Thinking out of proverbial box could better Cambodia

You can be sure that participants in this protest against the ruling party a while back collectively represent unfathomable need.

Modern history has demonstrated that, indeed, there always is something new under the sun.

Under this nation’s punishing sun, perhaps some possibly new ideas could improve the lives of the heartbreakingly numerous Cambodians unable even to hope for a better life.

As I make my way around the country, various initiatives have occurred to me since my arrival in Phnom Penh in December of 2013, and I wanted to share a few of them with my readers in the hope such concepts might generate helpful comments and, in the best of all worlds, ways to bring as little as one idea to fruition.  Herewith:

Distribution of unserved food.  I have heard that certain hotels and bakeries (Eric Kayser is one) now have leftovers collected for distribution to hungry Cambodians.  But there is, to my knowledge, nothing on the scale of a couple of programs of which I am aware in the U.S. — for instance, Second Harvest and God’s Love We Deliver.

The notion of collecting and distributing edible food that otherwise would face disposal clearly is hardly novel in the West, where food banks and pantries fill a pressing need. Hell, France gets it: That country recently made it illegal for supermarkets to throw out good food.

I read somewhere that a chef’s association in Siem Reap has taken responsibility for such a project, though I haven’t found out yet how ambitious it is. I recently stumbled across the location of a chef’s association in Phnom Penh while visiting an airline in an office building. Another option would be the hotels association.

If I can bestir myself from retirement passivity and my discouragement about getting things done here, then I want to pursue those organizations.

The question is what sort of mechanism needs to be developed, assuming one does not now exist? In addition, what challenges does the country’s heat present?  And how can such a program be expanded into the provinces — where poverty and hunger, despite official claims of greatly reduced need — are endemic?

Economic development one family plot at a time.  The concept is that some families have hard title to the land on which their humble homes now sit, often in areas yet to be gentrified. Provided not only with financial resources that are laughable compared with the costs of building elsewhere and also with mentoring, the right families could immeasurably improve their standards of living by building up and renting out.  Moreover, one project has a way of leading to another and having a positive influence on an entire neighborhood.

That's another kid at work at far end.

At the far end, that’s another kid at work.

I have referred to and elaborated on one project with which I was involved, and you can find more information toward the end of a blog post I wrote soon after I settled in. My fervent hope is that others will choose to take part in similar tiny-scale endeavors with me in the middle to increase the odds that the families succeed.

Schools to Sites.  Construction workers have unbearably hard lives.  They work long hours starting at 7 a.m.  They live in rude more or less communal shelters that they contrive and then move within the sites as buildings rise.  They while away their off hours in what I’ll call unproductive ways — at least unproductive to my eyes.  Might some of them be motivated to strive for profound change?

working kid 4

The work that is visible in each of these photos (click to expand) is what the teenagers and younger boys perform all day long at least six days a week.

Those men, teen-age boys and women, most of them lacking even a complete grade-school education, flock to Phnom Penh from the countryside, where job opportunities and income are despairingly low.  Here in the capital city they usually find jobs, but they earn rock-bottom wages — pay generally starts at $150 a month — for performing hard labor in the construction industry.

When I see the workers hanging out with little to do at day’s end, I find myself wondering whether some of them wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to get an education in the hope of a better life.

I have e-mailed administrators at Royal University of Phnom Penh, Pannasastra University and Build Bright University to discuss the idea of having their undergraduate or graduate students participate for credit or modest pay and to offer my help at no cost.  I wish I could say otherwise, but I have not been surprised that no one has bothered to respond many months later.

Depression treatment.  In no small part a consequence of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, which claimed as many as 2 million lives, depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are rampant afflictions.  At the same time, resources for helping affected Cambodians are less than thin.

Perhaps one way to expand treatment options lies in Buddhism.  This is officially a Buddhist nation, and most individuals seem to observe the religion’s rituals, taking comfort from prayer at home and in temples, paying respect to the monks and celebrating holidays.

Why not, then, enlist the Buddhist establishment in the treatment of depression?

One good reason to approach this idea slowly is that counseling requires training.  I tried this idea out in an e-mail to the now-departed U.S. ambassador, and he seemed mildly interested enough to schedule an appointment with me.  But that meeting never got off the ground.

I since have been advised that one path might be to speak to the monks in charge of monks’ education to incorporate or increase psychological training into the curriculum. . . if I can get over my fears about addressing a monk with appropriate respect.  The biggest problem for me is learning how to reach the head monks, sangharaja, of the three orders in Cambodia. I’ll be deeply grateful for any advice since the Internet is not proving all that useful in this regard.

Substitute workers. On my daily walks to the gym and Brown café, I pass the same construction sites, a car wash, parking attendants, security guards, and drivers of motorcycles and tuk-tuks.  As a result of my frequency and their usual presence, many wave, say hello or ask how I am.  

Lots of young people work at washing vehicles, including the boy wearing shorts too big for him.

Lots of young people work at washing vehicles, including the boy wearing blue shorts that are too big for him and rubber boots that help keep him dry.

One enterprise I always pass is a car wash with nothing automatic about it.  There, a couple of evidently pre-pubescent boys toil, spraying, scrubbing and drying.  The two youngest, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, invariably shout out “hello” in English, gesticulate and grin winningly.

I snapped photos only at a distance of adolescents who labor for the sake propriety.

To maintain propriety and reduce squeamishness, I thought it best to take photographs of laboring adolescents only at a distance.  

I wonder what will happen to these boys and the thousands and thousands of others like them who are deprived of an education because the income that they can produce is so desperately needed.  In truth, I don’t wonder: I know.  I cannot imagine how they ever will be able to do anything but work for a pittance and work harder than anyone reading this ever has or ever will.

This is perhaps the costliest of my ideas.  Financial support for hiring substitute workers would free the boys and, yes, girls from their current burdens (literally and figuratively) and enable them to have a future that they cannot even contemplate in their present circumstances.

The substitutions could take place just for part of a day or part of a week.  They don’t have to be for all eligible workers at the same, so the financial requirements need not be impossibly difficult to manage.  You can’t lift yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have the necessary footwear, but substitute workers could make an enormous difference for a few young people at a time and eventually in a country severely lacking in skilled personnel.

The bottom line. . .

I have been around, and I am not naïve.

Certainly, the foregoing initiatives might be something less than pie in the sky and more like whipped cream on the top of a mountain.  It must be somehow possible to reach the summit. If they undertake the journey at all, concerned individuals will need to be committed, determined to find a way and willing to take responsibility for achieving a measure of success.

The obstacles will be many.  Indeed, some of the projects I have outlined here may require a hidebound government’s authorization and assistance.  It will require financial resources.  It will require much more than what I can conceive of by myself.  It will involve an enormous amount of work.  Most important, it will require the participation of persons with deep pockets and good hearts.

If you have ideas, suggestions or criticism, please do furnish them in comments.  If you want to dedicate yourself to bringing an initiative to fruition, hooray!


3 thoughts on “Thinking out of proverbial box could better Cambodia

  1. I don’t wonder: I know.

    That’s a bit damning, obviously these kids are being exploited but some could move forward into mechanics or something. I’ve seen guys go from very humble beginnings as motodops to being managers of large projects. I’m not saying there is a lot of opportunity to improve but some exists. I’m enjoying reading your posts, I only discovered this blog yesterday.


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