Interview of Claude Colombié, from Sala Bai

Claude Colombié, Sala Bai and the NGOs in Cambodia - Portrait


Claude Colombié

Claude Colombié has been country manager for the French NGO “Agir pour le Cambodge” since 2012, which runs the well-known Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School program in Siem Reap. We wanted to know more about Sala Bai itself, how it works, what’s its purpose, and more generally about NGOs in Cambodia. He accepted to answer our questions and help us have a better understanding about the  world of NGOs in Cambodia.


Bugs Cafe: Hello Claude, thank you for answering our questions today. First, can you tell us a bit more about Sala Bai please? How and when was it created, what’s its main objective?

Claude Colombié: Sala Bai was created by the French NGO, “Agir pour le Cambodge” (Acting for Cambodia). This NGO has existed for 31 years and was created in refugees camps at the Thai border in 1984. Since then, many local development programs have been implemented in north Cambodia and more specifically in Banteay Chhmar area, such as education programs, fertilizer banks and home-stay tourism in order to help the country development.

In 2006/2007, these programs were then entrusted to the Cambodian population while another agenda aiming at fighting against high poverty through education was launched. Sala Bai Hotel School was born in Siem Reap in 2002, while Tourism industry started to recover in the country. It started with housekeeping, restaurant and cooking sections, while front office department begun from the second year of existence. In 2015, a fifth training in Beauty Therapy has just been added to answer the needs within the local hospitality industry.

The school train every year since, free of charge, 100 students. We provide education, food, accommodation, scholarship equipment, bicycle, uniforms, medical care and insurance for all our students.

Our school must be free of charge, because our main goal is to recruit very underprivileged young Cambodian where most of them are coming from rural area. Sala Baï School gives them a second chance where some of our students might have dropped out of school for several years. It’s a real opportunity for all of them to change their life forever. But our purpose is not to “assist” them by giving money. We offer them a practical education and life skills that will enable them to build their own future and to be able to support their families and siblings. The country needs absolutely to rebuild itself with 2 major priorities: Education & Health. 70% of the inhabitants are under 30, so it’s such a very young country compare to our Western world! On the other hand, lots of educated people have been eliminated during the Khmer Rouge regime. 95% of the population was rural and illiterate in the beginning of the 90s! So Cambodia really started to recover since 2000, not so far away!

Today, our main priority is to expand our program. We've just opened a new training center along the river on last December, 5mn away from the old market (Wat Svay Village), which will enable us to welcome and train up to 150 students by 2018.


Thank you from sala bai


SRH: How do you select the participants?

CC: Almost all of our candidates come from the countryside, and one of our main criteria is to recruit students coming from families earning less than 400$/year. They must be aged from 17 to 23, have been educated from grade 6 up to 12 for some and be literate. We give privilege to girls, by 70% as they are still much more vulnerable and have less access to education, especially in vocational training. The recruitment program lasts 6 months from January till June and follows 5 important steps:

. January: Radio messages are broadcasted on 3 channels covering north and central Cambodia and flyers distribution to schools, NGO’s partners, Chief of villages…to inform the population on how to apply

. February: Interested applicants must come to School in Siem Reap to register (first step of the motivation process). On average, 500 young Cambodian apply every year.

If their social situation matches with our criteria, they have to pass a written test in Khmer, math and English to assess their level of literacy in 4 exam centers: Phnom Penh, Kampong Chham, Sisophon and Siem Reap. Around 400 students were invited to pass written exam last year

. March till May: Family visits: 381 families were visited last year for a social survey. This step is very important. We need to know their social conditions, organization and motivation for each family.

. June: Motivation interview with our trainers at Sala Baï

This is the final and most difficult step of the selection, because almost all this kids are very motivated and the fact that they’re successful or not will probably change their whole life as well as their family’s… But Sala Bai has a limited capacity and this is the only way to proceed.


SRH: How does it happen then for the 100 chosen applicants?

CC: Well, the 11 months training starts beginning of September. It includes 7 months at school and a 4 months internship period on rotation in 2 different places, within our portfolio of 18 partner’s hotels in Siem Reap, selected amongst the best employers. It has to happen in big structures; this way we can be sure our students are efficiently monitored. We visit each student during his/her internship with our trainers, and we keep constant connexions with all partner’s hotel. An internship evaluation has to be filled for each session by employers and count in the final evaluation process.

At school for 7 months, our curriculum is based on 70% of technical and practice knowledge by section. 20% on English training (technical, vocabulary, conversation, role playing + evening classes) and the rest of 10% is for math and soft and life skills. Quarterly exams are performed in all sections while final exam is in July. Sala Baï diploma is jointly certified by Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Labor and Vocational training.                   

For practical training, Sala Baï runs a training hotel and restaurant which allow all our students to train in real conditions on daily basis. A new training spa will open soon in our new school, currently expected to open end of November.

Apart from the regular educational program, the students are also taught into money matters, since we give them 25$ allowance per month to feed them in the evening and during Week Ends. Sala Baï run a “virtual internal bank” for their students, where they can come on weekly basis withdraw money on their own account.

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SRH: What's the share of your training restaurant and hotel in your global income? How do you get the rest of the funds?

CC: The cost of the program represent on average 310.000 USD per year. This includes absolutely everything. Thanks to our Restaurant and Hotel, we self finance the school by 30% on average. It means that we are not totally dependent from our donors. The rest of our funding comes mostly from private and corporate donors, through many different sources: Private foundations such as Fondation Sisley, BNP Paribas, Fondation Raja, McKinsey 4Childrens, PATA Foundation … Local hotels partners such as Heritage Suite Hotel, Sofitel, Amansara, Victoria, plus our international donors networks in Singapore, Australia and United States. But do not forget that more than 55% of our funds come from the generosity of the public who can sponsor our program directly through our websites, charity dinners or any other fundraising events. On a base of 100, 91% of our funds go directly to our students and all our accounts are annually certified by Price Waterhouse & Coopers in Paris.

Our school also benefit of a great recognition from the industry. Many awarded Chefs contribute to the school, in Cambodia (Our monthly event at school “Great chefs meet Great students from January till May) but also oversea in France (Chefs Régis Marcon, Philippe Mille…) and Singapore.


SRH: Many western youngsters and tourists want to come to Cambodia to join NGOs. If you were in their shoes, how would you choose an organization? Can you spare them some mistakes?

CC: As far as Sala Bai is concerned, the first thing to know is that we are a real school, which means volunteering is pretty much following some important rules : First of all, we give preference to long term missions (At least 1 month and over). Secondly: English mentoring is our priority, either for our students but also for our staff. We also encourage, from time to time, some hospitality experts to come over for extra teaching. Finally, each volunteer has to sign, upon arrival - and this is part of their commitment - a code of conduct.

As a vocational training center, we try to avoid running too many volunteers at a time. Education is also about knowing and understanding the pupils and finding the best way to train them efficiently, which is impossible if you’re here for just a few days.

On the other hand, if you have time and skills and want to help Cambodia by joining an NGO or just support one by sponsoring it, it is important to choose wisely. There are more than 3.000 NGOs in Cambodia, some of which are either dormant, either not dedicated to Cambodian population priorities…. Everybody knows the dark image of orphanages businesses… where buses release their flood of tourists to make pictures and give money… which will stuff some scammers’ pockets full of dollars…

Fortunately, lots of local and international NGOs are really doing a great and efficient job in the country!

There are a few simple ways to be sure an NGO can be trusted. Check their website, check if they provide serious annual reporting and certified accounts whenever it is possible. Is the organization recognized by international foundations? Does it have a qualitative donor’s network? And most important : can we measure the efficiency of the program on the population?

Originally, I have spent 25 years in the hospitality industry - which means in profitable business – before starting to run Sala Baï School. To be honest, I would never have thought that I would change my life to manage a program 100% dedicated to fight poverty and all associated risks without any efficient results at the end. Since more than 13 years, Sala Baï guarantees 100% of job placement within less than 2 months after graduation….and entry salaries of our students are 3 to 4 times over their previous family income. On top of it, percentage of drop out during the scholarship is below 1%.


SRH: What skills are lacking the most in Cambodia? What profiles might be useful here?

CC: Education, education, and education!! Everybody needs to be well trained in this country, from lower class up to middle class and up. Cambodia is such a young country... This is an amazing opportunity!  The youth is bright, eager to learn, and really orientated to the future.

As we visit more than 400 families every year in 14 provinces, we know that most of our student’s parents, aged from 40 to 50, are illiterate. New generation - our students - were all born in the mid 90s. They do not know so much about the recent past of their country…They start, step by step, to break the mold. They want all to have higher education, continue their studies at university, and, for some of them, become entrepreneurs…

But education for girls remains a crucial priority in Cambodia - More vulnerable, more depending on weight of tradition and culture, and most of the time with less access to education – it is so obvious that well educated women will better educate their children…We have many examples within our Sala Baï Alumni of successful stories, not only professionally, but also family wise.

Finally, I think it is the right times for international NGO’s to, step by step, handover their programs to the Cambodians. It should be our final objective by giving back to the population the competences required to run they own future, and to be part of the development of their own country …

Same message is yearly given to our students: “You will all find a job and determine the best way to fully use your knowledge and competences in order to achieve your own goals and dreams. It will take time, patience and hard work. Never renounce but go further still. Your expertise is definitely expected in your country”

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