I’m struggling to gather my thoughts as a million images race through my mind, many of which will be etched into the grooves of my memory forever. A partially blinded child no older than eight, drops to his knees and silently begs me for money against a surreal backdrop of bright flashing lights, carnival rides and chains of food stands offering an array of grilled meats, fried noodles and crepes; in a countryside village, a monk appears and is greeted by a small, incessantly bowing orphaned boy; a plethora of children, dressed in gendered fish or monkey costumes consume the stage at a local orphanage, earning money for the corrupt owners from unsuspecting tourists. And amongst all this madness I find comfort in the presence of the girls at City Dorm; their brilliant smiles, their inquisitive questions, their constant stream of laughter. They are not starving, they are not homeless, they are surviving. And still, if living by Western standards, they have nothing.
So what do we do with that? It’s certainly tempting to slap on a one-size-fits-all type solution; something that has worked for us in the past, or something that we think would “fix” the problems that we see before our eyes. Much of the development work we have witnessed or studied has, indeed, employed an underlying ideology about the benefits of modernization, industrialization, democracy, and to no avail. The rural populations still suffer and live largely in poverty and dependence. Maybe it is time that we give up these failed attempts at “progress” and instead attempt to shift the equality of power. Such an undertaking is difficult because this means largely changing the omnipresent consumerism-obsession within countries we consider developed. It is also something that will likely take an enormous amount of time and energy. Are we, those of us in the West, the ones with power? Instead of trying to control the “development” of other nations, would it be more beneficial to let some of that power go in order for these nations to gain an actual independence and sustainability? In a country whose economy subsists on foreign aid (from the United States, Japan, various European countries, China, etc.), dependency is truly an ever-present reality, one which it must escape before Cambodia is able to sufficiently serve her people. I am repeatedly asking myself how the creation of “business” ventures in Cambodia by foreign investors improve the economic realities of local people. Whose interests do they serve?
Alas, I still see the solution rooted in education. I believe that if every citizen could grasp the implications of our economic and political actions in the United States (or in the larger West), for all of the nations that we impact both directly and indirectly, things could change. The biggest problem I see is that the majority of our population, despite the incredible access to education, media, and technology, still live in incredible ignorance about our role in the world. Of course, with only an increased visibility of the actions of our government and elite, power will still remain in the hands of a few, but maybe, with this new knowledge, and altered perspectives, our youth can rise with renewed awareness and work towards creating true equality.