Advocates: Robert Kee

He believes that, for a charity to function as intended, structured management is key.

Advocates: Robert Kee

In 2015, two major earthquakes in Nepal destroyed more than 600,000 homes, some of which are still being rebuilt. Operation Hope Foundation helps communities in countries like Cambodia and Nepal develop job and survival skills.

“In 1994, I watched a TV programme called Inside Asia, which examined child prostitution in Cambodia. What I saw became deeply ingrained in me. After two weeks of ‘discussion and negotiation with God’, I visited Cambodia for the first time in 1995 to do philanthropy and volunteer work—and I haven’t looked back. I went on to be involved in other social projects in the Philippines and Nepal.

“I quickly realised that while many local charities were keen to receive my funds, they were less enthusiastic about revealing how it was spent. I decided to set up a foundation to manage the properties and assets, and execute the programmes with regular supervision from Singapore.

“I have always loved creating things as a hobby. In school, I made my own radio from components I found. It led me to pursue a Master of Engineering and set up two IT companies, which I subsequently sold. Since launching Operation Hope Foundation (OHF) as a Singapore-registered charity in 2001, I have designed and built earthquake-resistant houses using rice bags, a UV water treatment system for schools and a rainwater harvesting system, among other things, in Nepal and Cambodia.

“It is very challenging to run a charity in an underdeveloped country, where there is lack of management, technical and operational skills. Corruption is rife and can even be viewed as an entitlement, and receipts can often be faked.

“For instance, one of the main expenses in a children’s home is food. A staff member buys ingredients every day from the market with cash and no receipts are given. There is no weighing machine at the market either, so we don’t know how much food is bought. What she spends in one morning can add up to more than her salary for the month, hence the temptation for corruption is very high.

“To curb this, I keep very detailed operational records, especially to ensure that our costs match market prices. We also always assign more than one person for purchasing.

“Despite such challenges, I want to push on because happiness is not a destination but a journey. I transformed Hope Village Prey Veng in Cambodia—an unused villa belonging to a minister—into a happy home for 120 children, where I watched them grow up with intense fulfilment. I also built a 70,000 sq ft Hope Training Centre, with dormitories, computer rooms, classrooms and accommodation for volunteers and staff. It houses poor rural school leavers on the TJSSS (Training Job Skills for the Service Sector) training programme, which prepares them for better-paying jobs.

“When I first started, it was the idea that I could make a difference and the excitement of initiating new projects that kept me going. After 20 years, I’m driven by the prospect of showing that NGOs can work with no fraud and corruption in developing countries.”

This story first appeared in the August issue of A.

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