Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paved With Goood Intentions

 There has been a very interesting campaign from an organization called ChildSafe here in Cambodia. They launched a series of posters in an effort to educate people about the detriments of orphanage volunteering and the above photo is their campaign 's main image. I find it rather disturbing and thought-provoking. In the print version it reads 'Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.' And while dabbling in some orphanage volunteering with a friend was a tentative plan of mine earlier, I am singing quite a different song now.

It really does seem like a good idea, doesn't it? Expose children who have very few options to new ideas, fun activities and diverse people. Do your part to help out in a developing country when you've otherwise come to chill, party and enjoy the quasi-criminal exchange rate. Peer into how the other half lives and take some darling photos. Sounds good to me!

However, this parachuting into the developing world does have a rather dark underbelly. I already feel horrible about leaving my girls at Harpswell. We talked recently about the fact that I am leaving in January and some of them got very visibly distraught. In working with them I feel like I'm only beginning to be helpful. And as for understanding Cambodian culture and really figuring out how to be the most effective mentor I can be, that has barely even started. Even though two years was quite a lengthy tenure to live in Mongolia, I have come to believe that anything less is just silly. You need to really build relationships and earn trust. You can't do that in 5 months, much less 1 week.

Children are also extremely impressionable. One of the first questions the kids at A New Day and the young women at Harpswell asked me is 'when are you leaving?' They needed to know how long this contractual little friendship would last and after years of being loved and left by others they've wised up. I think the youngsters I work with are relatively well-adjusted which is great. But the manager constantly has to turn down offers from well-meaning Westerners who want to pop round  for a few days to play with the kids. It's just not emotionally healthy for them. I'm worried that even my short tenure here might make them confused.

My views on all this is that if you want to help out in the developing world then do something like work at a food pantry or lend a hand on a Habitat build. Find something that does not toy with the dependency issues that children in orphanages already have. Also, choose something that does not encourage parents to give their kids away for money or orphanage owners to grow fat on foreign aid. These places often have no accountability and sadly the kids rarely see the gifts showered upon their housing project by backpackers as they are often absorbed into the pockets of the director. And you wouldn't walk into an orphanage or foster home in America. Why assume that it is any more ok here? Just because our money goes farther? Because we can behave with anonymity and act outside of the norm in a foreign place? Whatever the reason it seems awfully exploitative even though it's not meant to be. Tragically kind hearts can turn cruel even though they are filled with so much love.

I hope I'm not soap-boxing. These are just all very new thoughts for me and I thought I'd share them. Moreover, in light of this, I feel so lucky to have found reputable, safe places to work. My time here has certainly showed me how complex helping can be and how messy it can get when so many good intentions tangle themselves up in each other. Very good lessons to learn.


E in Atlanta said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking observations.

Steppe Up said...

I hope so. It has really impacted my life here. I saw a Western woman and her daughter give a street kid a bunch of bananas and a loaf a bread today. Instead of thinking "how sweet!" I got a little angry at them for condoning an at-risk lifestyle and sending positive messages to the child's parents.