It was my first full day in Cambodia and I was eager to explore and gain a sense of my surroundings for the next five weeks. Three of us decided to borrow bikes and chase out the rain on an excursion out of the city, which led us to a fishing village on the Tonle Sap. While maneuvering in and out of countless tuk tuks (Cambodia’s taxi – a sort of motorcycle chariot), motorbikes topped with whole families, and bicycles with babies precariously teetering above the rear wheel – all of which are on no particular side of the road – I assumed that my distraction caused me to misinterpret what thought I had just read: “Charity show. Performance by the vulnerable children.” Miles later, when the road simply turned into a river, we had no choice but to turn around, and I eventually came across the billboard again, this time giving it a closer look and confirming what I had initially read. Although I was struck by the growing international critique of Cambodia’s corrupt orphan business back in the United States, I did not expect to encounter it so explicitly on my first day.
Slapped on the wall behind one of the leader’s desk was a sign that read, “charity show is the children’s life.” He didn’t fail to make this clear during our conversation before the show. While the sign, as does their website, attempts to argue that this is a form of empowerment, designed to give the students a set of life and technical dance skills, there is no choice involved. Dance class, as well as participating in the show (which takes place every night), is mandatory for all children; the youngest we speculated to be no older than six. We also learned from a volunteer with the organization that these children may be hired for various events, and that the older girls perform in the evening at the local hotels.
When the show finished, one of the leaders welcomed the visitors to take pictures with the children. I found myself asking: For what purpose? Even though my visit to this orphanage was brief, I am deeply disturbed at how blatantly exploitative this entire operation is and that there seems to be no legitimate mechanism to hold it, and others, accountable. Without prior awareness of how power structures operate here in Cambodia, I would have quickly argued that a regulatory system should be implemented in order to monitor the orphanages in Cambodia and protect the rights of the children; however, solutions to development issues, as we’ve learned, are nearly guaranteed to bear unintended consequences. For instance, we recently heard from another NGO of the government’s plan to shut down all orphanages in Cambodia over the next two years, which may be in response to pressures from international human rights organizations that have disclosed abusive practices in unregulated orphanages. Considering this particular orphanage’s direct relationship with the government, as stated by out tour guide, it will likely be the last to go. How, then, do we begin to draft “solutions” to deeply entrenched systemic problems, and feel as though our efforts are useful? Such unanswered questions are the reasons for which we are here; hopefully encouraging space for meaningful dialogue and reflection that prioritizes local perspectives. Thus far, I’ve learned to stop seeking answers – a quest with no definitive destination – and start listening to the questions.