Back at the Alliance Breakfast Club for the March 2013 issue of the magazine, the discussion of philanthropy in emerging market economies included comments on areas where there is still a role for foreign funding. Supporting social justice initiatives was one of the examples given, as was developing infrastructure and capacity. Many attendees acknowledged that a large amount of wealth in a particular country does not necessarily equate to a large amount of effective, or even ethical, giving.
Cambodia is a country that illustrates the challenges which may be faced by organizations attempting to source funding from the emerging wealth within the kingdom. A nation where a small number of wealthy elite is contrasted with large-scale poverty in many rural areas, Cambodia has an abundance of civil society organizations all clamouring for support.
One such charity is the Khmer Cultural Development Institute (KCDI) – a charity aiming to preserve and develop Cambodian traditional arts for future generations through training for vulnerable children. One of their main activities is running the Kampot Traditional Music School. On the surface, this would seem to be an ideal area for the involvement of donors from within the country – even for cautious funders, encouraging children to sing and dance is hardly viewed as threatening and has few political connotations.
However, as a smaller charity outside the capital, the organization struggles to attract the attention of wealthier Cambodians, who tend to prefer to be associated with high-profile charitable giving. Many of those who have acquired wealth are reluctant to give it away without an element of recognition or benefit.
This desire for some form of recompense from donations can prove problematic. It is common for dance schools to stage concerts and performances, showcasing the achievements of their students, to help raise funds. However, this can lead wealthy donors in the area to view the students as a commodity available for their entertainment, raising dangerous questions about the potential for exploitation. A member of the organization’s board of trustees says they have had to deal with demands to have the children perform for benefactors with total disregard for their education. In addition to this indifference to the students’ right to attend school on a daily basis, many locations – such as casinos – are highly unsuitable for children. Continuing down the route of allowing children to perform for a fee when they should be at school would essentially amount to child labour. This is not something many foreign funders would wish to be associated with, but those within the country often have fewer qualms.
Organizations that adhere to internationally recognised standards, such as KCDI’s protection of the rights of the children in their care, can actually end up facing derision from local donors. Staff at the school were put under considerable pressure to send children to perform for a wealthy local during the country’s new year celebrations. Upon being told that the children would all be returning home to spend the holiday with their families, staff were angrily told that it was no wonder the children were poor if they passed up this generous offer of employment. These social attitudes, which completely disregard the rights of beneficiaries, can lead some of the more privileged within countries such as Cambodia to believe the poor should be grateful for the meagre dollars they may throw their way.
While funding infrastructure projects and social justice initiatives is undoubtedly important at any stage of a country’s development, perhaps there is also a role for looking at ingrained cultural attitudes and the effect these may have on the activities of local donors.
Jenny Conrad is a freelance writer based in Cambodia, and English resource advisor for Development and Partnership in Action.