Archive for the 'humanitarianism' Category


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.


BLOOD IS MONEY, by Veija Kusama-Morris

“This isn’t politics. This is saving lives. We ask that you donate blood, money, or both”

The room is kept frigidly tempered. Shocking your system into recapitulating its comprehension of the space you occupy. Ensuring that your mind registers the fact that the world you are entering is vastly different from that which you retreat. As your skin adjusts you are physically prompted to open your eyes and stretch your limbs, your body craving homeostasis. The architecture is dominated by clean lines and unassuming forms. Ornament is distracting and distractions hinder results. Nothing can impede why you are here, why he is here, and how pivotal your symbiosis could be.

He is Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor and the current head of Kantha Bopha, Cambodia’s largest children’s hospital. The event is a weekly concert during which Richner and his cello advocate for the audience’s donations, for their participation in intervening on behalf of the children of Cambodia. As Richner tallies the citizenship of his congregation, identifying various constituents of the western world, he fails to implore if any Cambodians are present. Though meticulously dredged in humorous banter, his intentions are made clear, as his program appears increasingly rehearsed. Through a culmination of imposing statistics, history, and Bach, Richner coaxes the western ego into relinquishing that which it has been wired to bequeath. He seems to comprehend that his targeted audience not only wants, but needs, to give. They need only for someone to ask, a role Richner appears proficient in executing. His consistent claim that this issue is devoid of politics strives to decontextualize his cause, painting it in the black and white contrasts of humanity, rendering the grey invisible. Regardless of tactic, his work in providing medical care for a considerable portion of Cambodia’s youth can be difficult to argue with and there are many commendable aspects of his efforts.

However, Richner’s program highlights key aspects that amalgamate within the psyche of a donor. “Helping” these bodies is not enough, consumption is the goal. Congruous to an idea presented by author bell hooks, donors are looking to consume the other, smothering them with their infatuation, fully participating in a cannibalistic envelopment of the third world. Perceiving the vanquishment of colonialism, the individual is struck with an overwhelming need to atone for the sins of their manufactured history. This is the “white man’s burden,” a parasite of kindness. To donate that which might drench the world in the altruism of the west. The synonymous value of blood and money serves as disturbingly succinct representation of global interaction, a realistic equation for the guidelines of international relations. Our very presence in this hall links to the position our world expects us to play. Despite personal convictions, our identities are irrevocably linked to the country, the education, and the institutions that have made our entrance into this space possible. The faces present in this hall of humanitarian seduction are all integral members of a global network of intervention. Ignorant of true strength, the powers that be have dubbed us the faces of change. That is why we are sitting in this auditorium, in this hospital, in this city, in this country. We are “the chosen ones.”

%d bloggers like this: