Blinded By The Light

Something I learned from my time in Cambodia is that when you live in a destitute economy, you learn to be innovative and to waste nothing.  Impoverished communities, including those here in Central Australia, also share their resources to provide the best benefit to the whole community.  For example, different members of multiple families in Cambodian villages can have user rights of a single vehicle (usually, of course, a motorbike).

In 1992 a French lawmaker supported the fledgling Cambodian government to establish certain traffic laws, many of which are complicated and routinely ignored by police.  Cambodian road laws remain a mystery to me.  As one example, I would often watch police at temporary roadside tables placed near their parked-up expensive, privately-owned SUVs, stopping vehicles on the highway and receiving cash from drivers.  This and various other established practises made little sense to me as an outside observer.

Last year Cambodia, with a population of just over 15 million, reported a total of 1,717 road accident fatalities.  In comparison during the same period, Australia with just over 23 million people, reported over 600,000 accidents with just 250 fatalities.  These figures exclude injury and disability caused by traffic accidents.  The repercussions of surviving a traffic accident in Cambodia are inevitably linked to stories of aggravated financial hardship such as the newspaper report below.

Kandal, 20 December 2010 (IRIN) – Cheng Heng’s wound was minor, but the impact on his family severe.  The 31 year old garment factory worker was riding his motorbike to work when he collided with a bicycle 30km west of the capital, Phnom Penh.
His broken clavicle required surgery, costing US$250, leaving him out of work for almost a month and forcing him into debt.
As the primary breadwinner for his family of 10, contributing half the total income of $300 a month, it will take at least three months to pay off his debts.
Cheng hopes they will manage by working at local factories.  “I didn’t get any help either from NGOs or my factory”, he said.
Cambodia traffic accidents take humanitarian toll

The Cambodian government, claiming concern for the high rate of road deaths, announced in October 2015 that from 1 January 2016, certain traffic laws would begin to be strictly enforced.  Some of these laws included:

  1. All drivers to be in possession of an original (not photocopied) licence.  Cost of obtaining a driver’s licence is US$100, divided into: completion of a form $20; health check $15; driving examination $15 and insurance $50.  For a large proportion of the population who earn less than $100 per month, this is a very expensive requirement.  Insuring a motorbike made from old parts by someone with a few mechanic skills, in a country where insurance pay outs are non existent, with a population who largely don’t even know the meaning of the word, seems absurd.
  2. All drivers to have on their person at all times, the original (not photocopied) “vehicle card”, a proof of ownership.  Drivers not in possession of this card to be fined $15.  In a country where vehicle theft is common, this law makes the on-sell of stolen vehicles so much simpler as thieves merely need demand the vehicle card, knowing the driver is carrying it.  Simultaneously, police require owners to produce their vehicle card when reporting a car theft, adding to the absurdity.
  3. Enforcement of a vehicle tax law requiring both a sticker on the vehicle and possession at all times, of the paperwork.  This again makes vehicles completely open to theft.  Anyone without their original taxation papers to be fined $15.  For many years, vehicles have been imported across the Thai and Cambodian borders, where an import tax is paid to tax collectors, who have then allowed the on-sell of vehicles to ordinary people without tax.  As such, many if not most vehicles in Cambodia have no tax papers attached and are thus considered illegal.  Taxation of motorbikes starts at a minimum of US$400 – extortionately unaffordable to most.  It is also another absurdity for those purchasing $100 motorbikes which have already passed through five or more owners before arriving in Cambodia!

    These untaxed motos were confiscated by rural farmers and can only be retrieved when the owner pays a fine and import tax amounting to far more than the moto is worth. The government are also planning to introduce jail time as part of the punishment for owning an untaxed vehicle.

    These untaxed motos were confiscated by rural farmers and can only be retrieved when the owner pays a fine and import tax amounting to far more than the moto is worth. The government are also planning to introduce jail time as part of the punishment for owning an untaxed vehicle.

  4. Fines for driver and passengers without helmets, of US$3.75 per person.  Helmets cost around $20 each but they do save lives.
  5. If more than two people on a moto, $3.75 fine per person.  Poor in rural areas will be crushed by this law, as motos are the only family vehicle anyone can afford.
  6. If anyone other than the vehicle owner, named on the various documents that must be with the driver at all times, is found driving a vehicle, imprisonment of between six days to one month will be imposed.  This threatens the livelihood of many thousands of people who are reliant on the sharing of a single vehicle.

On 1 January, in towns across Cambodia, the ubiquitous moto taxis who line up at bus stops vying for custom from alighting passengers, all but disappeared completely.  Without the correct paperwork, nor any way of affording it, many were too fearful of facing an extortionate fine which would negate any income earned and force the family into further debt.  The country’s economy must have come to a near standstill as moto taxis are a prominent feature of community life from tiny villages to the cities, serving other enterprises from market sellers to traveling businessmen.  Others who had the correct paperwork, carried it with them but in fear of theft which would render them with no proof that they had ever owned a vehicle.  One doctor I know, driving a fifth-hand moto, purchased some years ago for $120, left it at home and walked to work because he could not afford to purchase the required paperwork, nor to pay the fine if he was caught driving.

In the first three days of January, despite these immediate changes to the habits of ordinary Cambodians, police announced that they had collected 480 million riel, or US$120,000.  In an economy where the average daily income of those who earn anything at all, is $2.60, these fines and the inability of many thousands of others to engage in their usual income generating endeavours, must have left many families hungry.

Revenue generated from these new laws is to be apportioned in the following way:
70% to the policemen collecting the money;
25% to the Ministry of Interior (governs police and law enforcement departments);
4% to (top-level) government;
1% to the Ministry of Finance (includes the tax department and other economic adminstrative responsibilities).

Social media in Cambodia exploded in protest.  The new laws were described figuratively as the government drinking the blood of their people.  Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, regularly gives lengthy speeches in Khmer on television.  He publicly denounced the dissent, insisting that the laws were correct and necessary, for the good of the people.  His own sister released a statement on her Facebook page to say that she recognised these laws were of no consequence to the rich but would cause a lot of suffering to the poor.  Hun Sen responded that the unrest was not the government’s fault, the government love their people and his sister was confused.  However a few short days later, he announced that the laws had been placed on hold, with plans to reinstate them in March this year.  Should this happen, it is impossible to imagine how Cambodia and her people will continue to survive.

Hun Sen, with a net worth somewhere between US$500 million to $1 billion, is very similar to wealthy leaders in first world nations who incorrectly trust their own ideas about policies affecting their people.  Australia’s current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has an estimated net worth of AU$200 million.  As our Prime Minister he earns AU$500,000 per year plus various generous expenses.  In a country where the average annual salary is in the vicinity of $80,000, he is by any standard, a wealthy man who will not be impacted upon by his own policies in the way that the general population will be, as is the case with many of our politicians.  It becomes imperative that leaders in any country provide realistic representation of the population they serve.  In both Cambodia and Australia, this representation can be dubious as wealthy corporations and other powerful interests wield political influence to benefit the ruling minority.

This week a friend of mine was at  her hairdresser, who she knows well, looking at a $49 dryer.  The hairdresser drew her attention to a $269 dryer, explaining why it was so much better than the cheaper version.  When she said that she couldn’t justify this expense, and that the difference in cost could feed a Cambodian family for months, he replied “oh who cares about that?”.  She was pretty shocked but I felt he was simply being honest, probably more honest than most of us dare to be.  Who of us genuinely cares enough to act on helping the hungry, poor or destitute?  Our politicians certainly don’t lead the way for such causes, in fact I would go so far as to say that they lead the way in encouraging us not to care, or making us believe that enough is being done, or that those in need are undeserving.  As with Hun Sen’s apparent turn around on the traffic laws, it takes a personal impact to make someone care and our actions only ever go so far as our personal aspirations choose.

In the wealthy world, the personal impact of poverty is essentially absent.  Many of us live on what we consider tight budgets.  Most of us work hard to pay off debts such as mortgages, rent and utilities.  Most of us do not consider ourselves wealthy.  There are groups in our society enduring homelessness, unemployment and inability to cover the basic expenses of life without some form of hardship.  Yet there is no Australian street where you will see children or the elderly in rags pushing carts of trash or searching for someone to buy coconuts from a home made bicycle.  We don’t see disabled people busking or begging in order to find their next meal.  There are not endless rows of ramshackle tin or bamboo huts perched precariously on busy roadsides or floating on flowing muddy waters, populated by families with nothing.  The daily sights of a street in Cambodia, and in many countries throughout the world, are crammed with such visions.

It is those visions which, if we stop to understand them, have a personal impact on us.  Many tourists or even expatriates living in a place, do not stop to think about these sights, and so not all who visit the third world will be affected.  It is very easy as a person from the wealthy world, to observe things, even be interested by the sight, and not have anything but a superficial and wealthy-world perspective of what we are seeing.  A classic example of this, is the sight of malnourished children.  They are tiny and super cute, often doing things such as walking and talking, which they seem too small for, adding to their cuteness.  So we can enjoy them and be moved by them, without ever having to think of the place of scarcity and hunger that they come from.  Another example is the regular vision of tourists in Kampong Cham town, who come ashore from their expensive foreign-owned-and-staffed cruise boats to walk along the riverside.  Often stopping to photograph fishing boats or market stalls before returning to their boat to eat and be entertained on deck, looking out over the local activity surrounding them.  Almost none of these tourists contribute to the economy in Kampong Cham, as all of their needs are met onboard.  Such holidays cost many thousands of dollars, and require no interaction whatsoever with the local people or economy.

We can all be blinded by the light of our own privilege.  But this doesn’t necessarily give us the best that life has to offer.  We are trained to see success as a material thing.  I have come to believe that we are very, very wrong, and that our collective privilege has led us to lose sight of what matters most in life.

Being impressed



In 2013 a wealthy American teenager killed four people in a drink-drive accident.  His defence lawyers argued that he was ill-equipped for real life due to his wealthy lifestyle.  The judge agreed and he was sentenced to ten years probation, with no jail time.  One of his defence team coined the phrase “affluenza” to describe his so-called condition.

In 2007 I went to Ecuador on holiday, my first foray into a developing country.  Many experiences I had there were a little perplexing to my wealthy-world-brain.  A few brief examples include being approached by tiny children wanting to shine my shoes, seeing school children asleep on the base of a statue in a city square, watching an elderly blind man call out loudly as he walked alone through a crowded marketplace.  He was apparently begging and because his fellow countrymen were not offering him anything, nor did I.  I’d do that differently now, but I knew no better then.  Actually something in my sub-conscious did vaguely know, but I’d never had to think about such things before.  It was disconcerting and my responses were far more delayed then, than they would be now in similar situations.

Before traveling through Ecuador I spent two weeks in 1:1 language lessons at a Spanish school in Quito.  Oneday at a restaurant with my teacher I ordered a traditional meal of cuy (guinea pig) for $4.  Teacher, claiming not to be hungry, did not order.  I was busy in conversation with someone to my right when I noticed that a plate served to me from the left was immediately whisked away again.  I turned to see the waitress disappearing towards the kitchen as my teacher explained “I asked them to remove the head for you”.  Very insightful of her!  When the head-free plate returned, with four little paws hanging over the edge, I took one bite and decided that a taste was all I could muster.  Predictably it tasted like chicken and was perfectly palatable.  But it was a guinea pig with dear little paws!  When I made sounds about having had enough, my teacher gently broached the subject of possibly finishing off my meal instead of letting it go to waste.  She admitted that she couldn’t afford to eat at this restaurant, that cuy was a delicacy, and that she usually found her western students leave most of their guinea pig on the plate, so that she could normally score a free meal at this otherwise unaffordable restaurant.  A clever, qualified, employed teacher, unable to afford a $4 meal?  More puzzlement.

On another day, after a small dental disaster while sailing on the Galapagos Islands, I attended the clinic of a professor of orthodontics in the city of Guayaquil.  We walked up a grubby, wide stone staircase in a crumbling city centre building whose windows were open gaps in decaying walls, bringing the noisy street below inside.  I lay on a broken, torn dentist chair in a bare room with no running water as the professor poked and prodded in my mouth.  The grit from his bare hands felt like little stones against my gums.  For a service that would have cost hundreds of dollars in Australia, he charged me US$2, beaming widely when I gave him $10 and said to keep the change.  Again, I felt puzzled.  A few days later a bout of explosive diarrhoea was probably a delayed part of this cheap, unclean but skilled service!

My next visit to a developing country was at the end of 2012 when I volunteered in Timor-Leste for three weeks.  Walking to work one morning, a small boy appeared from nowhere holding a stained and dirty plastic cup out at me, with a begging look in his eyes and tone to his voice.  I gripped my bag tighter and uttered no in confusion at what he could possibly want.  Only as I walked on, did it slowly dawn on me that this kid was obviously begging me for a cup of water.  I had a bottle in my bag but when I turned back I couldn’t find him.  It jolted me, that I was in a place where children weren’t just hungry, but desperately thirsty!

During three weeks volunteering at a medical service in Timor-Leste, I learned a lot about health, illness and various third world conditions which we don’t see in Australia, but which are common only 600km from our northern coast, or even closer if you look at the distance between Cape York and Papua New Guinea.  But mostly what I learned about, was poverty.  I stayed with Australian friends whose Timorese housekeeper had not turned up to work for a few days.  Husband decided to terminate her employment.  He drove to her address, finding a one-room, mud-floored shack.  Inside the housekeeper was tending to her sister, who had given birth that morning on the mud floor.  We were all on a steep learning curve, with our perceptions of the world challenged on a daily basis.

In Timor I first saw Tuberculosis in it’s historical textbook presentation of “consumption”, meaning the patient is all-consumed by the disease – malnourished, weak and struggling for breath.  TB is a classic disease of poverty which no longer burdens first world countries the way it once did, but continues to afflict the poor world.  Despite the very low rates of TB seen in rich countries, in 2015 it surpassed HIV as the world’s leading infectious killer, mainly because AIDS mortality has declined.  I created the table below to show some of the significant differences between TB as I’ve observed it most commonly in the poor world, compared to my observations of it in the wealthy world.

TB Table

The differences are due to many interconnected factors related to living conditions and health care access.  In Australia if I become unwell, I am starting from a baseline of good physical health and there are few obstacles to my attending the doctor.  I have paid sick leave and access to a health system which I have insurance cover for.  Any excess I may have to pay does not threaten my survival.  The quality of medical and nursing care is high, incorporated into a system of legislation which helps to ensure professional standards.  My health system is adequately resourced inside a wealthy economy.

In contrast, everyday Cambodians have many reasons to avoid attending the doctor.  Paid sick leave is unavailable to most.  Food security relies on the family’s adults (and often adolescents or even children) turning up to work every day.  All health care interventions cost money which most cannot afford.  Many if not most Cambodian families are in financial debt because of health care costs.  The health service employs inadequate standards with few resources.  Medical and nursing practices are much more reliant on the individual because there are few professional codes.  This environment shapes individual predicaments which often shocked me.  People frequently die from TB – a curable disease – because they hope to recover without medical intervention and insist on working until they collapse.  When you are already malnourished, as a high proportion of the Cambodian population are, there are no reserves for weight loss.  Early diagnosis and treatment are one of the most important interventions to prevent transmission of TB, meaning the phenomenon of avoiding a visit to the doctor until you reach death’s door, contributes to high rates of infection between family and community members.

The differences between everyday life in Cambodia and everyday life in Australia, are stark.  In Cambodia I have observed a common networking between people, of financial or food loans.  Friends or family base loans to each other on a trust that the money, which is never spare, will be returned quickly.  This results in a cyclical pattern of loan – repayment – reciprocal loan – repayment between people, depending on relationships and need.  Salary advances are also accepted practice (at least within NGOs who have a reliable source of income).  In Australia on the other hand, it is very rare in my experience to ask for or extend, a loan to someone in your social circle.  Financial security inside a robust economy is the norm here.

In Cambodia most people survive inside micro-economies where food security is a standard concern.  Most employed people are either on meager salaries requiring strict budgeting to ensure food remains available throughout the month, or higher salaries, usually with NGOs, which are attached to contract work only, leading to threats of unemployment in the short to medium term.  Many people are not in paid work, meaning they have to conceive ways to generate an income such as scavenge for recyclable plastic and cans, grow and sell fruit or vegetables, busk or beg in the streets.  The options are extremely limited because it is impossible to accumulate customers when everyone around you is also poor.

I often wonder about the lost opportunities, in a world where so many are forced to struggle for their own survival while in the rich world we thrive.  As an example, look at the Nobel Prize winners for 2015:
Nobel Prize in Physics – Japan and Canada
Nobel Prize in Chemistry – Sweden, USA, Turkey (based in USA)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Ireland, Japan
Nobel Prize in Literature – Ukraine
Nobel Peace Prize – Tunisia
Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – UK (based in USA)
It is good to note that both peace and literature prizes were won by people from developing countries.  Still, of the world’s 7.1 billion population, only 1.2 billion live in “the wealthy world”, showing an over-represenation of accomplishment in prosperous nations.  This supports my point that we all lose out when a large proportion of the world are forced to focus on survival rather than attaining higher goals which we could all benefit from.

The struggling population in Cambodia and the prosperous population in Australia are so polar opposite on so many levels that it is difficult as an Australian, to imagine such insecurity as exists in the poor world.  In Australia, our threshold for stress is a very different beast.  We don’t look outside our windows to sights of poverty in every direction.  Our families are not hungry.  Our children are not at risk of illiteracy due to an education system we cannot maintain or afford.  There is a publicly funded safety net for those facing unemployment, financial distress or illness.  None of it is perfect, but it exists and it functions.  Charities raise money for such things as Make-A-Wish and medical research which will probably only benefit wealthy nations, because there is no need to fund the primary needs of our population, all of  whom have access to shelter, food, education and health care.

As a consequence of this relative safety and comfort, we are all at risk of suffering from affluenza.  It probably won’t make us offenders in the criminal justice system, but it could (and does) make us ignorant of reality as it is for our fellow human beings, and of the part we play in that reality, for example as consumers looking for affordable (cheap) products made in third world nations.  We could and should play a much more positive role, which would be as much to our own benefit as to anyone else’s.

Poor and rich side by side