Building orphanages and doing something ‘’green’’ in Cambodia is
very l’air du temps these days. Even MBA
students do that as part of their stint in Asia,
or should I say, as part of their ‘’voluntourism’’?
No, no, it’s not so simple as volunteerism or tourism. It now has a fashionable name called ‘’social
enterprise’’, and they even have a Club formed to promote it among the
students, and to push media relations folks like me to tout their noble efforts
to the press about how they are doing good and installing water filters in some
remote village in Siem Reap.
I suppose I can’t blame marketers and charity workers for ‘’just
doing their job’’ either. So, we get
inundated with flyers carrying photos of deformed, emaciated or disabled kids,
hoping to tug at our heartstrings and to open our cheque books to make a
Or, to have even greater visual impact, we see contorted old
folks in wheelchairs and speaking in a slurred manner, thanking us for ‘’having
a heart’’, during ‘’charity shows’’ on TV, where celebrities learnt contortions
(of a different kind) to perform and impress, and again, in the hopes of
tugging at our heartstrings.
All very well; very well.
I am not against charity, nor against fund raising, or
But has anyone thought of this: what the ‘’less fortunate’’
need most is not sympathy? They need to
be treated with dignity. Inside, they
must be screaming, ‘’I am also as human as you are!’’.
As for the ‘’less fortunate’’ kids: yes, they may be poor,
and yes, they may have never seen an iPad.
But do get rid of the mental image that all ‘’poor kids’’ in developing
countries are sad, diseased or disabled.
And do get rid of the idea that by throwing money at them, or by going
there for a week to build something, you are ‘’helping’’. If at all, you are helping to sooth either
your own guilt or ego.
In 2004, I was in Galle
for a holiday. I never nursed the noble
idea of going there to ‘’do good’’. I
was there to do myself some good – ie, to rest.
But I happened to stay in a hotel where the bosses believed in doing
their bit for the less fortunate, and they almost literally dragged their
guests to join them.
So on Sunday afternoon, they brought us to a child
care centre nearby so that we could interact with the kids and talk to them, and help
them practice English. These kids were
healthy, happy and smiling, though many came from either poor families or were
orphans. They may not be wearing clothes
from Osh Kosh or Kids 21 but they were not in tatters. They had as much dignity and vivacity as any
first world kid.
Was I and the other hotel guests sad or in tears or full of
sympathy for them? No, we enjoyed
ourselves chatting with them, and spent an hour laughing and learning from one
another. I went back feeling that I’ve
learnt much more from them, than they have, from me.
These kids are like any kid in our country – they need
friendship and time, which no amount of donations – corporate or personal – can
provide. Like what my former boss
suggested once (when he was trying to get me to spend time with the orphans at
the home he’d helped build in Cambodia), ‘’you don’t have to do anything ‘big’
– just show them how you bake your cookies, and they would be very thrilled’’. They are not animals in a human zoo for us to
‘’visit’’ and ‘’see for ourselves’’ how they live.
In the same trip, my tuk tuk driver bought me a Coke. Yes, with the fares that I’d paid him, I
suppose he can even afford a Coke for me.
But that’s not the point. The
point is, he was generous enough to buy me, someone from a developed nation, a
drink, at the end of the trip, when he had stopped to get himself some
cigarettes and water. Do tuk tuk drivers
in Bangkok do
that? Do our uniformed chauffeurs or
picky cab drivers do that here?
When I was in Siem Reap in 2002, again, I did not go there
with the thought of dumping cheap pens and T shirts at the children there
(though I’d been advised to bring lots of these to give away, when ‘’beggars
swarm you as you walk the streets’’, they say).
Indirectly, I contributed, by staying in a humble, locally-run inn, rather
than a 5 star resort run by the Raffles Group.
This charming inn gives a portion of their earnings to an
orphanage. And I was moved by their
simple hospitality, honesty and trusting nature, in the way they welcomed me as
a first time guest.
I can go on and on about how I’ve been touched by the simple
grace and dignity of the people of Laos,
Phnom Penh, Myanmar and Kerala – all ‘’poor’’
countries by our standard. But they are certainly
not poor in spirit. I’ve received more
than what I’d given in these places that I’ve visited.
Of course, I am not naïve.
There ARE maimed people ravaged by landmines, wars, and abject
poverty. And they do need help – at
every level – economic, social and humanitarian. Just don’t flatter yourself thinking that
your ‘’token’’ help of building something for a week there would suffice.