Poverty porn. It’s not okay.

photojournalist

Big applause to of the Phnom Penh Post for her article this last week on ‘poverty porn.’ and the murky ethics of poverty fundraising.  She wrote when Weh Yeoh, the director of OIC Cambodia, tweeted the images from an Australian fundraising ad that portrayed young children, Cambodian, as trafficked and homeless. The photos positively rubbed the readers’ noses in the children’s shame.“I’m pretty sure this breaches all kinds of standards around positive portrayal of children,” he wrote.logo_ppp It turned out the children in the adverts were child models, dirtied up and paid to look like victims – and the fundraising agency said the imagery had kickstarted a very successful fundraising campaign. They were angry to be called out by the media, and went on to attack critic via twitter, arguing that donors don’t respond to images of happy, employed children.

On that front I disagree, and I base my opinion on market research I’ve expressly carried out for the charitable sector which tested various children-need-your-help scenarios – without pictures.

But that’s hardly the issue. The main focus of the criticism was about ‘poverty porn’ and the portrayal of disadvantaged children for gain – whether charitable or otherwise.

“The ’80s are calling – they want their pics of fly-covered starving African children back,” wrote Celia Boyd of Phnom Penh’s SHE Investments, on Twitter, in response to the recent advertising.  “Just because it raises money, it doesn’t make it right,” said fellow Australian Leigh Mathews, of Re/Think Orphanage.  (I’m citing the PPP piece here.)

The ethics of how we use images of poverty is a blurry topic. Last week I taught a local high-school class in New Zealand and we discussed just this issue, and Exhibit A were a stack of slides I’d taken – photos of poor people in Cambodia.  Creepy or okay? I asked.

The students were really clear. If I knew the person being photographed, and if I asked for permission – then it was okay. “You have to be respectful.” one student told me.

What about if it was a poor person whom I saw on the street, or near a temple where I was taking photographs?  “Then don’t zoom in on them,” was the answer.

The core principle is respect, privacy and dignity.  I don’t buy that the portrayal of victims, whether actual or made-up, is the right way to go.

Anyone have any thoughts on the issue?

 

 

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Rain returns to Siem Reap

ROOF

A ‘heavy downpour’ in Bakong.

After months of sustained drought conditions, rain has returned – at least at hopeful levels – for now. In fact Savong said the storm that brought the big downpour was strong enough to rip the roofing off at the SOC in Bakong.  Urgent repairs have been carried out this week.  Cambodian weather never goes anything by halves – unlike in my homeland of New Zealand where mad outbreaks of drizzle, or wild streaks of cloudiness break the usual sunshine.

Buildings in the countryside of Cambodia face a precarious architectural problem: being well ventilated for the heat versus being fully enclosed and typhoon proof.  In the city more and more homes and buildings are enclosed and – power outages aside – enjoy air conditioning via heat pumps.

roof2

The fix. New iron, tougher nails.

But in the countryside the architecture is lighter and more susceptible to extreme weather.

I think, long-term, climate change is going to be the dominant concern for rural Cambodia. Economically and architecturally the people are going to be at extreme risk of ruin. Risk has always been a part of rural life – but that marks the difference between advantaged versus disadvantaged nations: the degree of resilience in the face of risks.  In this respect Cambodia has a long way to go.

By the way, my name is Duncan Stuart, and I’ve been involved with Cambodia since 2004. I’m slowly getting to know the country and have been eagerly watching the ups and downs of its development. My blogs are usually about Cambodia in general, though my perspective is through the lens of supporting Savongs School in rural Siem Reap. 

 

 

Cambodia needs more than wells to achieve universal clean water access

FRESH WATER

UNICEF reports that 6 million Cambodians do not have access to safe, clean, drinkable water.  The problem is not just lack of wells.

The latest drought across Cambodia has shone the spotlight on the need for clean fresh water.  State initiatives to bring clean bottled water to drought-stricken villages has been useful, but only for the short term. What every Cambodian needs is steady, reliable access to clean fresh water. A recent UNICEF report, dated 2014, calculated that 6.3 million out of Cambodia’s 14.9 million population lacked access to clean drinking water. The problem is, in particular, a rural problem (80% of Phnom Penh’s population has access to clean drinking water,) and the main reason for the problem – the report stated – was that the Government has simply made other developments a higher priority. New roads have higher priority than access to water.

  • Some 40 percent of primary schools and 35 percent of health centers in the country do not have access to safe water and sanitation.
  • The lack of access to clean water leaves Cambodian children vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of death among children under five, according to UNICEF.
  • According to WaterAid at least 380 children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Since 2014, according to international aid agency WaterAid there is now a national strategy, outlined by the Government, of reaching universal access to clean water by 2025: an objective that will not only play catch-up with the 6 million who lack adequate water supplies today, but will need to also reach the expanding population projected to reach at least 17.5 million by 2025.  Can they achieve this?

The digging of wells is the main solution in the rural villages though for the cities the provision of mains supply water is the main emphasis: treating lake, river sourced or well-sourced waters with full filtration systems as well as chemical treatment such as flouridation or chlorination.

Compounding the problem is the presence of two hazards in the ground and surface waters usually drawn upon by villages.  One hazard is naturally occurring arsenic: an issue that affects the whole Mekong delta region.  On this front Cambodia’s official ‘acceptable’ limit is 50 parts per million – in contrast to 30ppm in most Western countries.

An even more significant hazard is the presence of TTCs (thermo-tolerant coliform bacteria). For these bacteria, water treatment is needed.

Today in the face of drought, now and in the future, the provision of wells is a laudable initiative, and their are many agencies engaged with this – and worth supporting. My friend Savong has helped many well-building projects in rural Siem Reap.

But Cambodia also needs more reservoirs to effectively store water gathered during peak rainy periods and create a top-up for groundwater which, many experts believe, is sinking significantly.

The more wells or holes dug into the groundwater, the more pressure it loses causing well water levels to drop. That’s according to Mekong River Commission technical adviser Ian Thomas as reported in the Phnom Penh Post, last March 4th. A February Stanford University study found the more wells Cambodians dig, the harder it will be to extract water.

The building of reservoirs, (Angkor’s  East and West Baray are good examples from 1,000 years ago,)  would provide greater eco-stability for farming, fishing, and general water supply.

But for now, reservoirs and wells are just the start. Treating the water is also necessary. Water filters are a big part of the story. If you are supporting a water project, ask about the need for water filtration and treatment.

  • Sixty dollars will by a good basic bio-sand filter via Water for Cambodia.
  • Or Ceramic Filters, (they look like clay pots,) which are also recommended, are available through Resource Development International – who also supply water testing kits if you are worried about arsenic levels.

Further reading in this blog:

For more on the politics of water in Cambodia Who owns the Mekong? The intricate politics of water.

Also about the 2016 Drought

For other Facts and Figures about Cambodia

 

 

 

Teen sex in Cambodia – a challenge to local standards

nightclub cambodia-7Nightclub – Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is a very conservative nation when it comes to teen-sex; and that is quite amazing when you consider the sheer youth of the nation. In the West a series of sexual revolutions took place when the post-war generation hit their teenage years around a time we conveniently refer to as Woodstock. Teen-sex, or extra-marital sex became normalised, and one usually explains that in terms of demographics, the boom in numbers of teenagers, the media and increasing media freedom – as well as a drift away from formal religion. Economic and transport freedom – teenage ownership of cars – further loosened the strict standards that may have been laid down by a previous generation.

In Cambodia the underlying recipe is the same, but on steroids. An exploding population of teenagers, a conspicuous rise in transport freedom and nightclub venues aimed at young singles, the rise of western-styled media – all must be straining the Buddhist standards that remained intact despite the experiment conducted by Pol Pot to shut down the influence of family and of religion.

I first considered this dynamic when I visited, strangely enough, a crematorium in Bakong, back in 2007.  The pillars of the main structure were painted by monks who had depicted in their mural the cycle of life: on one pillar, infancy. On the next, childhood and the school years. And so on, until the last pillar which depicted old age. It was a piquant elegy about life and death, as poetic as any scripture.

But what caught my eye was a piece of graffiti, written in English on the pillar depicting a young man and woman in love. “I miss you,” it said. “I miss you so much.”

Who had written this? Surely this was the message from a young person: who else would write in English, a private language in the traditional Bakong village neighbourhood? A boyfriend, perhaps, had died. Or a girlfriend. The ache of that graffiti message was palpable. A last farewell at a crematorium. A plea through the gates to eternity.

Is teenage love common I wondered.  Are there millions of Romeo & Juliet stories being played out in towns and villages throughout Cambodia?  Does society frown on teenage love?

Recently I saw some figures from the official, Government sanctioned Demographic & Health Survey which is an amazingly comprehensive public health document. In it are the figures for median age for first intercourse – for females and for males.

The median is the age by which 50% have had sex, and for women age 25-29 their median age of first intercourse was 21.4 years. It is almost 21 in the rural areas, and closer to 24 in the big cities.

This age is more or less steady compared to the median age reported by women 30-34 (20.9)  or 35-39 (20.3) or 40-44 (19.9) or 45-49 (20.6 years.)  It varies slightly with regard to educational attainment or wealth level.  Those with a low education for example, report having has first sex around 2.6 years earlier.

For men the figues are more or less the same though generally 6 months later than females. Age 22 is the median age for first sex.

Another measure: at age 19, some 83% of females have never had intercourse and at that age 93% of males have not had sex.

In the USA, by contrast; and here I lift directly from Wikipedia:

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2007, 35% of US high school students were currently sexually active and 47.8% of US high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. This percentage has decreased slightly since 1991.

My country, New Zealand has an unenviable record for teen pregnancy which is regularly cited has the highest incidence in the world. The NZ online Encyclopaedia Te Ara reports figures from 2001 and seems quite pleased that ‘less than 20% of 13-year-olds’ have had sex.  That’s a figure that would make Cambodians shake their heads in dismay.

Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.

Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2001 less than 20% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sex rose with age, and about 50% of those aged 17 and over reported having sex.

Compared to Western figures, young Cambodians are relatively chaste. However there is concern that this picture is volatile, and with more blatant sexualised media, and more teen freedom (money and motorbikes) not to mention the changing social architecture thanks to mobile phones and social media: these are the seeds of a big change ahead.

These issues are of concern to directors of NGOs that educate and care for students. My friend Savong has recently published an updated ‘rules of behaviour’ for students under the care of his organization. Savong makes it quite clear that students need to refrain from forming girlfriend/boyfriend relationships that derail the students’ progress through to higher education.

If you find my articles interesting, please feel welcome to Follow this blog by pressing the blue button up near the top left.

For an article on child labour in Cambodia, click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seyha’s Security Guard story

DSC_0246.JPG

The guy in the photo is Seyha, that’s him with his mother, and he’s quite simply the best tuk-tuk driver in the whole of Cambodia. At least I think so.

The day after this photo was taken, last October, we were travelling out to Angkor Wat when the heavens opened and the rain was so heavy Seyha pulled off the road and we took shelter on the roadside, Seyha, Ray – a wonderful Australian – and me. The sun was going down and evening was settling in. We all shivered in the dark, waiting for the rain to stop. Seyha stayed busy, his t-shirt soaked through, making calls and sending txts from his smart phone which serves as his lifeline.

I saw Seyha each day because he sleeps over at Savong’s guest house in a kind of informal security guard role.

Most places in Cambodia seem to have security guards to keep an eye on things and deter those with ‘sticky fingers’ as Cambodians describe it.  Shops have guards at the door, schools have a guard or two to keep an eye on bicycles. They’re paid from a lowly $70 a month, working 6 days a week on 12 hour days, up to around $160 per month with bonuses at New Year and Pchum Ben. The price is worth it. Sticky fingers can strike anywhere.

Including the pillow of a sleeping night watchman.

Seyha woke up one morning to find that a thief had snuck-in and stolen his $200 smart-phone from where it rested as he slept: right near his head. I assumed he’d never see his phone again. Who could be so audacious as to commit a theft so brazen?

The answer came on CCTV footage. The reception area where Seyha slept was covered by a CCTV camera, and going through the captured footage was an exercise of patience and suspense.  Movement!  No, that was just a cat.

More movement. Seyha’s phone, set to silent, but glowing as somebody tries to phone. Time-stamp 12:30am.

And then…there he is! The thief appears. Striped shirt, furtive, he reaches out for the phone and makes a hasty retreat. To me he looks anonymous – he could be any Cambodian.  “No he’s not,” growls Seyha. “I know him – the little shit!”

I wasn’t there when Seyha confronted Mister Sticky-fingers Striped Shirt, but Seyha successfully recovered his phone and threatened to take the miscreant to the police. In all, it was a high-tech outcome to a low-tech crime. And a reminder to me why there are guards everywhere in Cambodia.

For more from our ‘dishonesty files’: a piece about exam cheats..

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The intricate politics of water

JINGHONG DAM

Rivers are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of nations. Rivers provide water but also sustain plant and animal life both on the banks and beneath the surface. Fish travel up rivers to spawn. Rivers feed the ground-water supply and help farmers keep an equilibrium between wet seasons and dry.

But who controls the river? What rights do various nations have when the river flows through their territory? One only has to look at the fate of the Colorado river in North America to see the downstream impact of up-stream actions. Thanks to the water consumption of California, the mighty Colorado no longer even makes it to Mexico where it flowed for thousands of years.

What if China did the same to the Mekong that flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam?  Pictured above is the awesome Jinghong dam in China, built to generate much needed electricity. But this dam can effectively turn-off the Mekong tap, and limit the river flow – affecting water supply and fishing.

China is not alone here. Since 2006 some 11 dam sites have been nominated for hydro dam construction in Thailand, in Cambodia and – with 7 slated projects – in Laos. Everybody wants a slice of the resource.

In attempt to co-ordinate management of the Mekong resource, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand governments formed the Mekong River Commission with which Myanmar and China also confer. The MRC was formed in 1995, but this last year has faced serious internal problems through lack of funding and very divisive disagreements between the member nations. In particular, the dam projects planned by Laos threaten to seriously impact the fishing on the river – estimated by the MRC to be an annual 4.4 million tonne catch worth almost $17 billion. That represents around one eighth of the value of the world’s total freshwater fish catch.

Make no mistake, as China flexes its economic muscle in the region, downstream nations namely Cambodia and Vietnam have a lot to lose.  Decreased flows from the Mekong have already led to increasing salination – from salty sea water – of delta flats in Vietnam, rendering farms and local freshwater fisheries unsustainable.

This year, in the face of the SE Asian drought experienced by the Mekong nations, China scored a diplomatic coup by announcing to the MRC that the Jinghong dam would release a substantial flow of water to alleviate the drought situation downstream for one month to mid-April 2016.

It was a generous gesture, but it was also a reminder that what can be turned on can equally be turned off.  The Mekong River, more than ever before, is up for grabs.

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