Giving, by Elisabeth See Toh

After a long day of temple tours, we ended the night with a concert called Beatocello at the children’s hospital, Kantha Bopha. Beatacello is a performance by cellist and doctor, Beat Richner who founded five children hospitals in Cambodia.

The auditorium was clean, well lit, excessively air-conditioned along with a room full of westerners – for a minute I forgot I was in Cambodia.

We knew little to none about the history of the hospitals and the doctor himself. So when Jas passed us a thin magazine describing briefly Dr Richner’s success in Cambodia, a few of us immediately looked at the content critically. The first image we saw of Dr. Richner was of this white, burly man sitting down with four Cambodian babies cradled in his arms. The subsequent images were of sad and sickly children in the hospital. We fussed over the images and the article that was written about Dr. Richner, and about how these representations were raising even more questions.

At the beginning of the event, Dr. Richner played one musical piece on his cello and when he was done, he shared a few words to engage the audience. This engagement served as an opportunity for him to talk about the dire situation of Cambodia’s health system, and his reasons for wanting to provide healthcare for the children of Cambodia. This carried on for the next 30 minutes and then a video was screened. The video ran for about another 30 minutes and it showed us the history of the various hospitals built around Cambodia, Dr. Richner‘s background and his role, and of course, the patients. He ended the presentation with another melodious piece on the cello, which he claimed channeled the voice of the Cambodian child.

Whilst watching the video, I thought about how I constructed values around international aid. My grandparents used to tell me that you should not feel like it’s your burden to help others, but it should be heartfelt. As I sat there, I considered what other people thought about the video. Did they feel inclined to donate to the foundation to relieve the burden of these people and make it theirs? Do more serious conditions warrant more zeros on the cheque? What makes something serious? Questions of self-doubt flooded my mind, “Who am I, and what am I doing here with an American university? How am I any different from the person sitting next to me?”

Research on “giving” has shown that people are more inclined to empathize with “identifiable victims” as opposed to reading statistics. Dr Richner’s has spent over 20 years in Cambodia and this legitimizes his work in the eyes of the audience. His understanding and depth of knowledge draws people the same way as a “identifiable victim” might, because donors want to know and see what they are “helping.” What seems like the commodification of people’s lives is something that has been normalized in the world of aid work and foreign assistance. Whether some of us choose to recognize it as business or not, non-profit organizations are essentially framing stories in a way that sells.

And at the end of the day, regardless of the many criticisms we may have about Dr. Richner’s approach, let us not forget that he is saving the lives of children all over Cambodia.


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