Archive for the 'Poverty' Category


Thoughtless Generosity, by Danielle Balbi

Something that has struck me recently, roughly 7000 miles away from my New York City home, is our endemic need for self-fulfillment as a society. And paired with our impatience, we feel that we don’t have time to wait around for something to happen.

Perhaps this desire for immediacy is a result of our Western consumerism. We all know the term instant gratification—we want things when we want them. We like to see results. That is why those ladies sit on the south side of Union Square Park, propped up on their little chairs with stacks of cages housing tiny little kittens. If you get close enough, you hear their dainty little meows, and can’t help but fall prey to this very simple marketing tactic. How could you not donate money to that shelter? That would just be cruel, wouldn’t it? Jeez, maybe you’ll even take one home.

But what if those women weren’t sitting amongst those kittens in cages? What if they were standing on the corner, handing out thoughtful, detailed pamphlets about how your money will help house animals in comfortable conditions, with all the food, water, and cat toys imaginable? Would you still feel inclined to donate money? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can confidently say likely not. It seems like you don’t have time to think twice about exactly where your money is going to end up. You just want to see an instant change, or see the person – or animal – that you’re ostensibly helping.

And sadly, we employ the same mentality when donating money, clothing, books, or other goods.

Since arriving in Cambodia, I have been inundated with countless examples of this thoughtless, even patronizing generosity. While some people may be well-intentioned in their desire to “help,” many of us have very simple and naïve conceptions of where donations can be most helpful. I want to help feed homeless kids. I want to clothe poor children. I want to give them books to read. But are we informed when we act? Just because you have the checkbook, or the stockpile of old trigonometry textbooks you haven’t used in seven years, you get to make these decisions—decisions that directly affect the lives of those who are the recipients of your “aid.”

On our recent visit to the Life and Hope Association’s language school, I saw rows and rows of physics textbooks lining the walls. What exactly will students who are learning English for the first time do with those materials? At another school, we saw a brand new kitchen that was converted into a storage room. Despite the school’s advice, the donor ignored the importance of ventilation when cooking in the Cambodian heat and humidity. So, why couldn’t the same money have been used to fund a math program? You can’t take pictures in front of a math program. You can’t “see” what you have contributed. So I ask: what is the purpose of “giving” if we’re doing it for ourselves?

This notion of thoughtless generosity has also entered my work here in Cambodia. I have been assisting in the redesign of a media curriculum for middle school and high school students—a curriculum that focuses on harnessing students’ imagination and critical thinking skills so they can tell their stories, both on a personal and political level. They will be able to narrate their own stories rather than letting others do it for them. But part of the issue with the program is its sustainability—keeping money flowing in so that the basic infrastructure is supported. Donating to this kind of program requires foresight. Although the “impact” is not immediate or easily measurable, many programs like this suffer because their goals work in opposition to the instant gratification people often seek. The donor must be able to consider the long-term goal, and view their contribution as an essential part of the process of change.

Even though it seems that no one is going to tell you to take your false generosity elsewhere, I am advocating that we take some time to truly think about our actions. Change is a process that requires time and patience. You can’t alter social conditions immediately and different kinds of programs need to be part of this process. We need to abandon this practice of instant (self) gratification and consider the future, especially when donating.


Uncanny resemblances, by Elisabeth See Toh

A few nights ago we experienced our first heavy downpour here in Cambodia. The flooded and muddy “sidewalks” made going out undesirable and left us stranded in the guesthouse. I laughed to myself as I thought of the curbside puddles that would collect on the streets of New York after it had rained, and the rubbish that floated in stagnant water always reminded me of kompongs* and what uncanny resemblances they made. It seemed curious that the acclaimed city of New York mimicked aspects of the “developing” cities I had visited. I found myself asking: what does development actually represent?

I grew up in South East Asia, a region many people associate with “poverty.” At university, our conversations about “poverty” primarily circled around notions of hunger, race and violence. The more time I spent thinking about this though, I realized that poverty was not only the picture of the African child with the bloated stomach that was often presented to me, but also existed in the lives of the “homeless” people that I walked by everyday for two years on the streets of Manhattan. Similarly, the image we usually associate with categories or phases of development might be more than meets the eye. Poverty, as a concept, seemed so foreign to me because I was taught by my grandparents that no one should be thought of as a lower status than anyone else. I learned to recognize resilience and strength in those people who have lived different circumstances than I have lived. I saw innocent smiles and eager eyes, eyes that beamed and showed me a fight to survive, never giving less than a hundred percent. But I also saw the tired eyes, the ones that expected nothing more from the world. They simply existed.

It is a common sight in Cambodian villages to be confronted with signs reminding everyday Khmer people that an outsider has contributed to their survival; that the international community is part of the reason they continue to exist. I wonder how this may undermine the authority of Cambodians? I wonder how these representations of “charity” differ from the plaques that inscribe lists of donors of our various institutions? Why might we take issue with some of these public endorsements of giving but not others?

My very presence in this country has made me feel both humble and uncomfortable. I think about the way I present myself as traveler and learner. I frequently question my place in this space of  “endemic poverty” (as it is referred to in much literature) and how the strength of people here may be so much greater than mine. I am made aware of my privilege and how the insecurities that I bear lay in the shadows of their everyday struggles.

I have started to consider the important role context plays in shaping perspective on similar issues that exist within different landscapes. What makes Cambodia an “under developed” nation compared to nations like the United States? What representations and practices sustain a designation of a place as “underdeveloped” and what is the work that such designations do? These questions have become more alive in Cambodia – living and breathing this place has created an experience that no amount of reading or writing in New York ever could.


*Floating villages found in the Cambodian countryside with their houses built on stilts above water. The water is their source of sustenance in the forms of drinking, showering etc.

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