“I’m going to Cambodia on my school break!”

“…and I’m going to play with orphans and dig a well for a village and buy silk handbags made by victims of human trafficking!”

I cringe at the cheerful declarations from the well-intentioned youths, whose schools and colleges suggest (or even require) that their students show a social conscience by visiting some underdeveloped backwater and helping with something.

I’m grateful–with recent events, it’s a real worry that international donors will run away from Cambodia and look for that perfect developing country, in which the poor are all deserving and the victims are all verifiably oppressed. So I have to suppress what I know, because I can’t give up on Cambodia. But I can’t give up on a wider pinhole to look through, either. So:

1) No, you’re not. By visiting an “orphanage”, you’re supporting a business model that benefits the director while separating children from their living parent(s), who were given something in exchange for custody. Maybe it was a sponsorship by foreigners for the child’s education; maybe access to the city school; maybe the parents accepted a small donation to help with other expenses.*

Regardless, the family has been separated because children in group care gather donations and ‘project fees’, which you may pay to get to visit.

2) If you think about it, even illiterate peasants in huts in the jungle know how wells work. The issue has never been whether the village needs a well**, but that the equipment that delivers water costs money.

Now, I’m no economist, but how many well tubes do you think each RT airfare from LAX can buy? You’re going on vacation to a place where you can’t drink the water. The best possible effect of your donation is promoting access to water for people who live in those conditions all the time. Digging the actual well isn’t adding any value, really. (Unless you’re a hydro-engineer who’s hiring an interpreter to teach someone from the village something they don’t know about how to develop a well using locally available resources, in which case, lead on.)

3) How sure are you that those crafts were made by victims of trafficking? And did you know that if they were trafficked, they were probably sold by their parents? And if they entered sex work un-coerced, they may have no alternative to support their families, which may include siblings, children and parents? Some of the victims of trafficking who are ‘rescued’ escape their ‘rescuers’, because removing them from that brothel doesn’t solve the problem that got them there. So one thing to watch in your shopping is whether the victims have to be locked in the shop at night to prevent them going elsewhere.

Leaving prostitution, however it was entered, isn’t easy anywhere. In a society in which women who have sex outside marriage are looked down on, it’s particularly difficult; women who have been making money from sex work can’t return to their villages and expect their children to be treated with dignity. Garment work, which is the only option for less educated Cambodian women, doesn’t pay enough to feed the workers and their dependents. There is no quick fix.

In the end, why does it matter that the workers who made your silk backpack were saved from a degrading series of events? Or whether the kids who need the basics of life (education, a healthy and regular diet, and toothbrushes) have parents or are orphaned?

Donations are driven by the most upsetting, the most hair-raising, the most depraved tales. These serve to dehumanize both the receiver–poor things, their culture/country is such a mess!–and the giver–poor things, they have no innate charitable impulses, but must be bludgeoned into empathy.

It doesn’t matter so much that Somaly Mam told some whoppers in pursuit of foreign supporters for her work. Her exaggerations are the product of a donor-driven race to pathos, in which the winners are the victims with the most extraordinary tales of woe. What if, instead of looking for the really worst-off, we instead recognized that Cambodia is fully stocked with worse-off…and committed to supporting development work that builds capacity for Cambodians.

Ultimately Khmer people have to save Cambodia. All the rest of us can do is try not to make things worse by rewarding dysfunction.

Part 2: Why did Somaly Mam tell those horrible stories if they aren’t true? What’s being covered up?

Part 3: All those charities over there sound like a bunch of scams, trying to get money from clueless foreigners.

*Yes, it’s accepted by Cambodian culture that children may be placed for work by their indigent parents, and it’s not even illegal for the buyers charitable donors to give some charity to the parents as well. Children are considered part of the family’s asset picture and expected to contribute to household economy however they can.

**For certain agreed values of ‘need’. If the village chief’s priorities are elsewhere, and he’s perfectly satisfied with the continued use of female labor, then the question may be ‘why do we need a well when every girl between 5 and 15 hauls her family’s water from the river each morning?’

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