Thursday, May 26, 2011

"cambodia is not an experiment"

Something that has been bugging me more and more lately is the attitude of foriegners toward developing countries. So many people think developing countries are so messed up already that they can't possibly do any harm. As long as they come with an open mind and a desire to help everything will turn out hunky dory. WRONG. So totally wrong. Cambodia is not an experiment. It's not a place for people that have no idea what they're doing to come and play around. I think a lot of PCVs join up with this mentality that what they have to offer is better than nothing and I think some of us eventually realize that we can do better than just show up with a superiority complex thinking that we're better than anything the country itself can offer.

Yes, I am a native English speaker. Cambodians can't offer that. I can teach kids to speak English with a proper American accent, but what about the inferiority complex I may be indirectly causing. A lot of Cambodians believe that Cambodians are just not as smart as foriegners. They think this is a universal rule. A lot of Cambodians are so used to having foreigners come in to give them things that they never try to help themselves. And why should they? It seems so easy for the foriegners to part with a few bucks here and there. Foriegn aid is being spent willy nilly and completely wasted in some cases in countries like Cambodia all over the world. Why? Because there is a fundamental disconnect between the people of the country and those that are "just trying to help".

There are many levels at which this disconnect occurs. I think the most blatant occurs when some foreigners come in and just give things away. They have all this money and they build a school. Yes, people need schools. But, who's gonna use those buildings? Who's gonna teach? How are the students going to get there? Who's gonna figure out a way to feed families so children can leave the fields and go to school? In my opinion, People that just give things away are the people that want to make themselves feel better and think that they can fix it all with money. Sometimes its not money, sometimes its those pesky tourists that just pop in for a week or two, teach some english and then flit away back. You think you're not doing any harm? How about all the kids that became attached to you during those two weeks that you just leave behind? How about people like me that are trying to build relationships while you make it harder by demonstrating how temporary I really am? (Yea, I'm very personally biased in this respect). But really, I'm not angry at these individual volunteers. They are trying to help and for many this experience may be a stepping stone to a longer committment. My short time in New Mexico has definitely influenced my time here. The people I really hold responsible are the mid-level organizations and groups that perpetuate this structure, where responsibility sort of goes out the window. They throw people that have done no research, no training, no cultural climatization, and just blindly believe that no harm will be done. This is the exact opposite of the "Do no harm" philosophy. There's no initial training, no monitoring during service, and no real evaluation. Peace Corps is not exempt from this criticism either.

On another level, there are people and NGOs that start out really well. They do the research, take the time to understand the culture, work with Cambodians to make curriculums and programs for Cambodians. And not just Cambodians from Phnom Penh, but getting the input of Cambodians in the villages or whoever their target group is.  But then they never really figure out if what they're doing is effective. Essentially, the problem is that change isn't 'mainstreamed'. In any organization, there needs to be a certain amount of felixbility. A willingness to throw out the current model and put in something new because people change, communities change, problems change, and solutions NEED to change. So, you need to constantly have a way to figure out if your solution is still working or if it ever worked in the first place. You need feedback from the people and communities you are helping, constantly. Otherwise, what you are currently doing is probably useless. The people in the villages are tired of projects that don't work, they lose faith, stop being interested in helping. Add to this mix the 50 NGOs that are all trying out a slight variation of the same model that doesn't work in the same villages and you can imagine the magnitude of the indifference that is being created.

How can we fix this? I don't think we can. I try my best to not exacerbate these issues. I tear my hair out trying to find people in my village to work with, try method after method, discussion after discussion and I will keep trying even though doing things by myself is extremely tempting. But I know my two years are not nearly a long enough commitment.NGOs are also too big, too many, and too stubborn. I wish someone with a clear view of development work and Cambodia could just come in with a magic wand. They would magically make either ALL the NGOs better or get rid of all the crappy ones (though after this we might be only left with a handful of small ones). I wish we could start again so that, this time, we would do our jobs right and do it thoroughly.

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