The Great NGO Swindle
I was recently in Cambodia, for the first and probably last time. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing too much wrong, that a real government couldn’t solve, but as a former member of the Khmer Rouge, I don’t think Hun Sen is the
man to do it.
Cambodia is an amazing country in a number of ways. When Pol Pot was removed by the Vietnamese, in 1979, he had managed to murder two million of the then seven million inhabitants, bringing the population down to 5,000,000. Today, there are 14,000,000 Cambodians, which means that two thirds of the population have been born since 1979. In terms of average age, it is probably the youngest country in the world if you exclude those countries which have been decimated by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Even with those countries included, it is still a contender for this distinction.
I first stayed in Sihanoukville, which requires a cab ride from Phnom Penh Airport. From the moment you touch down at PP, you are being hustled. My point in writing is not a trip report, but thought that for those of you who have not been, that is worth knowing. The journey to Snookyville, as it is sometimes known, is a four hour cab ride, along what is mostly a two lane highway. Snookyville is just about the most laid back place I have ever visited in my life. For years there has been talk of it becoming the next Pattaya. I can see why they would say that, but I suppose it needs government and business to bite the bullet. As far as “laid back “ is concerned, I can’t lay back for much longer than about five days before I have to get myself upright again.
So having chilled in Snookyville, it was back to PP. If Snookyville was laid back, PP was positively dynamic, but for all the wrong reasons. It is just about impossible to set foot on the street without a flock of the ubiquitous moto-taxis swooping on you. It seems that they all speak English apart from one phrase which none of them understand which is, “No thank you”. In spite of shaking my head and repeating this several times, it would sometimes take a walk of 100 yards or so before they stopped following me. If you want something to compare it to, imagine being in Pattaya and on every corner, there were half a dozen aggressive tailors. Just about the time they stopped following me, a new face would see me, and it would start all over again. Not surprisingly, leaving the hotel became a bit of a chore.
Staying at the hotel was also a nuisance. After my first night, I went down for a cup of coffee to get me started for the day, and before I had even spoken to a waiter, I was being accosted by one of the 25 or so bargirls that were plying their trade at 10:00 AM. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not averse to a proposition, but at that time of the morning, I am looking to get three cups of coffee and five cigarettes inside me before the brain begins to become engaged. <The "problem" here was entirely of your own making for choosing to stay in such an establishment. Few hotels have hos in the lobby but you chose such a place – Stick>
Needless to say, I was less than impressed with PP. It seemed every male with a motorbike was a moto taxi, and most girls under the age of thirty were bargirls. Basically, it is a country with no real employment policy. Juxtaposed with this dire situation, I noticed a hell of a lot of Lexus RX300s. For those of you who really know their cars, this is in fact the Toyota Harrier with a Lexus badge. When I mentioned this to an expat, he told me that Cambodia had apparently the highest ownership of RX300s per capita in the world. I was reminded of a quotation, though I can’t remember the source of the quote, “Foreign aid is where a lot of poor people in a very rich country give a lot of money to a few rich people in a very poor country”.
While in PP, I read the local English Language paper, and the story of a 62-year old Frenchmen, who had been prosecuted for “attempting to buy under age sex”. He had been sentenced to three years, with the final year suspended, and was ordered to pay 2,000,000 Riels (about $480USD) as compensation to his intended victim's mother. The NGOs, about six of them, were outraged at the leniency of the sentence. All were claiming a hand in bringing this evil monster to justice, and all were threatening to appeal against the leniency of the sentence.
“Fair enough” you might say, and normally I would agree with you. However, upon closer inspection, you might want to think again. Before I go any further, I want to make my own position clear. I have no brief or sympathy with paedophiles, and I am probably the first person that would say that if you are in another person’s country, whether you agree with the law or not, you break the law at your peril.
The monster in question, as I stated already, was French. Age of consent (AOC) in France 15. The AOC in Cambodia between Cambodians is 15, between Cambodians and Foreigners, 18.
In the UK, the AOC is 16. A recent change in the law makes it illegal to pay for sex with persons whom they know or reasonably believe to be under 18.
In both France and the UK, it is a defence to prosecution that you reasonably believed that the girl was of legal age. There have been a number of cases where the purported victim had attended court and given evidence in school uniform, only for the defence to produce pictures of her in her “off duty” attire of micro-skirt, low cut top, Bacardi Breezer and cigarette.
The news report didn’t make it clear, whether the “monster” had been seeking out young girls, but when I read the story, I was far from convinced that this was a case of paedophilia at all. I noted that the mother, who apparently had not suffered any loss, was awarded the equivalent of a year's wages because someone attempted to hire her daughter for sex. It did occur to me, that at this rate, the mother might not be too anxious for the daughter to reach 18. I also wondered what it was that led the Frenchmen to think that this girl was available for sale. If you are into young girls and the AOC in your own country is 15, why go to a country where the AOC is 18?
Just my view, but I have no doubt that the Frenchman broke the law, but have serious doubts that if it had been England or France, that he would have even been prosecuted, let alone convicted notwithstanding the different AOCs. So to sum it up, the NGOs who were out for blood and I take a different view of this. Even if you disagree with me, you have to consider that in the whole scheme of things, this was hardly the grossest act of paedophilia that you will ever come across.
If anything, I was more disturbed by the lynch mob mentality of the NGOs and the fact that they were all claiming credit for the downfall of the Frenchmen. I started to read up on the subject. Surprise surprise, Cambodia is credited with having the largest number of child prostitutes in South East Asia. Not only that, but the NGOs and the police know where most of these kids can be found, but the NGOs are effectively too scared to do their jobs because of police and government corruption.
In one particular incident, the NGOs took it upon themselves to raid a brothel area, and found themselves being expelled from the country despite the fact that they freed over 50 girls. It turned out that that some of the brothels were paying protection to government and police.
The police policy is to have infrequent raids at their own convenience. The suggestion is that the brothel that is most likely to be raided is the one that pays the least protection. If you find that shocking, though being South East Asia, unsurprising, how about the occasional stories that 13 year old girls that are rescued from these brothels, have then been robbed of their life savings (usually less than $10) by Cambodian police.
There is no doubt that there is a paedophile problem in Cambodia, but it seems that those who can do something about it, the police and the government, won’t. And those who are being paid very handsomely to deal with these problems, the NGOs will tell you how great the problem is without actually telling you what they are doing about it. Then as if it were manna from heaven, our Frenchman comes out of the woodwork to justify all their existences.
Not so long ago, I read the story of some American Christian church where one of the brethren had become a missionary in Bangkok trying to persuade bargirls that there was another answer to their problems. Apparently in five years, she had managed to dissuade about 50 girls that the rice farms of Isaan were a better option. The reason why this had made the news was that the sponsoring church back in the US was withdrawing sponsorship. Religion in much of America is big business, so the cynic in me thinks that encouraging bargirls to go home, is hardly going to build up a congregation to pass the offertory plate around to.
Just imagine if the funding for NGOs protecting children in Cambodia were similarly threatened, would the children be in any worse danger?
One thing that the NGOs learnt from the Cold War was that the best way to obtain funds was to exaggerate the problem. We now know that rather than being able to attack the West at five minutes’ notice, the Soviet Bloc had great trouble feeding their armies, never mind their population. Once you had your funding, then the important thing was to regale your paymasters with tales of success. One can see why six NGOs might want to claim the credit for this arrest. This is the Great NGO Swindle!
So what is the answer? How about linking aid to success in eradicating the problem? Reduce the number of NGOs and put them under the control of UNICEF, and when they organise impromptu raids, if the police and government take exception, cut off foreign aid. Looking at the number of NGOs dealing with this problem in Cambodia (I don’t know how many there are), if it takes six to bring one dubious case to justice, then it can be seen that there are already problems with their efficiency. Perhaps reducing this to three or four, one each from North America, the EU and Japan who are the main aid sponsors should streamline the process. I was going to add Korea to the list, but in spite of being the biggest investors in Cambodia, they came to a similar conclusion to me about Hun Sen, and are licking their financial wounds.
Can the problem be solved? I would hope so. Perhaps the idea that unless the Cambodians play ball, there might be a shortage of RX300’s might do the trick.
My beef with NGOs in these parts is that many of their number are here for a relatively short-time and when you talk with them it is apparent that they are idealistic and ignorant – a dreadful mix. I am sure there are many who are informed, but I haven't come across them.
For anyone who has not been to Cambodia, I thought the comments about it seeming that all girls were bargirls and all guys mototaxi riders, while clearly a puff, unreasonably harsh. When I was last in Siem Reap, my travelling companion was horned up and ready to go and we had to get a mototaxi rider to help him find a girl who was up for it for we could not find any ourselves.