Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

QSA – English Language Training in Cambodia


From the mid-1960s, Quaker Service Australia (QSA) had been supporting the work of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Southeast Asia.

In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia), known as the Khmer Rouge, took over the government of the country and instituted a brutal regime of social engineering that is estimated to have led to the deaths of 25% of the population. The Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnam forces. However, for various geo-political reasons, the new government was not recognised by the UN until 1991, leaving Cambodia isolated and suffering both from the aftermath of the regime and an ongoing civil war.

A report from the American Friends Service Committee in 1979 made Quakers aware of the destruction wrought be the Khmer Rouge. For the next few years, QSA and AFSC worked together in support of a number of small projects supplying building materials, re-establishing schools and providing water and sanitation.

In 1984, QSA administrator, Val Nichols, was sent to assess how QSA might best help the Cambodian people. It was the magnitude of the need she found that convinced Australian Quakers that QSA could not continue on the voluntary basis that it had run on up till then.

Around the same time, the Australian government made a decision to fund development aid to Cambodia in the form of supporting the teaching of English. Since they did not formally recognise the government in Cambodia, such aid had to be delivered by an NGO, and QSA was approached to carry out a feasibility study.

Initially reluctant to carry out a project not only funded by the government but undertaken on their behalf, QSA finally decided that they would, because the project could ‘not only heal the wounds of war, but build peace.’

Thus, in 1985, Val Nichols was sent to Cambodia to conduct a study. It was clear from the start that the project was hamstrung by political constraints, with both those permitted to teach and those admitted to learn being handpicked by the Cambodian government. The first pilot project involved only 12 civil servants. QSA also assisted in providing teaching materials and in appointing a curriculum officer, Audrey Cornish, an EFL teacher from Australia.

Cornish helped to break down many of the barriers of suspicion, and in 1988 the project began to expand rapidly. Several Australians were accepted as teachers, evening courses were established for civil servants, and a five-year teacher-training programme was initiated. Other, shorter, in-service training courses were added – the so-called ‘recyclage’ courses, which ‘recycled’ those teachers with some language training skills but little English, or those with good English but little teaching experience. A small number of students also travelled to Australia to study there.

Initially the selection of students had a strong political component and consequently the academic standard of applicants was highly variable. However, by 1990, QSA had succeeded in agreeing acceptable intake standards and, as one teacher reported, their entry exam ‘got the reputation of being the only exam where there was no payment to secure a place.’

The rapid expansion of the project over a period of three years put great strain on QSA, which had previously been a small, voluntary organisation with no paid staff. Nonetheless, the programme saw 150 students enter the five-year programme, and many hundreds more take part in the ‘recyclage’ in-service training courses.

In 1993, the programme was handed over to the International Development Programme and the University of Canberra.

Since 1993, QSA has continued to work in Cambodia, particularly in support of the production of organic food gardens and support for income generating activities in rural communities.

Print this article

Further Reading and Credits

external links

further reading

  • Friends In Deed – 50 Years of Quaker Service Australia; Heather Saville, Australia Yearly Meeting, 2009.
  • I Could Cry for These People: An Australian Quaker Response to the Plight of the People of Cambodia;  William Oats; Quaker Service Australia, 1994
  • Language Choice in a Nation Under Transition: English Language Spread in Cambodia; Thomas Clayton; Springer Science 2006