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Every braid a smile: how SMILE Village is bringing smiles back to Cambodia

By: Tay Tian Wen 

The gleaming facades of Phnom Penh’s towering skyscrapers are a proud testament to Cambodia’s economic boom, but not everyone is embracing the future with rosy optimism. 

Beyond the glitz of the capital city’s swanky new condominiums and office buildings, more than 140 000 people endure destitute conditions in nearly 500 decrepit slums. Unsanitary and severely lacking even in basic amenities, these slums are perfect breeding grounds for diseases. 

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As Phnom Penh continues to grow, slum after slum will be demolished, their inhabitants forcefully evicted under duress — any respite offered by the slums for the urban poor is all but temporary. 

The promise of a better life has been snatched away from the people of the slums by corporate avarice and public corruption, and as land values continue to soar, hope seems like an increasingly scarce commodity. 

Until one steps into SMILE Village

image credit: Design For Good SG 

A residential community project founded by the French charity Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) in collaboration with BillionBricks, Solutions to End Poverty (STEP) and URBnarc in 2012, SMILE Village offers little to impress at first glance. The buildings are sturdier than the makeshift shelters of the slums, but aesthetically modest; homes are spartan, almost reminiscent of the worker dormitories in Singapore. Yet, it is here that the urban poor find many a reason to smile. 

image credit: Design For Good SG 

It is here that families who were previously living in temporary slums find a sense of permanence and belonging. While the homes and communal buildings were the brainchild of PSE, STEP, Billionbricks and URBnarc, the families themselves also played a role in the construction of the new home. The construction skills they learned in the process may land them jobs in Cambodia’s burgeoning construction industry, and the homes they built are here to stay. At SMILE Village, families no longer live in fear of the sound of bulldozers and the crack of batons. 

It  is here that families who struggle to make a living in the slums are given an opportunity to earn for their own keep. Workshops in SMILE Village provide a space for Krafters to hone their handicraft skills, and every braid they create weaves them a sustainable future. Sustainable livelihoods give these krafters and their families newfound confidence, and take them a step closer to eventually owning their own home. 

image credit: Design For Good SG 

It is also here that families who previously lived in the slums find a voice to reach out to a wide audience, and know that they do not stand alone in their fight for a better future. At SMILE Village, these families are connected to a vast network of organisations and individuals committed to doing social good.

From rural finance initiatives such as Cambodia Mutuel Savings and Credit (CMK), social enterprises such as Design for Good and 9Women to students on overseas service learning programs from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the National University of Singapore, SMILE Village gives these families a voice to reach out to a global audience, and many shoulders to lean on. 

image credit: Design For Good SG 

In rebuilding confidence, providing opportunities for employment and ensuring a self-sustainable future for its’ residents,  SMILE Village is bringing smiles back to Cambodia by returning the promise of a better future to those who were forced out of their homes. Slum after slum may be demolished in the name of progress, but SMILE Village, and the wider community of people dedicated to doing social good, will make sure hope never runs dry. 

About the Author 

Tian Wen aspires to connect communities one story at a time. He believes words are more than proverbial bridges to everyone's little island, and is always on the lookout for the best tales told around the world. 

While not racking his brains on his next writing assignment, Tian Wen muses about everyday affairs and pens his reflections at

About Design For Good 

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