They simply regard other human beings in the same way many people view farm animals, to be used (or even killed) for their personal enrichment.
It also taught me that Cambodia's current poverty is not the result of “bad luck” or some natural order. It is a deliberate and carefully planned system to maintain a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor, to maximize the profits of a few.
It begins with undermining education. Many Cambodian girls are not allowed to complete Elementary School. Commonly this is due to pressure to have girls generate income for the family.
Later, when the girls become adults, they are not allowed to attend public school to complete their studies, nor is there any kind of equivalency test like the American GED, for those who find a way to study on their own.
Consequently, the only jobs these women can find all pay well below subsistence and often require working 14+ hours per day, with perhaps one or two days off per month. This leaves them with neither the money nor the free time needed to attend private schooling. The result: they are locked into poverty and become extremely vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation.
Employers take advantage of women's desperation by paying extremely low wages, manufacturing excuses to pay them less than promised, and manipulating women into ever-increasing debt to the company; so the women effectively become slaves.
Ultimately, the women fall under intense financial pressure to pull their young children out of school so they can help make money for the family. And thus the cycle continues.
Meanwhile, the business owners use their ever-increasing wealth to manipulate the educational, legal and political systems to ensure that women never get a chance to get ahead.
Seeing it in practice has certainly strengthened my resolve that high-quality education for women is key to breaking the cycle and eventually reducing the supply of easily exploitable women to the point it becomes unprofitable for predators.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Most immediately, I get personal growth and a deep sense of accomplishment. I'm always learning from the women we help, whether it be a new language or a new perspective. And seeing a woman translate even a little education into a better paying job is tremendously satisfying to me.
In the long run, as exploitation is eliminated and more people are able to thrive, I get to live in a better world. Crime is reduced. Disease is reduced. Extremism is reduce. More importantly, we will have millions more developed minds available to develop new science, medicine, technology or other creativity that will improve life for me and for all of humanity.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO, AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
At the Women's Library in Cambodia, I meet heroes regularly; women who have somehow had the strength to push back against overwhelming poverty, terrible abuse, and a culture that enthusiastically devalues and intimidates women.
The question I ask them is: “How did you do that?” I always marvel at how they developed the strength and determination to go against their own families and communities, after being told constantly that getting education and thriving as individuals is not something girls should aspire to (and trying will only lead to disaster).
It is important to note that for many of these women, there was nothing in their experience that one could call an inspirational example. They had no model of a woman leader or a better circumstance for women, so they had no reason to believe that if they work hard they might find a path to that better circumstance for themselves. It is really quite remarkable the idea formed in their minds, independently.
Then, after many of these women risk everything to venture out on their own, to a place like Siem Reap, they quickly discover that they are still locked out of the education and better opportunities they expected to find in the cities. There is no public library system and most aid organizations only help children.
It's a huge disappointment. Yet still they don't give up. They try to learn any way they can – listening to tourists or foreign television, skipping meals to pool their money with friends to buy an English book to share, etc.
I'm constantly in awe of their bravery and tenacity. Imagine what they could accomplish with a full, well-rounded education!
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
More than anything, we need more support on the funding and fund raising side.
Over the past four years, we've worked hard to build a library that works well for our target population. We have a great space and variety of educational resources, including some really effective technology like e-books and tablet computers. We certainly welcome technology donations, but right now we need funding to keep the Women's Library going. And we need more volunteers to do fund raising in their own communities.
Our long-term plan is to build an international network of women's libraries; but in the short term, my focus is keeping the lights on at our flagship library in Siem Reap.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
What is the most effecive way to raise funds while protecting our students' identity and dignity?
Prejudice and discrimination is still a major problem in areas like SE Asia. At The Women's Library we want to ensure that women are able to maintain their dignity and achieve a future in which people judge them based on their abilities, rather than their origins. We want to empower women to become leaders and executives.
Therefore, we are very reluctant to put women's photos online or publish profiles of women. We don't want to enable a potential employer in the future, for example, to dig up evidence of a woman's past poverty on the Internet and then discriminate against them.
However, other organizations have used beneficiary profiles so much that many donors have come to expect them, and they are less inclined to donate in their absence. So my burning question is: what advice would you give about how to address this challenge and get people to fund The Women's Library without sacrificing the dignity and future prospects of the women we help?
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
“How To Make Oppression And Exploitation of Women Prohibitively Difficult And Unprofitable – For Dummies”.
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC.
Secretly, the tiny Dr. Horrible in me wishes I could be king of the world, so I could solve all of these problems quickly, by fiat; but my rational side knows that would not be a good idea.
Though I would try very hard to avoid abusing that power, deep in my heart I know that in pretty short order there would be a Hunger Games for human traffickers and others who abuse and exploit women. ;-)
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN-PHILANTHROPISTS?
It can be the most rewarding thing you'll ever do; but if you don't do the necessary preparation it could be a disastrously unhappy experience for all involved.
First, you need to accept the fact that it is not going to be about you. Then you must do some serious self-assessment, in order to answer the question: "Should you get hands-on, or can you do more good by fund raising and financially supporting others who are willing to endure the many sacrifices, and sometimes the danger, that aid work involves?"
Getting directly involved with helping people is a serious commitment and not everyone is cut out for it. Having good intentions and the desire to help is not enough.
If you are sure you ready to be hands-on, then do all the research you can about the history of the place and the culture of the people where you will be working. And be sure you really do have the necessary skills for the job you'll be doing. For example, the ability to speak English does not qualify a person to teach English. There is much more training involved. So if an organization will let you just walk in off the street and start teaching, then look elsewhere. They often end up doing more harm than good.
If instead you choose the path of financial support, then choose your benefactor organization carefully. Bigger is frequently not better. Smaller, direct-service organizations are often far more effective, flexible and efficient. This is particularly the case in Cambodia, where official corruption is rampant and large organizations may be compelled to outsource their implementation locally.
And whichever path you choose, make sure your chosen organization has the necessary expertise and a clearly defined path to achieving specific outcomes, rather than a feel-good but nebulous “mission statement”. If a staff member can not clearly and quickly answer a question about how their plan will lead to the outcome they advertise, then it may be time to look for another organization.
One of the biggest shocks for me when I started was discovering how many poorly-conceived, ineffective and vanity-based aid organizations are out there, wasting human capital as well as money.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
I suppose it is: “What makes GetSet-Go and our Women's Library different from other aid organizations working in Cambodia?”
My answer is three main things: Availability, Educational Breadth and Technology.
First, we are the only Women's Library and we are the only resource available 24-hours per day. So if a woman can only spare an hour between 2am and 3am, no problem: she now has a safe place where she can study. Incrementally, at any pace that suits them, women can build up enough education to get a better job in Siem Reap's booming tourism sector, with better pay and better hours.
Second, we focus on high-quality, well-rounded education. The few organizations that focus on helping women in Cambodai will typically only offer trade skills classes like Sewing. Trade skill training can help a few, but without a standard educational foundation (at least at a high school level), women remain completely vulnerable to changes in the market; for example: once there is a glut of seamstresses, or a drop in demand, the women fall back to square one. Education gives women the ability to adapt and help themselves.
We are currently pursuing an arrangement wherein the Women's Library would become an official international testing center for the US GED exam. This would enable women to earn a high-school diploma, which will open up a new level of jobs and the possibility of college. Presently, the nearest GED testing center is in Thailand, so we would be the first in Cambodia.
Third, we promote 21st Century computer literacy. In the near future, Cambodians will need to be as computer literate as anyone else, if they want to find and qualify for good jobs, access and share information, continue their education and be part of the global economy.
Most aid organizations I've reviewed in Cambodia, even well-funded ones, don't appear to be equipped to teach modern technology skills. In fact, technology education seems to be overlooked generally by aid organizations. I think that is short-sighted and in some cases more than a little bit condescending.
It is important to point out that over 50% of Cambodia's population is under the age of 25. This is an unusual scenario that makes rapid and sweeping change possible. Young people embrace new ideas more quickly and they love technology. So beyond the impact on education and economic growth, use of technologies like social media will be a major part of changing cultural attitudes towards women, as well as women's own self esteem and aspirations.
At the Women's Library we strive to empower women to create web sites, rather than simply visit them...to get jobs in technology and become mentors to the next generation of Cambodian women.