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Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 8: The Dilemma of Helping Vulnerable Street Kids

Last time I began to discuss my intention to provide an education to the deserving Riverside street-children selling books and flowers to tourists. Despite my background in establishing schools for streetkids in India and Nepal, I found Cambodia to throw up far more obstacles.

Initially I was working in co-operation with an American teacher in that we were assessing the kids together and going 50/50; I’d support this one, he’d support that one.

However, after a couple of weeks it became evident that he’d dumped all his kids to concentrate on one pretty little nine-year old girl. The other kids were telling me that he was taking her out every day to go to the water park, go skating, sailing, and such like and that he was taking her to his room afterwards.

What the little girl herself told me was that her mother was beating her because she wasn’t selling any books and that he wasn’t sending her to school at all.

Now one doesn’t want to entirely believe nor disbelieve children with a record of dishonesty; on the other hand one neither wants to leap to conclusions nor be naïve, but the situation felt very wrong.

Although I had no solid evidence, I didn’t feel comfortable continuing to be friendly with him, and I also realised that his behaviour was putting me in a compromising situation even though I was careful to only ever see the children in public places and I made it clear to them all that I wouldn’t be taking them anywhere or offer them anything other than supporting their education.

I take a ruthlessly hard line approach with parents who reasonably request that I pay for the necessary transportation and food; my line is that this is where they have to make a contribution; alternatively if the kids want the education badly enough they’ll walk for an hour and forego lunch.

Despite my best efforts to conduct myself in a consistent and publicly transparent way I quickly ran into trouble. I always met the kids I was putting through school at a table in the street in the afternoon or early evening and check their classwork. It turned out that giving the kids tuition in public carried its own risks; I’d be habitually interrupted by the general nosy public in addition to the local crazies, and I couldn’t understand why an elderly Korean gentleman was having a go at me until I realised he thought I was the Mr. Big orchestrating the child labour.

Far more seriously I became a victim of guilt by association; it wasn’t just me who had become very suspicious of the behaviour of the American teacher. Although I’d only talked to him twice before I backed right out I was assumed by a couple of moronic old Yanks to be a fellow paedophile.

While I sat at a table with three kids on the other side showing me their exercise books these shit-for-brains got a policeman to chase off the kids while they tried to (unsuccessfully) rough me up on the basis of a rather confused agenda of protecting the kids whilst writing them off as scum to be condemned to drug addiction and prostitution.

In addition, all the other kids were pestering me with a ‘me, me, me’ line even though they went to school already. A number of them were apparently about to drop out of school due to lack of funds – i.e. their parents had reasoned that an idiot barang was throwing money around so they’d blackmail him into funding their kids too.

In Nepal, I still had to cope with the depressing reality that many people mistake kindness for weakness and naivety, but the kids and their parents were very decent if extremely poor people. There the foreigners who visit the country were mostly thoroughly decent sorts.

In Cambodia so many of these kids and their parents are frankly nasty pieces of work and many of the expats are pond scum with brains the size of an amoeba. One the one hand the country is a magnet for paedophiles and street kids are targeted; on the other hand you have men who are not generally the best ambassadors for their countries such as those dumb yanks who don’t really understand what’s going on so wade in with their fists.

One of them actually said to me that he does his bit for the kids by occasionally allowing them to shine his shoes– what a superb example of a certain type of American mentality.This is a society where you screw around with teenage hookers and you get a slap on the back; you try to do something to save kids from such a future and you get beaten up.

Shortly after, I was evicted. Just as the tourist season was starting, the owner of the brothel/guesthouse kicked me out. She wasn’t accusing me of being a paedophile; rather, she was angry that I was giving kids a chance of a future when no one helped her as an impoverished child. She’d had to survive by her own wits, she insisted (by turning to prostitution) and couldn’t bear to see me giving the kids an alternative route.

Now I’m reminded of what the underbelly is like: there is little real culture of compassion in Khmer society and neither is it on the agenda of the majority of foreigners who choose to stay here – and I’m including NGO so-called charity workers. If I’m going to make enemies – so be it.

These experiences suggested to me that unlike previously, in Cambodia I couldn’t go it alone. As much as I had my suspicions of NGOs, I ought to align myself with one. That proved difficult. I’m now going to jump on a soapbox and say more about an issue which my experiences in Asia have caused me to formulate my view; the issue is so-called aid and particularly the supposed benefits of NGO’s (non-government organisations).

I already had the disillusioning experience in Thailand of working with people purportedly operating in the voluntary/charitable sector who were totally self-serving and neither cared about nor benefited the intended disadvantaged recipients, but before I slag off the western Land Cruiser set a word about the locals. In Cambodia I see more clearly how NGOs are at least as responsible as the western shibboleths of corruption and world debt in hindering the growth of the nation’s economy.

It goes like this: a few of my MA students work for NGOs and others want to improve their English to can get NGO jobs. Now anyone who knows me knows my anti-capitalist sentiments, yet it concerns me that these brains are intending to stay out of the private sector and put their talents into NGOs.

The local English-language daily paper is filled with NGO job ads every day and most of them are patently a waste of time. One I saw recently was a UNICEF post to research and write a report on ‘traditional forms of alternative care’. I thought I was missing something in this seeming oxymoron until I read the detailed descriptor which actually specified investigating whether or not granny looks after the babies when mum goes out to work.

My English friend who works in that sector defined the nature of the work accurately; “internationally funded fuzzy jobs with woolly titles and nebulous job descriptions”. Hardly any of these projects are geared towards developing businesses and so the skills the Khmer employees pick up such as running facilitation and participatory workshops are of little relevance to the real world.

In theory such organisations could provide an invaluable service in assisting Cambodia to get on its own self-sufficient feet; in practice they simply foster an ever-increasing level of dependency. As to the foreign carpetbaggers, apparently half of all the donor funds to Cambodia go towards wages for ‘technical assistance’ and there are a lot of consultants here on tasty western benefits packages offering no discernible benefit to Cambodia other than supporting taxi girls.

I rather like this quote from an Action Aid report: “In the 1980s, there was a popular T-shirt satirising US army recruitment commercials with the slogan, ‘Join the army. Travel to exotic, distant lands. Meet exciting, unusual people. And kill them’. In the new millennium, it could be rephrased, ‘Join the aid community. Travel to exotic, distant lands. Meet exciting, unusual people. And make a killing’.” Surely somewhere there had to be an organisation doing an effective job?

Andy Ahmed

10 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 8: The Dilemma of Helping Vulnerable Street Kids

  • Dave Boyan

    Good piece, one I agree with totally.

  • An offender doesn’t get a “light slap on the wrist ” For sex with underage prostitutes in the USA. They have higher ages of consent than most other countries and devastating life long penalties (sex offender regstration lists) that justly ruin their lives. Wherever the pedo moves the police must inform all the new neighbors about his past Crimes. Some of Europe
    allows sex with 13 year olds… So dont pick the Yanks for this, you sound like a pompous jackass.

    And the bar/guesthouse owner did NOT kick you out for the lame reasons you fabricated and you know it.

  • Soi Dog – clearly you have the advantage over me on multiple levels. That’s what she told me and that’s all I know – other than that I was a less-than lucrative customer. Nothing sinister. No idea what you’ve heard.

  • Andy, Thoroughly loving your writing and your stories. Must say I read #7 before the others (link passed on by a mutual acquaitance) and didn’t quite get your style, but I’ve spent the last 30 minutes reading your articles and must say you are very effectively illustrating the way I see Cambodia and the Khmers at the moment. One minute absolutely enthralled by the place and the people and the next in a bit of despair (far more than I ever experienced with my main love: Indonesia). We must catch up when I’m back there in August. I still have your business card so I’ll drop you an email soon. Cheers!

  • What ever

    the post is so true, You try to help them street kids every one thinks you want to take them home.

  • Well…Andy wrote that his own partner WAS taking the poor kids home, so I guess it’s not an unwarranted concern.

  • Curtis Lemansky


    ‘Curtis Lemansky’ of Bangkok gets a permaban from 440 comments.


  • Andy, I agree 100%. Good article. More along these lines, please.

  • Andy, can your recommend an honest organization where I can volunteer to
    teach english to street children. I have contacted the Street Children’s
    School operated by the Cambodia YMCA Phnom Penh.

    Thank you.

  • Pingback: Workers of the World #7 | The Working Traveller

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