Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Got aid?

I just finished reading an article from the Washington Post that was posted by a friend relating to the latest hot topic in Cambodia surrounding international aid, donors and non-government organizations (NGOs).

Joel Brinkley, in his article, "Aid to Cambodia rarely reaches the people it's meant to help," is rather cynical of the donor meeting happening in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, 20 April, where more than 3,000 governments and donor organizations are gathering to decided on the fate of how much much will be given to Cambodia this coming year.
This year should be different. Over the past two decades, the Cambodian government has grown ever more repressive. Now it is actually planning to bite the hand that feeds it: The legislature is enacting a law that would require nongovernmental organizations to register with the government, giving venal bureaucrats the ability to shut them down unless they become toadies of the state.

Eight major international human rights organizations are calling on Cambodia to back down, saying the bill is “the most significant threat to the country’s civil society in many years.” Donors, they say, should hold back their pledges. But they say that every year, and each year the donors ignore them. Meanwhile, the status of the Cambodian people the aid is supposed to help improves little if at all. Nearly 80 percent of Cambodians live in the countryside with no electricity, clean water, toilets, telephone service or other evidence of the modern world.
(Click here to see what the Phnom Penh Post says about the law.) Brinkley continues with his "facts":

Most people don’t know that Cambodians are ruled by a government that sells off the nation’s rice harvest each year and pockets the money, leaving its people without enough to eat. That it evicts thousands of people from their homes, burns down the houses, then dumps the victims into empty fields and sells their property to developers.

That it amasses vast personal fortunes while the nation’s average annual per capita income stands at $650. Or that it allows school teachers to demand daily bribes from 6-year-olds and doctors to extort money from dirt-poor patients, letting them die if they do not pay.

This is a government that stands by and watches as 75 percent of its citizens contract dysentery each year, and 10,000 die — largely because only 16 percent of Cambodians have access to a toilet. As Beat Richner, who runs children’s hospitals there, puts it, “the passive genocide continues.”

This is the reality of modern-day Cambodia. Despite all of aid and donations, the majority of the population still lives in the shadow of the Khmer Rouge Regime, which took place just over 30 years ago, eking out a barely subsistence standard of living.

Do Cambodians need more food? Probably, but the lack of it has less to do with the lack of food in the country, and more to do with basic economic adequacy and physical infrastructure to deliver food from the main city centers.

Do Cambodians need land and homes? Certainly, but many are selling out of desperation, or are forcefully being evicted because of ignorance about how economic land concessions work.

Do teachers and doctors need higher salaries? Definitely! Yet, this disparity is not easily remedied since higher salaries mean more money needs to be paid out, and if there isn't an efficient tax system to bring money in (among other things), then there simply is no money to increase their salaries as public servants.

Interestingly enough, there was an article today in the Phnom Penh Post outing the massive number of "ghost employees" in the government civil sector. However, this does not include the "ghost soldiers or police officers" who are usually family members listed on the rolls who have never put on a uniform, but are still collecting a monthly income.

Do Cambodians need toilets? Most assuredly! And that's what I am in the middle of working on: a plan to bring cost effective compost toilets to the rural areas of Cambodia. The challenge is acceptance of such a new method of waste deposit, and the acceptance of something that seems less than modern. After all, water toilets seems so "rich."

While I may not wholeheartedly agree with all that Dr. Richner says, he is accurate in that a passive genocide is still taking place as international aid and support is locked up in bureaucratic red tape and inefficient means of delivery to the most needy and vulnerable. (Most aid workers for large-scale, internationally-funded projects will privately attest to this.)

The question remains: Should I still give?

Of course, opposition to folks like Brinkley would say YES! In his rebuttal to Brinkley's opinion piece, John McAuliff (one of those who disagree with Brinkley) writes:

Cambodia is troubled by corruption and by the gulf between rich and poor, as are most countries in the region. However, it is a very different and far more developed place than during the first fifteen years after the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, having destroyed all of its modern economy and killed most of its educated people.

It has transformed itself economically and socially with a free press, a robust public forum and contested elections. The dominance of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party reflects in part a far more serious approach to governance and grass roots organization than manifested by their at least as ethically challenged rivals.

I don't know if it is enough to concede that just because Cambodia is far better off than it was 15 years after the Khmer Rouge Regime that we can take a "se la vie" approach and call what has been happening since 1993 adequate. I am very curious to read Brinkley's book, Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The used copies at Amazon are less than $15.

Why set the bar so low?

Why don't we compare present day Cambodia to the Cambodia of pre-war days? Wouldn't that be a fairer comparison?

In the end, this debate will not go away. People and governments give donations primarily for the "tax breaks" and because it makes them feel better about themselves that they are "helping" those less fortunate.

After all, isn't it better to give than to receive?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Celebrating the Cambodian new year

In the past, I have taken part in some of the traditions of Khmer New Year celebrations. Being a "seasoned" ex-pat, I'm less inclined to join in on the festivities, leaving it up to the "newbies" in town. I have played my fair share of "Bos Angkunh" and danced around tables, though I doubt anyone actually captured it on film.

Here are some great explanations from Wikipedia (the photos are mine):

Cambodian New Year (Khmer: បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី) or Chaul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language, literally "Enter Year New", is the name of the Cambodian holiday that celebrates the New Year. The holiday lasts for three days beginning on New Year's day, which usually falls on April 13th or 14th, which is the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. Khmer's living abroad may choose to celebrate during a weekend rather than just specifically April 13th through 15th. The Khmer New Year coincides with the traditional solar new year in several parts of India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Cambodians also use Buddhist Era to count the year based on the Buddhist calendar. For 2011, it is 2555 BE (Buddhist Era).

New Year's customs

In temples, people erect a sand hillock on temple grounds. They mound up a big pointed hill of sand or dome in the center which represents sakyamuni satya, the stupa at Tavatimsa, where the Buddha's hair and diadem are buried. The big stupa is surrounded by four small ones, which represent the stupas of the Buddha's favorite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa. There is another tradition called Sraung Preah (ស្រង់ព្រះ) : pouring water or liquid plaster (a mixture of water with some chalk powder) on elder relative, or people (mostly the younger generation is responsible for pouring the water).

The Khmer New Year is also a time to prepare special dishes. One of these is a "kralan": a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.[2]

Khmer games (ល្បែង⁣ប្រជាប្រិយ⁣)

Cambodia is home to a variety of games played to transform the dull days into memorable occasions. These games are similar to those played at Manipur, a north-eastern state in India. [3] Throughout the Khmer New Year, street corners often are crowded with friends and families enjoying a break from routine, filling their free time with dancing and games. Typically, Khmer games help maintain one's mental and physical dexterity. The body's blood pressure, muscle system and brain are challenged and strengthened for fun.

  • "Tres"

A game played by throwing and catching a ball with one hand while trying to catch an increasing number of sticks with the other hand. Usually, pens or chopsticks are used as the sticks to be caught.

  • "Chol Chhoung (ចោល⁣ឈូង⁣) "

A game played especially on the first nightfall of the Khmer New Year by two groups of boys and girls. Ten or 20 people comprise each group, standing in two rows opposite each other. One group throws the "chhoung" to the other group. When it is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first group. If someone is hit by the "chhoung," the whole group must dance to get the "chhoung" back while the other group sings.

  • "Chab Kon Kleng (ចាប់⁣កូនខ្លែង)⁣ "

A game played by imitating a hen as she protects her chicks from a crow. Adults typically play this game on the night of the first New Year's Day. Participants usually appoint a strong player to play the hen who protects "her" chicks, while another person is picked to be the "crow". While both sides sing a song of bargaining, the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.

  • "Bos Angkunh (បោះអង្គុញ⁣)"

A game played by two groups of boys and girls. Each group throws their own "angkunh" to hit the master "angkunhs," which belong to the other group and are placed on the ground. The winners must knock the knees of the losers with the "angkunh." "Angkunh" is also the name of an inedible fruit seed, which looks like a knee bone.

  • "Leak Kanseng (លាក់⁣កន្សែង)⁣ "

A game played by a group of children sitting in a circle. Someone holding a "kanseng" (Cambodian towel) that is twisted into a round shape walks around the circle while singing a song. The person walking secretly tries to place the "kanseng" behind one of the children. If that chosen child realizes what is happening, he or she must pick up the "kanseng" and beat the person sitting next to him or her.

  • "Bay Khom(បាយខុម)"

A game played by two children in rural or urban areas during their leisure time. Ten holes are dug in the shape of an oval into a board in the ground. The game is played with 42 small beads, stones or fruit seeds. Before starting the game, five beads are put into each of the two holes located at the tip of the board. Four beads are placed in each of the remaining eight holes. The first player takes all the beads from any hole and drops them one by one in the other holes. He or she must repeat this process until they have dropped the last bead into a hole that lies besides any empty one. Then they must take all the beads in the hole that follows the empty one. At this point, the second player may have his turn. The game ends when all the holes are empty. The player with the greatest number of beads wins the game. It is possibly similar to congkak.

  • "Klah Klok (ខ្លា ឃ្លោក) "

A game played by Cambodians of all ages. It is a gambling game that is fun for all ages involving a mat and some dice. You put money on the object that you believe the person rolling the dice (which is usually shaken in a type of bowl) and you wait. If the objects face up on the dice are the same as the objects you put money on, you double it. If there are two of yours, you triple, and so on.