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Meet Sarak in Cambodia

Our “ASI Game Changers” series introduces the people who make our work possible, and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition, we speak to our colleague Sarak Duong, Country Partnerships Advisor in Cambodia.

Name: Sarak Duong 

Role: Country Partnerships Advisor  

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so? 

Reflecting on my journey, I believe the “big why” for those of us in development is our shared mission to alleviate poverty, particularly in post-conflict or less developed countries like Cambodia. The aim is to create a world where prosperity is shared more broadly, ensuring equitable access to basic services, and enabling people to lead better lives. 

My love for Cambodia runs deep, despite having lost my father during the Khmer Rouge regime and my mother from lack of appropriate medical service in the early 80s, a shared experience among many Cambodians who also lost their loved ones. Though I probably was a little luckier than most, in that I was raised by my kindest grand aunts and aunties who prioritised my education in the hopes to lay the groundwork for a better future. 

Despite all these difficult circumstances of my early years, I try my best not to assign blame. Instead, I have channelled my experiences into a relentless dedication to drive change in my country for the benefit of its people. It is this dedication that propels my ongoing journey in the development sector.  

An example of my work with ASI — a critical player in Cambodia’s development — highlights the progress Cambodia has managed to achieve. Infrastructure plays a key role in a country’s economic development, and we’ve reached a point where we need to address a new set of challenges. They aren’t just about ensuring access to clean water or basic education, but about how to sustain development, address sustainability issues, and make sure everyone benefits from the progress made. 

In a strange way, I feel my career has come full circle. In my early days, post-high school, I worked the night shift as a door guard for the military attaché at the Australian Embassy between 1995-1997. My responsibilities also included maintaining the embassy cars and caring for the garden. Recently, I found myself being driven around to a meeting in an Australian embassy car and having meetings with Australian Embassy diplomats. I’ve experienced multiple facets of development. This unique experience enables me to bring different stakeholders together — a crucial trait that has significantly benefitted my career. 

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be? 

If I were to distill my role into a single phrase, I’d say I’m a “Diplomatic Catalyst.” Picture me as a relentless motivator, encouraging everyone around me to seize opportunities and move swiftly. I straddle the worlds of government and development, using my longstanding relationships to foster crucial connections. 

Imagine the country’s vital sectors as a vast puzzle – activating them all for the benefit of Cambodia is our primary focus.  

Together with my team of experts, we act both as advisors and motivators, providing the government with key advice and recommendations to improve the infrastructure development environment. Our goal is to accelerate our country’s economic growth and help it navigate the hurdles it faces. 

I always tell my friends, both in government and within the project I work in, “Act proactively, seize the opportunity!” Every step we take is a stride towards further developing our country. 

“Diplomatic role” might sound a bit formal, but it encapsulates what I do. It’s not just about making introductions; it’s about sparking a sense of urgency, inspiring others to think on their feet and act swiftly. So, if you’re looking for a traditional diplomat, you won’t find that here. What you will find, though, is a catalyst for change, working tirelessly to drive development through bringing the right actors together and motivating them to act. 

What do you like about working in a global development company? 

Working in a company like ASI is truly rewarding because of its diversity. The exposure to different cultures, skills, and expertise from around the world broadens my horizons daily. 

This isn’t limited to just learning about different cultures, but it also includes gaining insight from my colleagues’ distinct skills and experiences. The chance to learn from others and share my own knowledge is a unique aspect of this working environment. 

Despite the varying backgrounds we all come from, we’re united by a common goal: to make a positive impact on the world. This diversity isn’t just enriching on a professional level, it’s personally fulfilling too. This is what I really appreciate about working in global development. 

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now? 

Two exciting aspects stand out for me in my current project, Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I) . First, I am incredibly proud to be involved in the infrastructure sector, which is pivotal to the country’s development. It feels amazing to contribute something of utmost relevance to the growth of my country. 

Secondly, we’re focusing on elements that haven’t received much attention, yet are absolutely crucial. We’re helping the country update its road standards, which hadn’t been looked into for around 30 years. Furthermore, we’re working to improve the policy and regulatory framework in the telecommunication sector.  

In a world increasingly heading towards digitalisation, having robust telecommunications infrastructure is vital. We need to act fast and efficiently, to keep up with the pace of development globally. It’s an intricate, challenging task, but the impacts can be phenomenal. This isn’t just a job – it’s an opportunity to make a tangible difference. 

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now? 

There are several movements and discussions that inspire me at present. At the top of the list is sustainable development for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Cambodia. SMEs are an essential part of our economy, and nurturing their sustainable expansion is crucial. We need to support them to reach their growth potentials while ensuring  their growth does not harm the environment or cause issues for others. 

One sector that particularly fascinates me is digitalisation, and how it can accelerate towards industry 4.0 and digital advancement. It’s alarming how many SMEs are not yet harnessing these technological advancements efficiently. We need to motivate and guide them, help them understand the immense potential of this digital shift. 

Beyond my professional interests, I am deeply moved by the urgent need for environmental sustainability. The river I see every day from my workplace, growing more shallow each year, serves as a stark reminder of the pressing environmental issues we face. This is not a remote problem in some distant future. It’s here, it’s now, and it’s visible from our windows. It underscores that the conversation around the environment is not just a luxury, but a necessity. We need to act now and act fast for the health of our planet. 

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work? 

Outside of my professional life, I love to engage with nature and stay active through hiking, camping, and cycling. I make it a point to run, walk, or cycle every day and schedule long-distance cycling trips once a month. These activities not only keep me fit but also offer a refreshing break from my daily routine – a moment to connect with nature and reflect. 

In addition, I take great pleasure in using my skills and knowledge for a good cause. I serve as an advisory board member for a social impact company that aims to inject a sustainability perspective into the development of SMEs. This allows me to apply my expertise in an area that I am passionate about. 

Furthermore, I am committed to contributing to the development of the younger generation. Recently, I volunteered as an industry mentor for a group of a university students participating in the Global CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Challenge, an initiative by the CFA Institute based in the UK. When approached by the organiser in Cambodia, I was more than happy to lend my expertise and guide students through this challenge. This kind of mentoring enables me to help shape the next generation of financial analysis and research, which I find incredibly rewarding. 

What’s a quality a game changer should have and what’s your ambition to be one? 

In my opinion, a game-changer should embody perseverance and a commitment to lifelong learning. These two traits form the backbone of any significant change – be it at an individual, familial, or societal level. Diligence and continuous education, intertwined, create a powerful force that can break through barriers and inspire transformation. 

I think by now you have also been able to tell that I have thing for “speed” (laughs) – that’s another crucial element of being a game changer in my opinion. In our modern, digital age, speed has become an indispensable factor for success. The world is moving at an unprecedented pace, and those who can act quickly and decisively are the ones who will seize opportunities and lead the way forward. My aim is to stay abreast of the latest developments, to act swiftly and effectively (and motivate others to do that, too!) when opportunities arise, and to catalyse positive changes for both myself and my country. 

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