Archives For Cambodia

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Recent news articles, including in Newsweek and the The New York Times, recently have exposed the false stories told by prominent Cambodian anti-trafficking activist,  Somaly Mam, to generate funds for her US-based Somaly Mam Foundation and it’s Cambodian NGO, AFECIP.

For some time, Mam was Cambodia’s best known orphan, with an autobiography that detailed her own trafficking into sexual slavery. She recently stepped down from the U.S.-based charitable foundation named after her amid charges that her stories of destitution and trafficking were largely untrue.

Mam, sadly, is one of several NGO leaders in Southeast Asia in recent years caught in deception that seems to plague the orphanage industry in particular. And it has become an industry, with children often sought from parents with promises of education and a better life inside, much to the detriment of the institutionalized child.

In these instances, more children of course mean more money for the orphanage operator and a profitable business is born on the backs of children who often otherwise would be at home. Some orphanages hand out flyers or post signs outside their doors welcoming tourists – and their donations. Some keep children in poverty in order to keep the flow of donations coming.

The corollary to this, of course, is the profitable Western volunteerism business that feeds students, gap year teens and anyone else wanting a developing world experience often into orphanages, where it is perceived that the only skills needed are an ability to cuddle.  These companies have proliferated in recent years, with volunteers in the hundreds of thousands heading abroad to boost their cvs, justify a foreign trip and sometimes even “make a contribution.”

According to a 2011 UNICEF report, since 2005 Cambodia has seen a 75 percent increase in the number of residential care facilities, with 269 of these centers housing 11,945 children. Of these, 44 percent were taken to the centres by parents or extended family and 61 percent, upon departure, were reunited with their families.

Over the same period, poverty has declined In Cambodia and life expectancy has risen sharply so the numbers of orphans should be falling, not rising. In Cambodia, there are only 21 state-run orphanages, with the rest being privately managed and dependent on foreign funding.

“Sixty years of global research details the adverse impact of residential care on the physical and emotional development of children,” the report states. “Residential care has also been shown to place children at risk of physical and sexual abuse.”

As was the case with Mam and her organization, children who were not necessarily even orphans, were coached in heart-wrenching personal histories that they were encouraged to tell to those who would listen in the hopes that tales of sadness and destitution would bring more funds.

As the UNICEF report says, “residential care appears to be the first-stop solution of individual overseas donors who, with the best intentions, provide support and funding to children in orphanages.” Orphanages are also the easiest sell for businesses built on the burgeoning trade in gap year occupations for Western students, often known as “guilt trips.”

Usually students have no skills to offer the local organization, don’t speak the local language and have no knowledge of what would be required in a real job.  As a result, the work is usually unnecessary and at its worst, harmful.

The funding the volunteers bring with them, either directly, or as a result of an assignment from a Western placement agency, is what the orphanages seek.

“Since almost all residential care centers are funded by individuals from overseas, many turn to tourism to attract more donors,” The UNICEF report says. “…this becomes the basis for an “orphanage tourism” business in which children are routinely asked to perform for or befriend donors and in some cases to actively solicit funds to guarantee the residential centers’ survival.”

Rarely have volunteers been subjected to a background check or arrive with any training – the assumption being that what would not be ok in a Western context is fine in the developing world? Indeed the reality is that these experiences are much more about the Western student than making any real contribution.

At the same time, the high turnover of volunteers who offer their love to children and then leave, is seen to negatively impact children who have been institutionalized when often they should have not been in the first place.

The situation has become so bad that the long-time Phnom Penh based NGO, Friends International, has started a campaign entitled “Children are not Tourist Attractions” and FI Executive Director, Sebastien Marot, has been writing on the topic here.

Of course, the interest on the part of Western students in connecting abroad is praiseworthy, if it is real and not just an excuse for a Southeast Asia drinking binge.

Without real skills to offer, there are, however, better ways to contribute, including monetarily to organizations that have long and solid reputations for work they are doing helping to protect children living on the streets, provide free medical care, reintegrate them with their families and provide education or vocational skills while keeping the child at home.

Friends International is one such organization, M’Lop TapangAngkor Hospital for Children and APLE are others.

Eating Asia’s Forests

Lisa Genasci —  October 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

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Most of us don’t realize that many of the products we use, the foods we eat are causing deforestation on a massive scale in Southeast Asia and are devastating to our planet’s biodiversity.

The culprit is palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many common foods, shampoos, soap and pet products, lubricants, pesticides and paints.  It even helps fuel our cars.

Palm oil has become a silent part of our everyday lives and accounts for 30 percent of world vegetable oil. And that’s how it’s usually identified on the list of ingredients – as vegetable oil so we often don’t even know what we are using.

Our consumption of the versatile lipid is soaring.  Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. China is the biggest consumer of palm oil, importing 18 per cent of global supply.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, estimated at 2 million hectares a year, wiping out endangered species such as the orangutan, the black sun bear, the Sumatran tiger and many others.  The two countries produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

A new study by Stanford and Yale researchers estimates that 75 percent of deforestation in Indonesia was directly attributable to land use changes, from forestry to plantation. The study was released this month and published in the journal Nature Climate Change

Indonesia already has 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another four million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. In total, the country produced more than 23 million tonnes of biofuels last year and is setting aside 18 million hectares to produce much more.

Malaysia in 2011 produced 18.9 million tonnes of palm oil on nearly 5 million hectares and was the second largest producer of palm oil.

Beyond feeding our snack habit, another challenge for forests is that governments are pushing to increase the use of biofuel, which ironically is seen as a quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU By 2020, 10 per cent of fuel will be biofuel, while China expects 15 per cent of its fuel to be grown in fields.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, in order to plant palm oil, often carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and then burned, releasing stored C02 into atmosphere already clogged with greenhouse gases from razing dry land forests. This represents possibly more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

English: Deforestation and forest burning for ...

And not infrequently palm oil plantations are just an excuse for clearing forest because the profits associated with sales of tropical timber are substantial. In this case, companies seek concessions and access to land that is forested but don’t ever bother to plant palm oil.

We might think that forest and peat swamp loss in Southeast Asia sounds bad but it’s far away so why do we care?

We care for many reasons.  But if we are thinking purely about self-interest, the effects of forest loss can be seen globally in changing climate patterns and erratic weather.

Forest cutting is responsible for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning this is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and equal to emissions for the entire global transport sector. It is also comparable to the total annual CO2 emissions of the US or China, according to the UK Eliasch Review, “Climate Change, Financing Global Forests”.

If the international community does nothing to reduce deforestation, modeling for the Eliasch Review estimates that the global economic cost of climate change alone caused by deforestation could reach $1 trillion a year by 2100.

Beyond the effects of climate change from deforestation, we look to forests as sources of vital biodiversity.

Estimates are that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years because of rainforest deforestation. As rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for disease.

At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. We just don’t know enough about the significance of forests to sit back while they disappear.

Locally, the consequences of deforestation on such massive scale are even more immediate.  Forests help regulate regional rainfall, offer defense from floods, maintain soils and their moisture, and generally offer ecosystem services crucial for maintaining life and livelihoods. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their welfare and livelihoods to one degree or another.

So is it worth it to eat that biscuit, that chocolate, choose a shampoo that contains palm oil and how do we know if it’s not even labeled?

The rule is that if the label shows the saturated fat content is close to 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil. Among those items that should be immediately suspect are biscuits, processed foods, chocolates and snacks.

Other key tip-offs that a food item might contain palm oil listed among ingredients are cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine.

When looking at ingredients in non-food products such as soaps and detergents, those that contain palm oil include: elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates.

Next time you reach for a snack, paint a wall or fill up your car, do your best to make sure palm oil isn’t an ingredient or at least that the brand claims to use oil from sustainable sources.

There are many issues around what makes palm oil sustainable as well as the industry body, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) itself, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

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Angkor Hospital is the spectacular facility in Siem Reap, Cambodia I have written about in previous blog posts. Last year, the hospital offered 157,000 treatments to children free of charge, ranging from physical therapy and dental care to heart surgery. The boy above is an AHC heart patient who prior to surgery could hardly walk. When I came across him with his mother in the packed waiting room – back for a check up – he was running across the courtyard. His mother wanted to show me his scar.

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The hospital includes an incredible team of 49 Cambodian doctors and 149 Cambodian nurses, not to mention an equally dedicated support staff of 130. Although foreign teams do sometimes assist and train in more complicated procedures, there are only two full-time foreign doctors and two full-time foreign nurses at AHC. Above is the ER team comparing notes on patients.

The AHC budget for this year is US$4.5 million U.S., which works out to a cost per child of US$23. This compares to an average cost per child in the U.S. of US$1,853. Throughout this year, an average of 1,400 children were visiting the Emergency room at AHC and its satellite clinic thirty kilometers away, while 290 patients required admission. On average, the hospital’s three surgeons performed seven surgeries daily.

Those numbers have increased over the past few months, however, with a regional dengue outbreak and a larger number of patients seeking quality medical care they can’t find or afford elsewhere. In some cases, patients have had to rest on mats in the corridor for lack of ward space, while others have been sent to other hospitals.

A new four-floor building is now under construction. This will help improve medical care and create an additional 250 sq meters in the main hospital. Among the additions will be a neonatal ward, a new ward for recovering children, an expanded ER and labs (including the research lab, which is a partnership with Oxford University). Beyond the recent pressure from larger numbers of patients, an April medical audit identified a lack of adequate space, the small ER and lack of neonatal unit as the top three weaknesses of AHC.

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AHC works hard to provide the quality of medical care and compassion that a sick child would receive in a developed world context. The type of treatment offered at AHC, which is free of charge, is rare in Cambodia. This includes support to chronically ill patients, physiotherapy and palliative care for very sick children.  A home care program follows up with many such patients and includes a social work team.

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Some patients and their parents who aren’t able to see a doctor on the day they arrive must wait until the next day. The hospital provides cooking facilities, clean water and mosquito netting, which, innovatively, is tied between benches in the waiting area.

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These two children were waiting with their mother and a sick sibling, who needed medical attention.

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Beyond providing medical care and support to government hospitals around Cambodia in developing their medical and nursing protocols, AHC helps educate communities about issues related to health care. Some of the main causes of sickness, the main reasons that patients end up at AHC’s gates, are drinking contaminated water, poor sanitation and poor nutrition. In the context of working in one of Cambodia’s poorest regions where malnutrition is surprisingly still rife, AHC staff teaches children and their families the basics to keep them healthy.