SARUS – Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photos by Wesley Hedden

CAMBODIA – On 25 December 1978, over 100,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, marking the first and only extended war between two communist regimes that would last for nearly thirteen years and deepen strong undercurrents of suspicion and resentment between the two neighbours that had already been in conflict for years.

With both countries emerging relatively recently from their turbulent past in a region that is rapidly opening up for social and economic growth, there is no better time than now to heal the wounds of war and promote reconciliation between the two.

Wesley Hedden, Program Director of Sarus Exchange Program speaks to us about the need to create space and dialogue to ease deep-seated tension and build relationships between bordering countries with histories of distrust – starting with university-level students from Vietnam and Cambodia.

13(b) credit to Wesley HeddenThe Sarus Exchange Program promotes peace between Cambodia and Vietnam by bringing together an equal number of college students from both countries for a month of physically and mentally demanding service in Cambodia and Vietnam. Students learn to reflect, work in and as a team, share insights, and negotiate conflict productively.

Tell us more about how the idea of Sarus first came to mind. What inspired you to start Sarus and what were you hoping to achieve?

From 2006 to 2010, I lived and worked in a variety of educational and non-profit contexts in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. During this time, I observed that my students and colleagues harboured negative stereotypes about people of different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities within the region. I also noticed that there were few spaces for young people to explore conflict, both interpersonal and structural. The intention of Sarus was to create a safe space where people from countries with a history of conflict could come together to collaborate, learn, and explore their experiences with conflict. By focusing on young leaders, I hoped Sarus would be able to catalyse a diverse, international community of social innovators, inspired and empowered to create a more peaceful Asia.

How are programmes designed at Sarus? Who are the programmes designed for, what are the consideration sets and how is impact measured?

Programmes are typically designed through a mixture of intention and experimentation. The design process is human-centred with the programme participant as the key user. Our theory of change remains front and central throughout our design process. We also allow for a relatively high degree of flexibility and experimentation to ensure that participants, partners, and community members have strong voices and become invested stakeholders in our programmes. We solicit feedback from stakeholders, reflect rigorously, and adapt as needed. We are, first and foremost, a learning organisation, and, as such, we are not afraid to make mistakes and change course as needed. In this way, we’ve organically adapted the design thinking mentality of rapid prototyping and iteration.

How are the programmes doing? How many participants have you served and what feedback have you received?

Our programmes are going very well. This past fall we launched a new fieldwork course in partnership with the United Nations mandated University for Peace entitled Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership (DSIL). Over 30 professionals from more than 15 countries attended the programme in Bangkok and Phnom Penh in October and November.

To date, we’ve run a total of 11 programmes in the last five years that have served a collective total of more than 200 students and professionals, the majority of whom have been from Cambodia and Vietnam.

Feedback from participants in our assessment surveys and interviews has been overwhelmingly positive historically. We have had notably high levels of engagement from programme alumni, especially those of the Sarus Exchange Program. A strong indication of said engagement is that over 70% of our alumni donate annually to the organisation. Alumni of our programmes regularly indicate in longitudinal tracking surveys that Sarus programs have helped shape their academic interests and professional trajectories. The community of alumni, which members refer to as the Sarus Family, remains strong and connected, even for those who participated in programmes several years ago.

What is keeping you busy at the moment?

At the moment, my two biggest projects are the establishment of new DSIL programmes in partnership with the University for Peace and the build-out for our new Bangladesh-Myanmar exchange programme.

Tell us about the challenges you have faced in running Sarus and how you’ve overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had is ensuring our financial sustainability. The participants in our programmes come from low-income countries, and as such, they are unable to cover the costs of the programme. Because of this, we depend on external sources of funding to run our programmes. In addition to inherent fundraising challenges such as donor dependency and shifting global aid trends, we face the additional challenge of trying to create a sense of urgency and importance to a problem whose consequences tend to be more long-term and indirect in nature. The situation in Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, is one of what peace practitioners call negative peace, namely a situation in which physical violence is limited but structural and cultural violence such as discrimination, stereotypes, and unequal access to resources are prevalent. In developing countries in which there are more urgent issues such as water sanitation, infectious disease control, and maternal health, it is difficult for us to build the awareness and call to action necessary to raise sufficient funds to cover our operations.

In order to overcome this challenge, we’ve shifted towards a social enterprise model. Part of this effort has included the creation of what we call Lift Programs. These programmes are designed for students and professionals from higher-income backgrounds and provide opportunities for this demographic to visit and learn about the countries in which we work. We leverage our existing partnerships, alumni, and resources to keep the quality of these programmes high and the costs low. The revenue generated from Lift Programs is then used to subsidise the costs of our core programmes for students from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Another effective and sustainable fundraising mechanism that we’ve utilised is crowdfunding. Over the course of three successful Indiegogo campaigns, we’ve raised nearly $50,000 from over 500 donors in 30 plus countries. We view crowdfunding as a way not just to raise money, but more importantly as a means of energising and expanding our network, clarifying our message, and raising awareness about our cause.

Where do you see Sarus going? What is going to help or prevent you from achieving this vision?

Organisationally, I see Sarus becoming more focused and mature in the coming three to five years. I expect all of our programmes will coalesce clearly behind our theory of change, and we will finalise our hallmark curriculum, which will be used across all programmes. I anticipate that our core programmes linking Cambodia & Vietnam and Bangladesh & Myanmar will be one hundred percent financially sustainable on the basis of our Lift Programs and our other social enterprise endeavours.

With respect to our participants, I expect we’ll have a better understanding of what works and how we can most effectively inspire and empower them to create more open, inclusive, and resilient communities regionally. I also anticipate that with increased funding sources we’ll be able to reach three times the current number of participants annually by 2020.

I believe the two biggest challenges for us in the next five years will be securing our financial sustainability and navigating the complex and ever-shifting political landscapes of the countries in which we operate.

If you were to achieve the goal of building connections for future cross-border cooperation between future leaders in Cambodia and Vietnam, or Bangladesh and Myanmar, what outcomes do you think that might bring?

First and foremost, it would reduce the risk of physical violence between people of different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities in the region. Second, it would reduce levels of discrimination in society, thus eliminating barriers for minorities to access educational and professional opportunities. Finally, it would lead to increased opportunities for collaboration across traditional ethnic, religious, and national divides, thus leading to greater economic growth and prosperity, as well as opportunities to address the most vexing international challenges of the 21st century.


Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at