Monday, August 26, 2013

Cambodia's English language print media intimidated into silence?

In 2008 an Australian based Non Government Organization, Citipointe church, illegally removed two children from the care of their Cambodian parents. When it became apparent that the church had no intention of returning the children, that Citipointe intended to retain custody of them until they were 18 (they were 5 and 6 at the time), I asked the English language media in Cambodia to investigate, to ask some questions of the Brisbane based church relating to its legal right to be holding the children against the wishes of their parents. One newspaper made some enquiries and was immediately threatened with legal action by Citipointe. The newspaper backed off. Since then neither the Cambodia Daily nor the Phnom Penh Post has had the nerve touch the story. Five years later and neither newspaper will even ask questions of Citipointe.

In a country in which there is no effective rule of law and in which court cases can be (and are) won by those with the money to be able to afford the verdict they want, it is understandable (though regrettable) that newspapers would be fearful of taking on a cashed up and litigious NGO. Of course the same principle applies in Australia.

Where once newspapers could afford the costs involved in defending themselves from defamation suits that were little more than a form of intimidation, today they cannot. The loss for all of us is quality investigative journalism of the kind that Kate McClymont engaged in when, despite all the threats and intimidation, she exposed Eddie Obeid and his corrupt cronies.

There is another reason why journalists engage in much less investigative  journalism these days. Cost. It can take a lot of time, a lot of effort and hence a lot of dollars to carry out a thorough investigation of the kind that safeguards a journalist (and his or her publisher) somewhat from being sued. Newspapers can’t afford this kind of journalism today. It is much cheaper to public opinions. Indeed, it costs nothing to publish opinions!

It is to be expected that investigative journalism will, increasingly, be carried out by individuals with a bee in their bonnet about a particular issue and be prepared to work on it for zero income. The Julian Assanges, Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens will do the work that investigative journalists once did and, in all likelihood, be jailed for doing so. Thank God for GlennGreenwald.

The bee in my bonnet is the way in which unscrupulous NGOs in Cambodia can steal the children of poor parents and be assured that the local media will not hold them to account. Or, if the media attempts to hold NGOs accountable, that the threat of a defamation suit will put the media back in their place!

Dear Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post

Since 2004 the number of children living in orphanages in Romania has dropped by close to 75%.

During the same 9 years the number of orphans in Cambodia has risen by roughly 75%.

Why is this?

In Rwanda, a country that has suffered a more recent genocide than Cambodia,  the number of orphanages has declined from over 400 five years ago to only 33 in 2012.

Given that only 25% of the children in Cambodian ‘orphanages’ are actually orphans, why are there close to 300 orphanages in Cambodia?

The Rwandan government has promised to close all orphanages in the country by 2014. Why is the Cambodian government doing nothing to close orphanages  nd see the children in them returned to their families and communities?

Are some, or perhaps many, of these Cambodian ‘orphanages’ in fact lucrative businesses that have been set up to by unscrupulous NGOs primarily to make money through donations and sponsorships?

Is there any English language newspaper in Cambodia prepared to ask such questions or are both the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post terrified of being sued by NGOs merely for asking them?

Given that studies by the World Bank and Save the Children (amongst others) reveal that orphanages cost between 6 and 10 times as much as it costs to support a child within a family, why are NGOs not helping poor children within a family and community context?  

How many Cambodian children have no uncles, aunts, cousins or others in their extended families or village who could take care of them if they received assistance from NGOs?

Since 2000 American  academics have kept track of 136 children from orphanages in Romania. They have found that the IQ levels of children who remain in large institutions are lower than those put in foster care. Both groups had lower scores than those who were not institutionalized at all. This is but one of the studies that confirm the deleterious effects of institutional living on children.

Given that even the best NGOs, running the most caring of institutions and with the very best of intentions, could assist between 6 and 10 times as many poor kids in a family and community context why is it that they are so wedded to an institutional model that has been proven to be damaging to children?

Is it a matter of concern to the NGO community that some of its members are engaged in human rights abuses in the way the deception they practice to remove children from their families, in the way they alienate the kids from their families, culture and religion? Is it a matter of concern to the English language media in Cambodia? If so, why is there virtually no investigative journalism that seeks to get answers to questions of the kind being raised here?

Whose needs are being met when well-meaning NGOs set up and run ‘orphanages’ and refuges for ‘victims of human trafficking’? The needs of the children and their families or the needs of NGOs to feel wanted, loved, to ‘making a difference’, to be seen by others as being compassionate, generous, kind-hearted and an all around ‘good person’ or, in the case of the most unscrupulous, to make a quick and easy buck?

How many expatriate NGOs who make their living and get a boost to their self-esteem  raising the children of poor Cambodian families in institutions have ever wondered how they would feel if, as a result of their own poverty, they were denied the opportunity to bring their own children up? How many expatriate NGOs with children would be happy to have their visiting rights to their kids limited to 2 hours per month or, in some cases, to 2 hours per annum? How many expatriate NGOs with children would want to see their children brought up with a different set of religious beliefs to the ones practiced by the NGOs themselves. Imagine, as a Christian, (for Christian NGOs reading this) if your poverty left you with little or no choice but to seek the help of a Buddhist NGO so that your children could eat, receive medical attention when ill and get a halfway decent education. How would you feel if the Buddhist NGO then refused to allow your child to take part in Christian celebrations but instead inculcated them with Buddhist beliefs?  

Is it possible for an NGO to remove children (and in particular, girls) from their families because the NGO ‘believes’ that the child is ‘at risk’? If so, does the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs conduct any investigation itself to determine whether the child is genuinely ‘at risk’ or has been defined as such by an NGO wishing to recruit from poor families ‘victims’ that it can then use to raise money through donations and sponsorships? And, when money has been so raised, how much of it is used to help the very poor families from which these children come to lift themselves out of dire poverty and dependence on NGOs and provide them with the wherewithal to be self-sufficient and are so able to take care of their own children?

Does the Ministry of Social Affairs adequately monitor the activities of NGOs running ‘orphanages’ and refuges that have ostensibly been set up to rescue ‘victims of human trafficking’? If not, why not?

Are questions such as these raised and discussed within the NGO community? Or does a conspiracy of silence prevail because for a large number of NGOs caring for ‘orphans’ and ‘rescuing victims of human trafficking’ provide them not just with their bread and butter but with a boos to their egos and the illusion that they are ‘good’ people making a positive contribution to improving the lot of poor Cambodians? If poverty alleviation is the goal of so many NGOs why is it that so many of them are concerned primarily with the poverty of the children and not with the parents?

Why do NGOs such as Citipointe church’s SHE refuge go unchallenged by the English speaking media in Cambodia when they deceive materially poor parents into giving up their daughters on a short term basis, keep them for years on end (regardless of the parents’ wishes) and advertise them as ‘victims of human trafficking’?

If there is no debate within the NGO community about the efficacy of the work done by ‘orphanages’ and ‘rescue centres’ (and I see little evidence of it) why do the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post not start such a debate? Surely it is one of the important roles of the media to raise questions such as these, to foster dialogue and debate and to seek answers from those NGOs who formulate policy which, regardless of their good intentions, results in the breaking up of families and the alienating of Cambodian kids from their families, religion and culture?

Who in Cambodia, in the interests of transparency, accountability and safe-guarding the human rights of ‘orphans’ and their parents is going seek answers to such questions and hold unscrupulous NGOs responsible for their actions?

If the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post are not going to ask the questions that need to be asked, who will?

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