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?

 

 

280 Jailed Kids – Cambodia

unicef Import_009

The story about my visit to a friend in prison hit a nerve I think, because several people told me their stories of Cambodians who have ended up in prison, serving long sentences either for minor offenses (like my friend) or for totally trumped-up charges.

One organisation that works in this arena is LICADHO – the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They have their work cut out for them. They monitor 18 prisons and their reports show that, inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption.

As they say: “There is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable, from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”

For the past 20 years, on International Human Rights Day, LICADHO has provided small packages of extra food to the prison population and entertainment such as games, traditional dancing and shows performed by the prisoners themselves as well as speeches on the importance and universality of fundamental human rights.

What we do

LICADHO believes that regular visits by prison researchers deter abuses in prison and make it easier for LICADHO to intervene when they do occur. LICADHO’s prison activities include:

  • Interview incoming pretrial detainees to ensure that they have legal representation and can communicate with their families
  • Check for violations of pretrial detainees’ rights, such as illegal arrests and excessive pretrial detention/li>
  • Monitor the actions of court and prison officials to ensure that the legal process is conducted properly/li>
  • Assist families in visiting their relatives in prison and provide assistance in avoiding corruption/li>
  • Provide legal assistance, advice and support to prisoners who have suffered human rights abuses in prison or in police custody/li>
  • Work with prison and court authorities to ensure the timely release of convicted prisoners who complete their sentences/li>
  • Distribute food and materials to prisoners/li>
  • Provide medical treatment for prisoners and prison staff (provided by LICADHO’s Medical Office)/li>

LICADHO’s prison researchers also monitor living conditions in the prisons, looking at issues such as the quality of food, water, sanitation, the size and cleanliness of living areas, and exercise for prisoners outside of their cells. Information about prison conditions and any violations of prisoners’ rights are compiled for LICADHO reports and used for other advocacy purposes.

LICADHO is currently the only NGO in Cambodia with access to prisons that regularly shares its findings with the public.

They have a particular focus on basic human rights, (food, education, health,) as well as a determination to improve the lot of children who are either in prison on charges (sometimes streets are ‘swept’ of beggars) or are children of adults who have been incarcerated.

At the end of April 2014 there were a total of 280 juvenile prisoners incarcerated in the 18 prisons monitored by LICADHO, a more than 50 percent drop in the juvenile prison population since 2011. In addition there were 13 pregnant women and 40 children living with their incarcerated mothers.

Their research into prisons does not make easy reading when you know somebody who is stuck inside a Cambodian jail.  One guy who contacted me talked about a conversation he’d had with a prison guard who admitted, more or less, to beating-up prisoners. His rationale: “we want prison life to be less attractive than life in poverty outside of prison.”

For more on LICADHO’s Prison Project read PRISON PROJECT.

Also Caritas Cambodia and education-based NGO This Life Cambodia run positive programs assisting prisoners and their families. These are well worth checking out and supporting.

If you find my blogs at all interesting please feel welcome to press the FOLLOW button at the top left. I write as a supporter of Savong’s School in Bakong, but my topics of interest spread right out to education in general as well as to the arts and life in Cambodia in general. I try to write well-researched pieces and provide links where I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning through play – 70% of Cambodia’s poorest children have no toys.

Mind the gap. Two thirds of the infant children of Cambodia's wealthiest 20% will attend pre-school.

Mind the gap. Two thirds of the infant children of Cambodia’s wealthiest 20% will attend pre-school.

One of the first impressions I had of infant children in Cambodia was formed in 2004 when I first visited Siem Reap. Each day as I travelled to and from the Angkor temples – I had a wonderful guide named Joe Topp – we would pass small villages and farmhouses, and standing outside these places were young children, listless, just watching the world go by.

Their blank faces haunted me: these children seemed somehow disengaged from the world around them: I realised I saw very few children actually playing. They weren’t pushing toy trucks through the mud, or sploshing merrily by the pump – they were just standing there.

In a couple of posts recently I have talked about pre-school education, and I was rightly critiqued by one reader who reminded me that early childhood education isn’t simply a matter of formal classroom interventions, but is a whole process of socialisation and engagement – very often through play.

So I wondered if there were any figures around this usually elusive topic. UNICEF is where I started, and sure enough I got from their website the figures which populate the chart above. Here, they compare the likelihood that young children from the poorest 20%, and from the richest 20% of Cambodian families – will attend formal early childhood education.

Yes, but what about toys or books? After all, one could have a perfectly fantastic upbringing in a home where children are encouraged to take part – for example in the way my mother used to encourage us kids to get involved whenever she was making biscuits. We were given the task of cutting the dough into shapes.

Well, here’s one indicator; again from the UNICEF website. Below, we compare the presence of books and learning materials appropriate for young children in the homes of the poorest 20%, versus the homes of the richest 20% of Cambodian families.

ECE 20 CHART2

Here the gap (12.5%) isn’t so wide, partly on account of the fact that so few of any Cambodian homes have learning materials suitable for the youngest members of the household. Only one relatively wealthy home in every eight has such materials available for their young kids.

The UNICEF surveys also asked about playthings, and here the figures are somewhat better.

  • Some 30% of the poorest 20% of households have playthings at home for the children.
  • Of the richest 20% of households, those with kids that is, some 57% have playthings available for their children.

Perhaps the gap doesn’t sound so bad – but what this still means is that 7 out of every 10 children in poor regions don’t have toys.

I would caution readers who take this as an open invitation to flood Cambodia with just any old toys. Toys should be sturdy, versatile, educational and encourage imagination. In Phnom Penh, the day after I visited S 21 I happened to walk past a toy store which seemed, unfortunately, to specialise in plastic replica guns. These looked like the real thing, and it struck me what a wicked thing to encourage kids to play with – especially  for the generation born within years of the National Holocaust.

A teenage tragedy – a sad loss of life

This week the children at our school were rocked by the sudden death of one of their fellow students, a teenager who took his own life one evening. Nobody saw it coming. Today as I write this, there is a full-scale funeral for the boy and those attending include fellow students, teachers and other staff who have been involved in the care and teaching of this young man.

The event may have been triggered by another suicide, also involving a teenager from the same village one month earlier: I can’t be certain of this.

The sad news prompted me to research the incidence of suicide in Cambodia, and to examine some of the attitudes surrounding this.

Ten years ago when I first came to Cambodia I asked about attitudes to suicide, thinking that perhaps Buddhist attitudes might be more accepting of this, compared to Western religions. Not so: it appears all major religions in the world are agreed that taking one’s own life is a tragedy best avoided.

But avoiding suicide amongst teenagers is a difficult thing. My own country, New Zealand, holds one of the worst teenage suicide rates in the world, and in 20 years I’ve not seen any convincing program to deal with this problem. More likely, the story is more granular and complex – with many many good interventions effectively saving lives but going unreported while meanwhile a bigger avalanche is still occurring.

In Cambodia psychologists have in recent years turned their attention away from the stress disorders resulting from the Pol Pot years, and started to focus on the issues faced by the burgeoning young generation aged under 30.

Here the figures get murky. According to government reports, for example in 2013, there were some 600 suicides in Cambodia, up by 13% over 2012.

But these figures are hotly disputed by university psychologists who have studied the issue in depth. They say 600 is a mere fraction of the real numbers. One issue is the lack of autopsy and official record-keeping associated with deaths in highly rural Cambodia.

And as a researcher I know how hard it is to otherwise calculate these things. You can’t just conduct a survey and ask people on a scale of 10, how close they have come to taking their own lives. Ms Sek Sisokhom, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s psychology department suggests that the government figures woefully under-report the true state of affairs. Using rigorous research, and representative sampling, her research calculates that among adults the rate is more likely in excess of 40 individuals per hundred thousand (42.35 reported suicides per 100,000 of the population in 2011.)  This puts Cambodia right near the top of the ladder in terms of global figures, unfortunately. See Phnom Penh Post.

The under-reporting, which is clearly happening, reveals something of the attitudes towards suicide – and a lack of concerted effort to do something to prevent young people taking their own lives. If society was committed to solving the problem, then it would begin by measuring it and looking for patterns.

As it stands, the existing research reveals the following:

  • Young people under the age of 25 are the most susceptible to thoughts of suicide.
  • There is a clear gender split – young men much more likely to contemplate suicide compared to young women.
  • There are societal causes implicated including unemployment and poverty.

Psychology studies in Cambodia (see also) conclude that young people are poorly equipped when it comes to discussing the problems, or knowing where to go should they need help. Like young people in many places, the young adults of Cambodia tend to bottle-up their feelings, often hiding their true state of mind.

As social workers worldwide recognise, suicides can occur in contagions – with one event at a high school triggering others. Whereas western schools are, more and more, putting grief counselling processes in place – or having access to these – the same is not true in Cambodia. Yesterday I spoke about this with a friend of mine, Royce, who actually comes from the same village as the boy took his own life. He recommended that we get in contact with an organisation, an NGO, that specialises in social counselling: TPO is the organisation, and while their main focus was historically on postwar stress disorders, their services now include grief counselling.

This week is very sad, but we should use the opportunity to increase our understanding of the issues, and raise the level of grief counselling intervention to help prevent another contagion.

New direction for Savong School – some crowdsourcing required!

SAVONG DIRECTOR

Savong has great plans to extend the services of Savong’s School to include primary classes in the mornings.

Over the past few weeks my friend Savong has been making plans for the school out in Bakong, Cambodia.  Having got the school registered with MOEYS, (the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) the next stage of his plans have revolved around three challenges.

  • First, the school as a physical resource is not used in the mornings, so better use could be made of the classrooms.
  • Second, the language school operates around the existing timetable of the local State high school, and this college has extended its classroom hours into the afternoon, pushing our opening hours into the evening. Because the sun goes down at 6 p.m. conditions are not the safest for the students by the time they leave Savong School in the evening. Can we rejig our hours?
  • Third  Savong School has an arrangement with the scholarship winners to do some of the teaching; an arrangement which works particularly well. However their study commitments come first and the existing hours of Savong  School  (2 p.m. – 7 p.m.) collide with some of the lecture hours.

There is a fourth and much bigger issue that Savong has also been thinking about, and that is the needs of the local community.

In recent weeks on these blog pages I have published data from MOEYS demonstrating that there is not only a shortage of primary school teachers across Cambodia, but a particular shortage of primary teachers in the province of Siem Reap. What that tells us, and Savong hears this directly from the Bakong community, is that the addition of primary school classes by Savong School would help fill an urgent gap.

So Savong has developed a plan to redefine the school so that when the new term begins in October 2014, after the Pchum Ben holidays, the school will henceforth be open in the mornings to offer primary classes for grades 1 through to 6, and then in the afternoons to offer the existing language school services, (including computer classes,) aimed at high-schoolers, from 2 o’clock until 5 o’clock.

Details of the new primary education

  • All classes will of course be free, and that is a fundamental promise of Savong School. This will suit families who can ill afford the cost of sending their children to the state schools which tend to charge money each month despite official government policy.
  • The primary school classes will be limited to around 30 students each, so that the teacher-student ratio is kept to a desirable size for the sake of the teachers as well is the students.
  • The primary school will be recognised by the Ministry, and classes will be conducted in Khmer.
  • Six primary school teachers will be hired for the task, and each will be paid up to $150 per month, which is not exactly extravagant by local terms, but these teachers will benefit from the Western style of protection that Savong has always offered his staff; namely sick leave, bereavement leave, and three months salary if for any reason employment relationship should end. These things are designed to ensure all staff are respected, and feel protected from risk. (Only a minority of working Cambodians have the protection of sick leave.)

The new arrangement at Savong School is an exciting one, and absolutely consistent with the dream Savong had at the very outset in 2004 to provide free education for needy students in a rural setting. The plan will be subject to approval from the Ministry of Education, but given the local statistics, is unlikely to meet any resistance. MOEYS, to their credit, is working very hard to close the gaps in the education system – and the current shortage of primary school teachers is a particular priority.

Now comes our part as supporters of the project. For a start, to properly equip six teachers with necessary resources (books and materials) for primary school work, we need a starting fund of US $1200. Then we need to ensure that the salaries for the six teachers are met each month, and the budget for this is $900 US.

That comes to a neat and tidy $1000 per month, or $12,000 per annum to educate 180 primary school students over and above the existing students that we will continue to educate in the afternoons.

CAMBODIA MAY 2011 - SECOND CARD 527

The aim is to teach 180 primary students from Bakong – for free. The cost to us supporters (for the teachers and resources) is $5.00 per student per month.

I’m going to need big help in fundraising for this, for two reasons. First, for my own health reasons, not to mention my impending retirement and the reduced income earning potential in the next couple of years, I simply can’t continue to underwrite the full costs of the school. This is one of the first times in 10 years I’ve nakedly asked for help!

Second, this is frankly an enjoyable project to get involved with, and I have no doubt that there will be readers of this blog who either have a spare pile of cash, (well, we all live in hope!) or have the energy and social networks available to them to do some crowd sourced fundraising. To be honest I come from the cake stall era, where the fundraising barometer took roughly 17 years to reach the goal. Looking around these days, I see 17-year-olds popping a message onto Facebook, holding a quick event, and ending up with an amazing amount of cash to complement their valid dreams of saving the world. If that sounds like you, well, Savong’s dream continues to be one that changes lives for the better. How about we hook up?

If you are keen to help with some crowd-sourcing I can supply:

  • Video of the project. So you can share the story.
  • Background details – including all about how we are registered as a charity etc.
  • Any other information or photographic resource you might require.

If you fill in the form below,  nobody but me will see the details.

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Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

Image

I have been in two minds about writing this particular post. I’m uneasy about portraying individual children as poster examples of poverty or hardship, and don’t mean to tread on the privacy and interior life of these individuals. On the other hand there is a role for photojournalism to share stories about the human condition and to provoke action from those who read the stories and see the photos. So I hope you’ll forgive the story. I’m not going to name or identify the girl in the photo except to say that she lives in Cambodia and that she is 15 years old.

Her life has been unimaginably hard. When she was an infant, she was more or less abandoned by her mother who has alcohol problems of her own. For this girl, the only family she knew was her grandmother who raised her, cared for her and gave her the love that every child deserves. They lived in the house you see pictured above. Last week the grandmother died, leaving this 15-year-old girl virtually alone in the world.

Well not quite. At the funeral a few members of the extended family showed up, and so did the mother – still with her severe alcohol problems. She offered to take up care of the girl, but it was pretty obvious to Savong, who visited the family, that the mother neither has the resources or the reliability required to raise a teenage daughter.

The girl has a sponsor, and he has offered to underwrite whatever it costs to ensure that the girl receives a good education. She is a good student. Savong has openly offered her a place to stay with other high school students, and to provide the food shelter and funding to ensure that she fulfils her potential.

But if you were this 15-year-old girl, what would you do? if you had nobody else in this world other than the mother who abandoned you, and now she was back in your life, would you now turn your back on her or would you choose to live with her and see if things work out?

These are the horrible dilemmas faced by impoverished children. Rather than growing up in a world that is for them safe, caring, and geared to providing support; this girl has grown up in a world where support has been a scarce commodity at best. For most children in the situation, there is no government agency stepping in to help here. There is no extended family with the capacity to take the girl in to be cared for.

In this girl’s case, it is only luck – the luck that an NGO happens to work within her village – that has provided the girl with the option and choice she now faces even as she suffers the grief of having lost the one close person in her life.

Savong is not pressuring this girl. She knows she is welcome to stay with him; just as he knows that she has every motivation in the world to see if she can work things out with her mother. What an emotional dilemma.

Working in Cambodia often blinds people like me to what I call the romance of poverty. We are beguiled by the elegant simplicity of rural lives, and warmed by the egalitarian welcome we receive when we are invited into the homes of those we hope to assist. But occasionally, stories like the one about this girl remind us that poverty takes young people to the edge of an abyss. There is no romance about that. You can see the reality of poverty etched on her grief stricken face.

The sad story of Savong’s older brother. Click here.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!