Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Friday, July 13, 2012

Doing Good

Building orphanages and doing something ‘’green’’ in Cambodia is very l’air du temps these days.  Even MBA students do that as part of their stint in Asia, or should I say, as part of their ‘’voluntourism’’?

No, no, it’s not so simple as volunteerism or tourism.  It now has a fashionable name called ‘’social enterprise’’, and they even have a Club formed to promote it among the students, and to push media relations folks like me to tout their noble efforts to the press about how they are doing good and installing water filters in some remote village in Siem Reap.

I suppose I can’t blame marketers and charity workers for ‘’just doing their job’’ either.  So, we get inundated with flyers carrying photos of deformed, emaciated or disabled kids, hoping to tug at our heartstrings and to open our cheque books to make a donation.

Or, to have even greater visual impact, we see contorted old folks in wheelchairs and speaking in a slurred manner, thanking us for ‘’having a heart’’, during ‘’charity shows’’ on TV, where celebrities learnt contortions (of a different kind) to perform and impress, and again, in the hopes of tugging at our heartstrings.

All very well; very well.  I am not against charity, nor against fund raising, or volunteerism. 

But has anyone thought of this: what the ‘’less fortunate’’ need most is not sympathy?  They need to be treated with dignity.  Inside, they must be screaming, ‘’I am also as human as you are!’’. 

As for the ‘’less fortunate’’ kids: yes, they may be poor, and yes, they may have never seen an iPad.   But do get rid of the mental image that all ‘’poor kids’’ in developing countries are sad, diseased or disabled.  And do get rid of the idea that by throwing money at them, or by going there for a week to build something, you are ‘’helping’’.  If at all, you are helping to sooth either your own guilt or ego.

In 2004, I was in Galle for a holiday.  I never nursed the noble idea of going there to ‘’do good’’.  I was there to do myself some good – ie, to rest.  But I happened to stay in a hotel where the bosses believed in doing their bit for the less fortunate, and they almost literally dragged their guests to join them. 

So on Sunday afternoon, they brought us to a child care centre nearby so that we could interact with the kids and talk to them, and help them practice English.  These kids were healthy, happy and smiling, though many came from either poor families or were orphans.  They may not be wearing clothes from Osh Kosh or Kids 21 but they were not in tatters.  They had as much dignity and vivacity as any first world kid. 

Was I and the other hotel guests sad or in tears or full of sympathy for them?  No, we enjoyed ourselves chatting with them, and spent an hour laughing and learning from one another.  I went back feeling that I’ve learnt much more from them, than they have, from me.

These kids are like any kid in our country – they need friendship and time, which no amount of donations – corporate or personal – can provide.  Like what my former boss suggested once (when he was trying to get me to spend time with the orphans at the home he’d helped build in Cambodia), ‘’you don’t have to do anything ‘big’ – just show them how you bake your cookies, and they would be very thrilled’’.  They are not animals in a human zoo for us to ‘’visit’’ and ‘’see for ourselves’’ how they live. 

In the same trip, my tuk tuk driver bought me a Coke.  Yes, with the fares that I’d paid him, I suppose he can even afford a Coke for me.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, he was generous enough to buy me, someone from a developed nation, a drink, at the end of the trip, when he had stopped to get himself some cigarettes and water.  Do tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok do that?  Do our uniformed chauffeurs or picky cab drivers do that here?

When I was in Siem Reap in 2002, again, I did not go there with the thought of dumping cheap pens and T shirts at the children there (though I’d been advised to bring lots of these to give away, when ‘’beggars swarm you as you walk the streets’’, they say).  Indirectly, I contributed, by staying in a humble, locally-run inn, rather than a 5 star resort run by the Raffles Group.  This charming inn gives a portion of their earnings to an orphanage.  And I was moved by their simple hospitality, honesty and trusting nature, in the way they welcomed me as a first time guest. 

I can go on and on about how I’ve been touched by the simple grace and dignity of the people of Laos, Phnom Penh, Myanmar and Kerala – all ‘’poor’’ countries by our standard.  But they are certainly not poor in spirit.  I’ve received more than what I’d given in these places that I’ve visited. 

Of course, I am not naïve.  There ARE maimed people ravaged by landmines, wars, and abject poverty.  And they do need help – at every level – economic, social and humanitarian.  Just don’t flatter yourself thinking that your ‘’token’’ help of building something for a week there would suffice. 


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