Siem Reap-based Arlene Gormley moved from Northern Ireland five years ago and co-founded Feeding Dreams, a community school that provides free education, school meals and support to hundreds of children and families. She has recently written, illustrated and self-published a children’s book addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted last year to combat climate change, end hunger and improve health (among others) by 2030. Gormley spoke with Kezia Parkins about 2030 Not A Fairytale, how she decided to release it in Cambodia – and why she’s aimed the book at a young audience.
Why did you decide to write and publish 2030 Not A Fairytale?
As a master’s student [of international development], I based my second-year practicum on translating the Sustainable Development Goals to a country-specific context so that they can be made relevant to youth and engage them in playing a role in the implementation of the SDG agenda. The book was originally intended as a hand-made Christmas gift for my 3-year-old niece in Belfast – I wanted to be able to explain to her the kind of work that I’m involved in and why I’m in Cambodia. There are 17 goals – so it took more time than I anticipated – and often I would be found frantically sketching in Blue Pumpkin on my lunch breaks. Some teacher friends asked me if they could get a copy for their classes, and so it began. I self-published a limited number of copies and distributed them among people I knew. Earlier this year, following a serendipitous meeting, an in-kind donation was made to publish 3,000 hard copies. Now, the books are retailing at $10 each. All profits are donated to Feeding Dreams.
Do you think there is a lack of education [in sustainable development] for young children?
This wee book is the only resource geared towards young children about the global goals – I have researched this. Maybe people think the subject is too “adult”, and that young children should not be introduced to concepts like gender equality or climate change until they are older. This baffles me – surely it’s easier to be introduced to the importance of gender equality at a young age, when children have young minds that soak up information. It’s more difficult to relearn as an adult.
How do you think the SDGs will be achieved in Cambodia by 2030?
Achieving the global goals is a huge undertaking by the UN; it’s pretty much a wish list to remedy every problem we face today. Critics of the SDGs have likened them to a beauty pageant contestant calling for world peace: all talk and no action. Achieving them will be difficult, but not impossible. Obviously, wealthy countries have a head start on many goals. Cambodia will need to work very hard if it is to meet the global goals by 2030. I believe that teaching children about the world as early as possible is one of the best ways to make a real change.
What kind of responses have you received?
In Cambodia specifically, I’ve found there’s eagerness from our Cambodian teachers to teach children using the book, even the older kids. The book is the perfect platform to start conversations in the classroom about issues pertaining to their futures, the availability of decent jobs, access to adequate health care and the environmental challenges posed by deforestation.
How have you seen the book influence Cambodian children?
The influence depends on the distribution. Obviously, the more children that read the book, [the more] that will be introduced to the concept of development and the global goals. The purpose of the book is just to plant the seed. In terms of information, the book is purposefully very simplistic: the aim is to make children want to learn more about these things.
What are your hopes for the book from here?
The book has been translated into Khmer, and it looks incredible – but it’s only available in digital format. My hope is that the Khmer version becomes available in print and is distributed to as many children as possible.
2030 Not a Fairytale is available at Monument Books locations throughout Cambodia, and online at 2030notafairytale.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.