This Thing We Could Do

consumerism-and-materialism1

Study after study by psychologists has shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The only exception is in cases of real poverty, when extra income does relieve suffering and brings security. But once our basic material needs are satisfied, our level of income makes little difference to our level of happiness. Research has shown, for example, that extremely rich people such as billionaires are not significantly happier than people with an average income, and suffer from higher levels of depression.

Madness of Materialism

This is just one short paragraph from one single link, in the plethora of knowledge about the causes and ills of materialism.  I like it because it implies the difference that those of us with disposable income can make if we were to replace the all-too-common act of “retail therapy” with “philanthropic therapy”.  So many of us are suspicious of others’ need for help, believe that we can’t make a difference or think that by offering help we could make ourselves vulnerable to charlatans.  Our suspicions are – in the main – completely wrong.  Katharine Hepburn, in the quote below, speaks for me in this regard.

Atheist Katharine Hepburn

This week alone I have been involved with five different families suffering from an inability due purely to lack of finance, to access the health care that their children, elderly or vulnerable need.  This is not a small problem that people recover from, but a profound and overwhelming problem which leaves families indebted and reveals itself in the premature life expectancy rates of an entire nation’s population.  Functioning health systems rely on good governance, reliable information, adequate financing and other elements which are either absent or inadequate in countries fraught with poverty, political instability, lawlessness and systemic disarray.  Sadly these descriptions reflect the current day Cambodian experience despite so many good people doing what they can to improve matters, which continue to progress in small steps.

I know a vibrant young Cambodian woman who is waiting to die from the manifestations of Rheumatic Heart Disease.  One of the obvious “diseases of poverty”, Rheumatic Fever was a leading cause of death in America, Australia and Europe until less than 100 years ago.  Improved living conditions reduced our risk of exposure to the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes which can cause an autoimmune response leading to various symptoms, the most serious being scarring of heart valves which results in heart failure and ultimately death. At the same time, Penicillin was discovered and we learned that it could treat Rheumatic Fever to effectively prevent the heart damage before it manifests.  As such, rates of Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease plummeted in the wealthy world.  Our health systems also improved dramatically with significant advances in surgery and medicine meaning that cardiac surgeons can now cure Rheumatic Heart Disease when it occurs by repairing or replacing damaged heart valves.

Today the highest recorded rates of Rheumatic Heart Disease in the world occur in Central Australia’s indigenous population.  Just one of the many diseases of poverty our indigenous people live with and die from, this is a travesty.  Yet we have a health system which can count and record the diseases prevalent in our population, who do have access to Penicillin and cardiology services.  Places like Cambodia on the other hand, likely have even higher rates of these diseases, but without the resources or systems in place, people suffer and die silently and invisibly, often without any explanation of the cause of death.

With no cardiac surgery services available in Cambodia’s public health sector, the only option available to this young woman is to find the funds needed for surgery at a private hospital.  Her desperate husband and family have started a GoFundMe page (link below).  As poor rural villagers, they don’t know people who can contribute in any significant way, as you’ll see by the contributions made.  My hope is that some reading this will think about our ability to engage in retail therapy at whim and take a chance at substituting a trip to the shops with offering something towards helping to save a young life.  Even if we don’t make it to our goal, small contributions will show her that she is cared about.  If only 600 people donate $10 each, our goal will be reached.  Be one of those 600!

Sophors’ Family Surgery Fund

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Pimp My Tuk Tuk

may you always do for others

Many hours of many days during my first 2 years in Cambodia were spent adventuring with my good friend, a tuk tuk driver who I blog-named Chom.  He is currently living in Japan to earn $60 per day as a farm worker (10 hours per day, 7 days per week).  This is big money to him and should ensure that his family will be more comfortable than they ever would have been had he stayed in Cambodia for the three years that he plans to be away.  His children were 6yo and 1yo when he left at the end of last year.  He often told me that tuk tuk drivers are considered lowly on the social spectrum here.  Nevertheless only this year did I comprehend the fact that tuk tuk drivers are often very poor.  They usually don’t have enough education to be competitive in the private, government or NGO employment market (where salaries reflect a local “middle class” of US$300+ per month depending on the role and qualifications required).

Under Medecins Sans Frontieres local regulations which state we should not travel by motorbike, I’m reliant on tuk tuks to get around.  I hate negotiating prices and so I tend to find a regular driver and stick with him.  This means I get to know and usually befriend my drivers.  In Cambodia everyone’s story is so far flung from anything we are accustomed to in Australia and the wealthy world, that all of “my” drivers have something foreign and interesting to share.  My housemate, colleague and good friend Theresa, who started a few short weeks after me earlier this year, is a kindred spirit and we have many discussions about the tuk tuk drivers we encounter.  Yesterday none of our regulars were around and very unusually, we had to walk towards the corner of our street to hail a tuk tuk.  We didn’t make it to the corner.

A few metres out of our gate, a driver passing on the crossroad spotted us, making a quick half-u-turn into our street to approach us hopefully.  In our rudimentary Khmer we negotiated a price and hopped on.  It’s become an impulse for me to assess the state of the tuk tuk I am in.  This tuk tuk had old, worn out upholstery.  One of the arm rests was completely missing so that the only thing separating the loose seat cushion and the road below, was thin air.  The carriage’s suspension was distorted so that I seemed to be sitting on a slant.  We got about halfway to our destination when his moto stopped at an intersection and no matter how many kick starts he gave, it refused to restart.  He called out to a passing driver and swapped us into another tuk tuk.  As we drove away I looked back to see him pushing the vehicle into a driveway and turning it around.  With any luck the downhill slope helped his bike to un-flood.  It can’t be a fun work day when that’s your lot.

Two years ago I was stranded in Skun en route to Kampong Cham.  Pushing my case along the main road, voices from a passing tuk tuk shouted “hello” before pulling over.  Full of people and luggage, they were amazingly traveling from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham to visit their grandmother and offered to take me.  They squeezed me in Khmer-style and saved my skin.  I promised that I would always use Dad (the tuk tuk driver who I’ll call Sam,) whenever I was in Phnom Penh, and so Sam has become my regular guy in the city.  A quiet and unassuming guy with better English comprehension than we realise because he only uses it when we give him no choice, we recently went halves in the cost of replacing his torn tuk tuk upholstery.  Since then, with our regular custom, he has pimped his own tuk tuk somewhat, adding a plastic wire guard to reduce the chances of bag-snatchers and we now travel with Cambodian flags flying from the back seat.  Our conversations with Sam are always fun, particularly by telephone when we recite what we have to say before calling, always hopeful that his reply will be a simple “yes” or “no” because the minute any detailed information has to be shared, we’re lost!  He knows our regular routines – the family I visit on the outskirts of town every few weeks; the other family Theresa and I visit together near our office; Theresa’s weekly swim lessons; our occasional social hot spots; our various strange little ways.  It’s so much easier having someone who knows where we want to go and who we don’t have to negotiate with.

Around the same time that I was befriending Chom in Kampong Cham over three years ago now, I met Rav in Siem Reap who I have also become very fond of, along with his friend Seth and their wives and young families.  He impressed me when Kim and I were in need of assistance to communicate together the day I bought Kim’s wife a sewing machine.  Rav not only translated for us, but he drove us to the market, negotiated a decent price for the machine we wanted, guided me over the busy street, and was generally very kind and helpful.

Theresa and I currently have a Rav-Seth project underway with a group of Khmer graphic designers building a website to promote their tuk tuk services.  Siem Reap is a very touristic place with a focus on the temples of Angkor Wat stealing from the other attractions of the province.  Hundreds of tuk tuks vie against each other and low season means many days are spent with no income.  We are working on promoting attractions off-the-beaten-track for tourists interested in a more authentic experience of Siem Reap.  Plans are still underway but may include overnight stays in Seth’s floating village, where he grew up on a small boat which he says “sometimes had a roof but sometimes the roof would break and we didn’t always have enough money to make a new roof.  I like sleeping under the stars but it is too hot under the sun and so bad under the rain”.  Rav is from an equally impoverished background and we have been discussing the fact that sometimes tourists don’t want to see the temples and stay in fancy hotels; the chance to interact with locals, experience local knowledge and connections can be marketable assets which are as yet, untapped.  We hope that a website can increase their access to customers in what is an extremely challenging market.  If this website is successful then we plan to replicate the project for another tuk tuk in another resort town who we know and have been trying to help.

Meanwhile you could say that, as with anything, poverty is always relative.  It’s impossible to help everyone and important to remember this when you live in a place such as Cambodia where at every turn you see another level of poverty.  Waiting at the intersection yesterday, in the ricketty tuk tuk which wouldn’t kick start, an elderly man rested on his decrepit cyclo which Theresa suggested for emphasis, “was built by the Russians”.  A few hours later, waiting for friends near the corner I wondered at the story of the many small children working the busy streets to collect recyclable rubbish or sell fruit from plates atop their little heads.

Rav’s family often say to me that they feel lucky to know me, because of the little things I’ve been able to do at no sacrifice to myself, for them.  A conversation with his sister yesterday went along these lines: “you help us so much”, no I only help you a very little “no, it is little for you but it is big for us”.  Rav recently said “there are 15 million people in Cambodia, so it is amazing that I could be the one who met you”.  I reminded him that he met me because he was helping Kim, so any gratitude he has for his so-called good fortune ought to be for his own willingness to help someone in need.

Do good and good will come

 

Speaking of Charity

Charity-begins-at-home

The English word charity has a long and ambiguous history, depending on the source you refer to.  It stems from the 4th century when St Jerome translated the Christian bible from Greek to Latin.  He used “caritas” in place of “agape” which is referenced over 300 times in the Greek version and is said to mean “the highest form of love”.  There are Jewish, Islamic and other translations, all with similar meaning, about caring for or giving to, the poor.  The different cultural / religious connotations are interesting to note.  Christian implications of charity are said to include the virtue of wealth and the free will of the virtuous to give, or not.  Jewish charity, known as tzedakah, stresses an obligation of the wealthy to give, the right of the poor to receive, equal social status of both and an ultimate intention of wealth redistribution.  The Islamic equivalents are zakat (compulsory giving) and sadaqah (voluntary giving).  Buddha taught that all giving should be free from attachment to either the gift or the recipient, and that generosity leads to freedom.  All religious interpretations have humanitarian and spiritual implications.

The phrase “charity begins at home” also has a long and evolving history and is today, said to be one of the most frequently misused expressions in the English language.  The phrase was probably first coined by Sir Thomas Browne, in a literary work called Religio Medici, published in the 1600s.  The literal interpretation of his meaning is that being caring towards ourselves and those around us, sets the scene for being generous on a wider scale.  As with so many phrases and philosophies, it has become misconstrued, with many using it today as a warning against being too generous, particularly to people in far away places!  The inference seems to have become, that charity actually ends at home.

Yet in an unintentional way, charity actually does travel full circle and end up back at home.  An awesome example of this is the case of Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, a young Boston couple who have given away 40% of their pre-tax earnings every year since 2008.  They are putting into practice what various studies have shown – that high levels of giving actually enrich our lives.  One study concluded that donating to charity has a similar correlation with happiness, as a doubling of household income.  So giving to benefit others actually benefits the giver.

Not unlike the sense I often have here in Central Australia, living amongst a marginalised indigenous society, my first few months in Cambodia, surrounded by extreme and often shocking poverty, perturbed me.  Living in comfort alongside hunger and destitution challenged my sense of justice and equality.  Also my sense of self, as I came to a realisation of my excessively entitled life.  I slowly resolved this inner dilemma by learning to connect with people from vastly different worlds, and offering help where I was able to.  Not only did this alleviate a small amount of the suffering I witnessed, but it was personally fulfilling to see the difference I was able to make in others’ lives.  I feel honoured to have made this discovery and to have had the adventures of a lifetime along the way.  This all stemmed from my having the time to help a few people out in ways that most fortunate people never experience.

I’d already had many unusual adventures here in Central Australia, which were a prelude to what lay ahead for me in Cambodia.  I wondered how I would feel returning home.  It has been surprisingly easy, helped by returning to my furnished home, familiar workplace, welcomed by neighbours, colleagues and friends such that it felt as though I’d merely been away for a long weekend.  However, I feel like a different person courtesy of the soul searching about both myself and the world, visited upon me during my two years away.  This morning alone, I watched “news” of Justin Beiber posting selfies of his bare chest on Twitter, heard that Australians are the “world champions in taking Ecstasy”, seen morning TV presenters ziplining through treetops, riding rollercoasters and jumping out of aeroplanes, and watched snippets of the weekend’s live concerts across the country.  Taylor Swift in Sydney, Ed Sheeran in Brisbane, Sam Smith in Perth, with some tickets selling for up to $500pp.

Where once these “news” items would have interested and entertained me while seeming fairly normal, it all now seems incredibly self-indulgent.  That is not to say that I would not love to see Sam Smith in concert or enjoy various other luxuries, because I would and I do.  I’m going to have to buy some “rich world” shoes because I can’t get around in thongs at work or social functions any longer!  I’ve just spent an amount on my hairstyle which I know could feed a family for months.  The list of luxuries I am slowly surrendering to as I settle back into Australian life goes on.  But our rich world indulgences should be interspersed with charity towards those in need, both because we can and because it is a very healthy endeavour for us to engage in.

Thankfully I’m not alone in my epiphany about the rewards of giving.  There are many movements today, involved in encouraging and supporting people who wish to give.  One of my favourites is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  They use their money to do the most good for the most people and they often talk about what I know and try to impart in this blog: the fact that with so many people in the world existing on almost nothing, those of us in the “rich world” do not need to make big sacrifices in order to have a big impact on lives of the extremely poor.  To quote Bill Gates, people living in rich nations are in a unique position to make a real difference to the lives of the most impoverished people on the planet. Not only does our money go much further in the developing world than it does at home, but we also now have access to the technology and understanding to allow us to target our resources effectively.

If you are someone who argues that you shouldn’t give to charity because you can’t trust where your money will go, think again.  There are many organisations such as GiveWell and GivingWhatWeCan, devoted to evaluating and promoting the most effective charities.  Most reputable charities have their own websites and implement economic transparency so that donors know where their money will be spent.  Your money does not have to disappear into a black hole, and if you do a little bit of research, all available online, it probably won’t.

Strikingly inconsistent with the difference we can make in the “poor world”, it is estimated that last year Australians spent over $520 million on unwanted gifts.  It’s hard not to imagine the good that could come from such wasted money.  There are so many organisations offering a charitable alternative to this waste.  Check out Care Australia’s Gifts that will never go unloved or Plan International’s Breakfast at school for a year as two examples.  Even Mahboba’s Promise, an Australian-Afghani charity, are marketing Christmas Gifts That Will Change The World.  My own Go Fund Me is also still open, currently with only $100 not yet given away, at Help A Cambodian Family.

[A quick update on Paula for those wondering.  She remains in the USA with her mother, staying at a hotel covered by my friend Karen and under the watchful friendship of the local Cham community who embraced us all so readily.  Last week she was discharged from the care of the surgeon who cured her and recent photographs show a strong, healthy and beautiful, transformed young woman.  She remains in the care of a plastic surgeon and her healing wound now looks quite superficial.  She will probably return home in the next month to six weeks].

We in the “rich world” have inherited phenomenal advantages.  We are an entitled global minority.  By giving small amounts of time, attention or money to effective causes we can make a serious difference to some of the world’s poorest and most distressed people.  Charity does begin at home.  It also ends at home, but not in the commonly misinterpreted meaning of the proverb.  For the most selfish reasons charitable acts towards the needy, no matter where they might be, are a highly desirable venture.  Do it for Christmas!

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