In our academic seminars, we have been discussing theories in the anthropology of development and the different forms in which they exist. Growing up in Singapore, I saw development as progress and expansion that was good for both the population and economy of Singapore. Our time in Cambodia, both in the classroom and on the ground, has made me rethink what I believed in and what was being analyzed about development. I was reading theories written by western influenced academics and I felt like there was a bigger context that was missing in the arguments – or is there?
My university education in the United States pushed me to look at the bigger picture of the work of development and how it may be problematic within specific countries. Having spent the past three weeks in Cambodia, I have experienced first hand how the world of aid has created a dependency on international agencies and the knowledge pedestal on which these agencies are placed. I have observed contradictions in much of the work I see – people who advocate for change but carry out practices that change little. This has left me in a constant state of push and pull and I am thinking about how I situate myself in the different scenarios that I encounter.
I believe it all boils down to “intention.” The literature we are engaging in highlights the limitations of the “giving” end of the aid spectrum. Despite seemingly good intentions, the results of development work may do more harm than good. Similarly, although my intentions in development work are sincere, I can’t help but wonder if I am any different from the subjects we’re learning about? When engaging in this type of work, it is imperative that we consider these questions and be aware of the different intentions that people carry when they walk into developmental work.
We spent the past weekend in Srayang, a village about two hours outside of Siem Reap city. We were there to learn about the work of PLF in this region and to offer support for the launch of a computer lab at Srayang Dormitory. The existence of the Srayang Dormitory is a form of development advanced by PLF and it has assisted young people in achieving a higher level of secondary education. As most of my projects have not involved working directly with students, I welcomed the opportunity to spend time socializing and getting to know the students at the dormitory. It was such a great experience being able to talk to young students as it reminded me of the reasons why I love working with young people.
Engaging in simple conversations with some of the girls about what they wanted to do after graduating from secondary school reminded me of the drive that still exists in people who are labeled as less fortunate. All too often, we associate poverty with the lack of motivation, but being able to talk to these girls who have experienced a lot of hardship to get to where they are gave me a reason to want to push for more in my own life. Many times I enter a situation wanting to offer what I can, but I end up feeling more blessed from the kindness that is extended to me instead. The day’s events helped me to connect with what development means on the ground, and what it means to me as an individual. I realize that I cannot think of the world around me as black and white, but must consider the shades of grey that are often out of sight.