Better Today, Gone Tomorrow: Is Charity Doing More Harm Than Good in Cambodia?

02/08/2011 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our hearts are in the right place, but is our charity doing more harm than good? What we learn from our work with HIV and poverty in Cambodia.

A Fire in the Middle of the Night
In 2001, Ek Sam Ol (pictured on right, with our translator Him Sothea and volunteer Ruth Hobson) and his wife woke up in the middle of the night to the cries of fire consuming their slum neighborhood of corrugated metal, reused wood, and dried palm leaves. In a matter of minutes, the couple found themselves packed in a lorry with scores of other residents in this shantytown less than a mile away from Phnom Penh's royal palace and touristy riverfront. By the time the lorries drove off, bulldozers were already leveling the land.

2011-02-07-EkSamOlwithSotheaandRuthcopy.JPGThe lorry transported Ek Sam Ol and his wife to a remote, unused tract of land called Samron Meanchey, about 15 miles outside of Phnom Penh. With only the few kitchen items they had grabbed as they ran from the fire, along with $12 and a 50 kg bag of rice given to them by the government, the couple and everyone else began constructing a new shantytown. Their shacks had to be built over a slimy, green canal, for they were forbidden to use the land that spread out on either side of the canal. It all seems a great violation of human rights.

Still, I suppose Ek Sam Ol and his neighbors never had legal rights to their land in Phnom Penh.

I suppose there's good reasons why people like Ek Sam Ol are extremely guarded about revealing who set those devastating fires. After all, fear had gripped the country for decades ever since the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh in 1975.

And I suppose it's ironic that where Ek Sam Ol's shantytown was is now a gleaming hotel and casino complex -- into which non-foreign passport holding Cambodians are not allowed to enter. That is, unless they have connections, or bribe the security guards at the back entrance.

A Shantytown Over a Canal
2011-02-07-SamronStreetScenedetailcopy.JPGA few weeks ago, I visited Samron Meanchey with the Salvation Centre Cambodia (SCC), our Cambodian, on-the-ground partner organization whose mission is to raise the quality of life for people affected by HIV and poverty. That mirrors the mission of my nonprofit, the Brooklyn-based Face-to-Face AIDS Project. In the last few years, SCC has transformed the muddy paths of Samron Meanchey into passable roads, brought in clean water systems, built walkways over the canal, installed latrines, and established vocational training programs and a vibrant school for children too poor to afford the uniforms, books, and petty bribes needed to attend the state's public schools. Crime is down, and most people have food.

At first glance, a visitor might think that Samron Meanchey looks pretty awful. The water is terribly polluted, homes are falling apart, and there's garbage everywhere. Ek Sam Ol, who now serves as a commune leader, told me that finding work is challenging, because they're so far removed from the city. Just the transportation fees negates most of the few dollars they could make in one day in Phnom Penh. I inquired about the arable land on either side of the canal, but was told that this was all private land, and growing crops or keeping animals there was strictly prohibited.
Still, Samron Meanchey is much better off than it was just six months ago, thanks to SCC. My organization is hoping to support the 83 kids studying at the school, and developing the school into a community center. For less than $10,000 a year, it's a worthwhile endeavor, and gives a tangible, accountable return on one's charity investment. Our grants go to SCC, who report every penny that's spent -- and I'm not kidding. They've even returned unused grant monies to us, because they've saved by renegotiating construction contracts when the recession hit. SCC has received the highest praise from the international audit firm, KPMG, a result perhaps from their strict anti-corruption and open book policies. They also are beloved by the communities, who appreciate that SCC is made up of people who for the most part come from poverty themselves, and so understand and sympathize with those they're trying to help.

Better Today, Gone Tomorrow
2011-02-07-PoorSideRichSide.JPGThere's one issue about our work at Samron Meanchey that bothers me a lot. It concerns sustainability, and how through good work we're actually weakening sustainability.
Here's what I mean. As the quality of life is improved in Samron Meanchey, developers come in and see the potential of the land. So they purchase lots on either side of the canal. Houses are built, and some of them look pretty fancy too -- three or four stories high, balconies, tall fences. (Photo: other side of road has fences, yards, and nice houses. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hobson, Face-to-Face volunteer) Roads are being paved, and a few businesses have already popped up.

Maybe that's good for the neighborhood, but there'll come a day when the bulldozers will appear once again. The new homeowners don't want to live next to a shantytown, not even if it's a clean one. So someone will make a deal with the government to relocate the residents of Samron Meanchey. SCC expects that to happen sometime in the next few years. Ek Sam Ol thinks it might happen even sooner, for already, people are not allowed to rebuild or improve their homes.

"Why would the government not allow us to renovate our homes, if they didn't have plans to force us out again?" he points out.

This kind of relocation is already happening to us in Phnom Penh, where students at our school for orphans and vulnerable children are being forced to relocate far from the city. In this case, the relocated families must sometimes scatter to distant areas, which means we lose contact with the students. And that loss of contact is very troubling for us.

We go in to places like Samron Meanchey, help improve the quality of life of its people, make the area look better... And then someone sees profit in the area and in come the bulldozers and out goes our people. Better today, gone tomorrow -- and gone without a trace.

Hard Questions for Charities
That leads us to question if our charity is doing more harm than good -- are we supporting an environment where charities like SCC and Face-to-Face are helping others make profits, while they leave us to support their own peoples?

In other words, shouldn't Cambodia be striving to develop itself so that it's able to help its own? And shouldn't nonprofits like us be working toward a future where we're no longer needed?

Yes, yes, and well, definitely yes.

2011-02-07-Schoolclassdetailcopy.JPGNow that's settled, the question is how to go about doing this. I'm thinking that Face-to-Face and SCC should place more emphasis on nurturing a culture of charity in the places we work. Take our poorest of the poor, and as we raise their quality of life just a bit, we also nurture them to develop into future role models who help their own.

Some might say this is capacity building. Others might say that it's not holding the reins of charity mission so tightly.

I say it's about changing our charity attitudes. Better today, gone tomorrow. Well, we might just be able to turn that into a good thing.

(For more about my thoughts on how to implement programs that focus on the future, please continue reading my posts, which will appear every two or three days for the next few weeks.)


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