With so many charitable organizations out there, how do you know which ones really provide help where it is needed most?
On our recent trip to Cambodia we saw some amazing things. The Temples of Angkor Wat, Killing Fields of Phnom Phen, the Mekong River, and some beautiful people. I will always remember our first gaze upon Angkor Wat as the sun rose and bathed the spires in a rose colored hue; the haunting skulls in the memorial stupa to remind us of the horrific, and very recent past of Cambodia when so many were killed with no understanding of why…
These are the memories and the pictures we will tend to more often share with friends and family. This is what we typically remember from a trip. When we were going through out latest batch of photos from Cambodia, I had to stop and reflect on some of the scenes more closely.
A young boy in just a t-shirt and underpants, playing with a piece of wood and a sting attached. A home built of wood planks and up on stilts to protect it from rising waters of the river that most likely is a water source and a bathing area for the family of five. A woman doing laundry and preparing meals on her floating home on the Mekong river…
While there is some beauty in these pictures there was something about them that makes one sad, too. Why? Certainly compared to what we have experienced in our lives, what we see in these moments can be considered sad. Statistics show us that in Cambodia the average income is $880 per year and 20% live well below the poverty level. 23% of the population earns less than $1.25 per day. People living in the rural farm areas would typically earn the least amount. (Data provided by The World Bank)
Now many of these people have lived like this for generations? So for me to compare it to what I might have in my life may not really be an accurate comparison. The boy playing with the stick with the string attached was having fun – does he need to have a Playstation or an iPad to enjoy his life?
The first thing that comes to a lot of minds is what can be done to help? You are warned in many travel guides to avoid the scams and schemes set up to attract the tourist dollar. Pretty effective after the tourist has spent a day around the town or temples and has seen some of the poorer areas. Here are a few that we saw daily:
- Milk Money – We actually got taken in by this one before we read how it should be avoided. It seemed like such a safe way to give to someone in need. Often times when you see a person on the side of the road or on a street asking for money for a meal we say to ourselves “I would rather buy him a meal, that way I know he uses the money for food”. This was how the “Milk for my Baby” scheme seemed to work. You will be approached by a mother – usually very young mother – who says “I do not want money, just milk for my baby”. Of course! If I buy you milk, the baby will get to have nourishment. Off to the store to buy a small carton of milk. You give it to them and feel better about yourself for finally finding a safe way to help. Well…we read that these mothers will then return the milk to the store and the store refunds 50% of the money to them. Here the store gets the milk back, plus 50% value of the milk AND gets to sell it again. The mother gets a small amount of money, but really the store owner makes out more with this one. We were so disappointed..
- Children need money for school – We saw this at almost every temple. The ones located farther outside of Angkor Wat were even more heavily populated with these young kids. It was very frustrating to try to walk around and take in the scenery at a temple when these young kids would follow you around for several minutes asking you for money. They will say they need money for books at school. When we asked them how come they were not in school now, they did not know how to answer. We were not sure if we stumped them or if the only words they knew in English was how to ask for money for books at school. It was very sad, these young children with worn and dirty clothes who should be playing kickball, or even playing with a piece of wood with a string attached not begging for money because more than likely their family forces them to do so and we only imagine what happens if they do not come home with an acceptable amount.
- Orphanages – Again, this seemed like a good way to give to a real organization. Nope… We found out that many organizations will use children who are not orphans but will call them that to try to get your donation. Do parents offer these children up as orphans? We do not know for sure, but this was another scheme we were warned to avoid. Forbes tells us that there has been a 75% increase in orphanages since 2005 and 71% of these “orphans” still have living parents.
So back to the original question, to give or not to give? When we mentioned some of the things we saw, we got mixed reactions from our readers. Many felt it was okay to still give because there was obviously a need. I was still not sure so we did some research and did find some good organizations where we felt our money or time would be used to provide opportunity for this and the next generation. Here are a few:
- New Hope Cambodia, Vocational Training Restaurant– G Adventures and Planeterra introduced us to this great organization. They hire locals who manage the restaurant and learn the skills to become cooks, servers, bus boys, or even managers and can take that skill into the tourist filled areas of Siem Reap and get jobs. You can donate to them directly through their website or better yet when you get to Siem Reap just go eat at the restaurant! You will get a great meal knowing your money is going to a good cause.
- People Improvement Organization – This organization was started in 2002 by Mrs Phymean Noun, who was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2008. The group focuses on providing non-formal educational opportunities like beauty salon and dressmaking training to help families gain skills to earn money.
There are many others, but be sure to thoroughly research them to avoid the scammers. With so many official looking websites and organizations, it is not always easy to tell the real programs from the others.
To answer our own question – we will give. Yes, sometimes we will fall into another Milk Money scheme, but that’s okay too.
What have you seen in your travels? How does it make you feel to see so much need and not sure how or if you should even help? What organizations have you found to be worthy of a donation or your volunteer time?
Comment below and thanks for sharing!