Thursday, March 28, 2013

'First Bloke' Tim Mathieson's 'freedom ride' for Hagar?

Senator, the Hon Bob Carr
Foreign Minister
R.G. Casey Building
John McEwen Crescent
Barton, ACT 0221                                                                              

28th  March 2013

Dear Senator Carr

Following on from my letter to you dated 11th March.

On the AusAID website is to be found the following:

“The Australian public and the recipients of Australian aid have a right to know that Australian aid funds are spent effectively, achieve real results and help people to overcome poverty.”

Citipointe church is not, to the best of my knowledge, a recipient of AusAID monies. However ‘Hagar’ is. One of the young women in my documentary CHANTI’S WORLD lived in a Hagar refuge for four years and made certain claims about the organization that I am currently trying to get a response to from Hagar.

“With good information, tax payers and aid recipients can hold governments accountable and the risk of corruption is reduced. The Australian government is committed to improving the transparency of the Australian aid program…

To give effect to this commitment AusAID will:

- be transparent about Australia’s international development programs.”

In the interests of transparency, I quote here what I have written to the CEO of ‘Hagar’ on 23rd. March:

Dear Kate

The recent publicity surrounding Tim Mathieson's forthcoming initiative to raise money for Hagar with his 13th April motor cycle ride from Kirribilly House in Sydney to The Lodge in Canberra has aroused my curiosity.

I am a filmmaker working in Cambodia on a documentary entitled CHANTI’S WORLD, for which filming is almost completed. CHANTI’S WORLD is, in part, a record of the life of one young woman growing up on the streets of Phnom Penh over a period of 18 years – from age 9 to age 27. It is also about other poor families I have got to know over the years and the world they live in, including one family living and working, until a few years ago, in the Phnom Penh rubbish dump.

One young woman in CHANTI’S WORLD, whose family I have known for close to a decade, was resident in a Hagar refuge for four years. She has made certain comments and observations about Hagar on film – most particularly in relation to her access to her parents during those four years.

As I am sure you are aware, not everything in Cambodia is as it appears to be. It is not always easy to separate truth from fiction designed, by the speaker, to achieve a particular end.

For both legal and ethical reasons it is imperative that CHANTI’S WORLD be factually accurate  and I would like here to extend an invitation to Hagar to have a representative of the organization appear in my documentary to present Hagar’s thoughts and feelings about modern day ‘slavery’ and the efforts Hagar puts into reintegration of those in the NGO’s care back into their families and communities.

Hagar’s responses to my questions would help me clarify whether what this young woman has told me on film is true or not and for Hagar to present an alternative point of view to the claims she makes…

best wishes

Kate Kennedy got back to me almost immediately. She was not well but passed my query on to Talmage Payne, who wanted to know more:

Dear Talmage

The young woman in question claims that during her four years with Hagar she was only allowed to see her family for two hours each year and that the same applied for all the other girls at Hagar.

From what she said I got the impression that the two hours per annum limit for family visits was Hagar policy and I would just like to get this clarified.

She told me also that Hagar forced her to go to church (she named the church) despite her being a Buddhist and not wishing to become a Christian.


Talmage’s response was swift:


If its true its unfortunate and an apology is warrented. Despite good intentions we make mistakes sometimes and need to set things right.  

But neither of the issues raised is consistent with our policies, practices or the experience of other clients. There are extreme cases where access to the parents is severely limited or that re-integration to some sort of a kinship relationship is not eventually possible. But its rare.  

But we can't engage a conversation with a third party about a specific client without their consent and them being of age to consent. 

We can provide publicly available information on our policies.

If you're in PNP we can catch up for coffee sometime.  You're project sounds interesting. 


Hagar was, up to this point, living up to the claims it makes on the organization’s website:

“Receiving feedback and responding to complaints is an important way for Hagar Australia to demonstrate accountability to its supporters.
Hagar Australia is committed to responding appropriately to feedback and complaints about the organisation’s work or practices.
I wrote back to Talmage:
Dear Talmage

After 18 years experience with Cambodia I have learnt to take everything I am told with a grain of salt. I have been lied to many times and am reminded of what I was told by an American man married to a Cambodian woman when first I came here in 1995: "All Cambodians lie all the time. They don’t do it to hurt you but to help themselves."

Whilst I do not believe that all Cambodians lie all the time I do keep this in the back of my mind - especially when it comes to poor people who may want to get me to part with some of my (limited) money.

Here is what this young woman told me:

At age 15 she was deemed to be 'at risk' and was taken into care by Hagar. I have known her family well since 2007 and have seen no
indication that her parents (who have three other younger daughters) are anything other than hard-working poor people. This young woman was NOT a victim of Human Trafficking.

Whilst she was with Hagar, she claims, she was only allowed to see her family once a year for two hours. She claims that this was the case for all the girls in Hagar she knew. From what she said such limited visiting rights seemed (and I stress 'seemed') to be official Hagar policy.

When she turned 19 Hagar gave her 20 pounds of rice, sent her on her way and have provide her with no assistance since that time or shown any interest in her welfare. This is what she claims.

She claims also that she was forced by Hagar to attend Christian services despite her being a Buddhist.

Could you clarify just what Hagar's policy is regarding the visiting rights of children with their families? Do children and their families have regular access to each other? If so, how often?

And could this young woman be right in saying that when she turned 19 and was provided with a 20 pound sack of rice as a parting gift that Hagar took no further interest in her welfare?

I did not receive a response from Talmage to this email and so, a couple of days later, followed it up with:

Dear Kate and Talmage

I wonder if you could provide me with “publicly available information on our policies” in relation to the visitation rights of children in the care of Hagar with their parents. At present I have a quite definitive statement from a former Hagar resident that despite have never been a victim of Human Trafficking or at risk of being trafficked by her parents she was allowed to see her parents only once a year for 2 hours. Is this possible in terms of Hagar policy? She claims that the two hours per year visitation right applied to all of the girls she was in care with. Is this possible or, to be more precise, is it Hagar policy that such visits are severely limited. This young woman claims that Hagar gave her no choice but to take part
in Citipointe church activities. Is this possible? Indeed, is it the case that all in Hagar’s care must take part in Christian activities despite their being Buddhists? Finally, this young woman claims that when she reached the age of 19 she was sent back into the world with nothing other than a certain facility with the English language and a 20 pound bag of rice and that since that time Hagar has shown no interest at all in her welfare.

If this young woman has spun me a yarn, for whatever reason, I would like to know this before including what she has told me in my documentary.

best wishes

I did not receive a response from Kate Kennedy or Talmage Payne to this last email, so tried again a few days later:

Dear Kate and Talmage

You do have written, on the Hagar website:

“Receiving feedback and responding to complaints is an important way for Hagar Australia to demonstrate accountability to its supporters. Hagar Australia is committed to responding appropriately to feedback and complaints about the organisation’s work or practices.”

My previous emails have not constituted a complaint but merely a request for information - without which I have only the young woman's account of her experience of Hagar.

Without knowing what Hagar's policies are vis a vis the opportunities that parents of children in Hagar's care have to see their children, this young woman's account will go unchallenged.


My last email to Hagar read:

Dear Kate and Talmage

In the interests of accountability and transparency, both of which are espoused by Hagar, could you please let me know what Hagar's policies are regarding families and children's visitation rights with each other? Are they limited to two hours per year as a matter of policy? If they are not, can you let me know how often girls in Hagar's care get to see their families?

best wishes

I received no response. The trail has gone dead! Like Citipointe, Hagar has decided that the best way to deal with questions such as the ones I have asked is to ignore them. The presumption, I presume, is that as a mere filmmaker and blogger I can be safely ignored. We shall see!

On the AusAID website can also be found the following as an objective:

(To) publish detailed information on AusAID’s work – our policies, plans, processes, the results of Australian aid activities and our evaluations – on AusAID’s website to explain where Australia’s money is spent and its impact on reducing poverty.

Welcome public feedback to help us further improve the effectiveness, efficiency and transparency of the aid program and achieve better value for money.

I cannot find, anywhere on the AusAID website any information regarding how much of Australian tax-payer money has been given to ‘Hagar’ or regarding how effective ‘Hagar’ has been in its activities.

In the interests of providing feedback, please note the following:

For 18 years I have been documenting the lives of various families in Cambodia. One of these families had a 15 year old daughter who spent four years living in a ‘Hagar’ refuge. She was not a victim of Human Trafficking but was deemed by  ‘Hagar’ to be ‘at risk’. I know this family well and have seen no evidence at all that this young woman was at risk of either prostituting herself or of being sold into prostitution by her parents. That I have seen no evidence does not, of course, mean that there is no evidence. However, if there is evidence, is ‘Hagar’ under any obligation to share it with AusAID – a body that is distributing Australian tax-payer dollars to help poor Cambodian families such as the one this young woman is a part of? (It is worth noting that this young woman, in March 2013, has younger sisters working on the streets of Phnom Penh (and hence ‘at risk’) in order to supplement the family’s meagre income and to pay their school fees. Why is Hagar not helping these young girls? Why are no recipients of AusAID helping these young girls and dozens of others like them?)

Does AusAID require of NGOs such as Hagar that they provide evidence that the girls in their care that are deemed to be ‘at risk’ are in fact at risk and are not merely the daughters of poor parents who have been conned into placing their thumb prints on a document that they are then told is a ‘contract’ they have entered into with the NGO? Hagar could, for instance, be obliged by AusAID to provide a statutory declaration for each girl in its care stating what the circumstances were (are) that led them to be in care and what visitation rights the children had to their parents and vice versa. And AusAID could then check with a small sample of parents to discover if their experience as the recipients of Australian aid matches what Hagar claims to be their experience. If there is no mechanism whereby consumers of aid can feed back directly to AusAID, how can AusAID ever be sure what impacts Australian aid is having on the lives of the very poor people the aid is supposedly helping? In the case of the young woman in question, AusAID to Hagar has resulted in her seeing her parents and family only four times in four years – for two hours each time.  It has resulted in her being forced to attend Christian services run by Citipointe church. And it resulted in her being effectively denied any further assistance from AusAID when she turned 19.

Does AusAID believe that allowing girls only two hours with their families per annum is appropriate given ‘Hagar’s’ stated aim of reintegrating the girls back into their families and communities? Does AusAID believe it appropriate that Australian tax-dollars are being used to force young Cambodian Buddhists to become Citipointe church Christians?

It is possible that what this young woman has told me, on film, is incorrect. It is possible that all the others who have told me (though not yet on film) that children in Hagar’s care are alienated from their families, their communities, their Buddhist faith and their Cambodian culture are all playing fast and loose with the truth. It may be that this young woman is not telling the truth when she states that she was forced, despite being a Buddhist, to attend church services organized by Citipointe church. In the absence of a response from, Hagar to my questions, how am I to know precisely where the truth lies? Does AusAID?  Does AusAID care?

Given what AusAID writes about transparency and accountability on its website, does AusAID ever ask the kinds of questions I have asked of Hagar – an NGO funded, in part, by the Australian tax-payer? If AusAID does ask such questions, am I, as a member of the media, allowed to know what the answers are? If AusAID does not ask such questions, how can Australians know whether their tax dollars are being spent to help poor families become self-sustaining or to institutionalize them, deny them access to their families (other than for 2 hours a year) and force them to become Christians – only to turf them back out onto the street when they turn 18 or 19 and no longer serve the fund-raising role they can play when young and cute and likely to open the hearts and wallets of donors and sponsors?

If what the young Cambodian woman has told me is true (and if not, why has Hagar not contradicted her claims?) there is a problem at the heart of AusAID – a lack of the capacity to deal with feedback from aid recipients. Without transparency and accountability on the part of organizations such as Hagar, the NGO can do pretty much what it likes – even if this results in the breaking up of Cambodian families in a way that is disturbingly similar to what occurred in Australia and which we now, as a nation, feel sufficiently ashamed of to have issued a public apology.

I believe that the questions raised in this and my letter of 11th Feb are important and require answers if AusAID is to remain true to its commitment to transparency and accountability.

best wishes

James Ricketson

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