When I first arrived in Cambodia as a VSO volunteer, I received a brief "in-country training". One of the sessions involved a briefing from British Embassy staff. It was frank. We were told that Cambodia was a "low-income, post-conflict, low-governance, fragile state".
This surely doesn't sound like a country looking forward, yet all around me I see people with a vision of a better future, expressed most clearly in the commitment of parents and government alike to education - the 95 per cent enrolment rate in primary school, 83 per cent of whom complete all six grades, represents great progress.
Most of the time we volunteers focus on the negative: 5 per cent not enrolled, poor attendance or high drop-out rates (particularly in remote rural areas), variable quality in teaching, poor progression rates into secondary schools, a pupil:teacher ratio of 49:1.
But we should also take the longer view and realise just how far Cambodia has come over the past decade. At the heart of Cambodia's educational improvement is the Child Friendly Schools (CFS) policy. Its "six dimensions" provide a template for schooling that would be hard to beat anywhere in the world: access, effective teaching and learning, child health and safety, gender equality, community engagement and quality management and support systems.
Using CFS as the foundation, the Cambodian government has set ambitious targets for further improvement: UN Millenium Development Goal 2 (http:www.un.orgmillenniumgoalsindex.shtml) aims for universal primary education for all by 2015.
The Cambodian education ministry has increased that target to universal secondary education (to grade 9age 15) for all. It counts on the support of the many NGOs and aid agencies which flourish in Cambodia.
I choose the word "flourish" carefully. Living and working in Phnom Penh, it is hard not to be aware of how deeply aid agencies have penetrated Cambodia's economic and social life. On my short, but eventful, cycle to work, I pass Save the Children Norway, the UN Food Programme, WHO, NZ and Australian volunteer centres, Aide et Action and HIV charities.
In visiting Cambodian schools, I have encountered buildings built with Japanese and Korean aid, libraries equipped by charities passionate about reading (SIPAR, Room to Read), early literacy materials from Belgian charity BETT, teacher training materials from the Flemish charity VVOB and experiments in online learning from "Connected Schools".
Conferences I have attended have been supported by UNICEF, SIDA, World Education, the ILO and USAid.
Local NGOs have also developed apace, ranging from Hagar or Friends, which educate street children in useful job skills through enterprising fundraising, to KAPE, which is entrusted with significant USAid funds to deliver basic educational improvements.
Each offers something different, to a different part of the country or a different client group; the special contribution of VSO is not money, or resources, but skilled people. The CFS policy provides a common agenda for ministry and aid agencies to work together.
There are problems in this "low-governance, fragile state", but also cause for optimism in the smiling faces of Cambodian schoolchildren.