Much of the developed world understands the developing world by a generalized and sensationalized visual whereby media agencies have tended to characterize developing countries as households of war, poverty, disease, and disaster. It is not an uncharacteristic depiction per se, but one that reduces everyone to the same story. It is unfortunate because the stories of those living in the developing world can often shed light on the moral conditioning of the developed world that we are seemingly too blind to see. The story of Ben, a local Cambodian, is one example. I met Ben on a stormy afternoon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Ben and his family, including his 105 year old mother, are now residents of Smile Village, a service-enterprise residential community which works to alleviate families from poverty. Residents exit with social and financial mobility, enabling them to actively contribute to the societies they were once displaced from.
Prior to relocation, many residents were forced into unspeakable acts of slavery during the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1979 the Khmer Rouge was removed from power by the Vietnamese military and a subsequent period of guerilla warfare waged in Cambodia’s countryside. In 1991, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords marked the end of conflict with Vietnam, but corrupt efforts to undermine democracy by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have hindered the nation’s collective socioeconomic progress. As recorded by the World Bank in 2014, approximately 14% of Cambodians still live in poverty, defined as subsistence on less than $1.90 a day (2015 income per capita was $1,070), but many still risk slipping back into poverty. According to the Economist Intelligent Unit, agriculture still employs two-thirds of the labor force where around 75% of farmers are engaged in subsistence farming. This suggests that there remains room for increased productivity. However, as state-sanctioned land grabbing continues to intensify with widespread violent evictions, the government’s abuse of land rights remains a direct burden on the livelihood of many citizens.
Over three decades of war, there are estimates of as high as 10 million mines originally planted across Cambodia’s land. Many still lie active today in addition to unexploded ordnance leftover from the bombing and destabilization campaign wagered by the United States in 1965. During the period of warfare succeeding the Khmer Rouge regime, military generals forced citizens into the fields to clear these mines in order to amass land. Ben was forced from his family and onto this front line daily, where witnessing fatalities of friends and amputations of body parts became routine. On one occasion, as part of a party of 99 trucks sent into the mine fields, Ben was in one of only 15 that returned. Fortunate enough to return each time, only to lay sacrifice for the next round, he also returned with the onset of progressive diseases, malnutrition, and hair loss. In reliving these horrific memories Ben’s face started to contort to push back his tears and under his tears, the look of fear in his eyes was unmistakable.
Prior to the war, Ben and his family owned a small piece of land. However, when Ben’s wife became sick they were forced to sell, for a sum that fell far short of what they needed to cover medical bills. After the conflict with Vietnam ended, Ben and his family resorted to itinerant lives, traveling from one workplace to the next, begging for accommodation. Ben worked in the rice fields for 5 years until a farmer took pity on his family and allowed them a small piece of land to build a house. A further 5 years on as life became too unsustainable, even for them, his eldest son of 20 years left for Phnom Penh and found a job as a bread maker. He met some of their relatives who rented his family a small room to live in the city. Here, Ben became a scavenger and every night he would scrummage for food scraps to feed his family.
While in the city Ben became acquainted with Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), and NGO which provides education and vocational training for children and teenagers. PSE defines the poverty line as subsistence on less than $1.50 per day and after evaluating his family’s situation, PSE deemed that they were not poor enough to qualify. It remains one of the saddest realities of a world so wealthy, that being poor enough to qualify becomes a barrier to entry for some of the poorest people in the world. As decades of suffering never nurtured any expectation, Ben moved his family to the dump sites to work as scavengers for two years, saving money by renting a cheaper and smaller space in a makeshift shelter. The residents of Smile Village and many of PSE’s students were originally part of the slum populations working in and amongst these various dump sites. Over time, Ben and his family became well acquainted with PSE social workers who eventually helped them to get jobs as gardeners in the PSE community.
Ben met the founder of an NGO called Solutions to End Poverty (STEP) while working at PSE (Smile Village was originally founded by a partnership between PSE and STEP). Over the years, Ben had accumulated debt between 15 different loan sharks to pay for his family’s medical expenses. Debt was almost impossible to repay because earnings were already barely enough to cover food and shelter. The banking sector in Cambodia does not do enough to support concessions for its poorest citizens where interest rates are too high, payback durations are too short, and collateral expectations are too unrealistic. This leads to inadequate housing infrastructure and sanitation, resulting in increased risk of illness. Citizens therefore have no choice but to turn to less transparent means of financing. The emotional baggage of Ben’s debt on top of his already growing pile of strife had brought him to the edge of suicide multiple times. Smile Village helped Ben to alleviate this debt and after undergoing his own training as a craftsman, Ben has chosen to stay and work in Smile Village as the head of the woodcraft training program. Here, Ben and his family no longer endure foregone life sentences of poverty. “Arkoun” is Khmer for thank you, and I learned it well that day because Ben repeated it to no avail. He also said that he will come back in his next life only to serve those who have helped him through his current one.
What struck me the most was that Ben has harbored no contempt for all that he has endured, a testament to the fact that true suffering often knows no contempt in the face of redemption. Contrastingly, contempt has become almost second nature in developed societies. Though not a global phenomenon, it is a trend that is now fueled by some of our longest standing democracies. Blind patriotism is mutating into economic populism and it is encouraging a rhetoric of division, of hostility towards difference in a complacent society. In the United States, it has most recently manifested in the shooting of a Republican congressman by a citizen who was simply unhappy with the Republican party. Meanwhile, Ben, whose suffering actually exemplifies horrendous cruelty towards the most vulnerable, bears no such contempt. Time and time again, our humanity is constantly laid sacrifice for development. The Dalai Lama once alluded to this, and it remains ever prevalent today: the paradox of our time is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints.
It is certainly interesting to think about how progressive we really are. By many measures we have climbed mountains, but what has happened to our social capital? Proximity to poverty has reiterated this basic humbling question about society and it is certainly a marked one. Ben’s story can never truly be retold with these words because it is quite impossible to describe what his eyes revealed that day. However, what his eyes did unquestionably tell, is that the chance to shape one’s own story is fundamental to a meaningful life. Distracted with contempt, this is a blessing that we take for granted every day.
Ben at Smile Village