Friday, August 28, 2015

# 135 An open letter to Scott Neeson re the Neeson Cripps Academy

Dear Scott

Does Cambodia need a ‘state of the art’ high school in Steung Meanchey?

A stupid question, right? Who could possibly be against any school that helps educate young Cambodians?

I am not ‘against’ the school but I do have a few doubts about whether the Neeson Cripps Academy is the appropriate solution for the problem it seeks to address.

When I first came to Cambodia, in 1995, there were more orphanages than there were orphans to fill them. Impoverished parents from the provinces were sending children to Phnom Penh to hang around Psar Thmei waiting to be rescued as ‘street kids’.  The laws of demand and supply applied and the ‘orphanages’ gradually filled.

Fast forward 20 years. I buy a home and land in Prey Veng for a poor family working in the Phnom Penh rubbish dump. As with so many of these families they lost everything as a result of family illness, doctors bills that could not be paid and debts accrued to money-lenders. To be able to move back to their village, after 10 years working in the dump, was a dream come true. There was one problem, however. There is no school in their village. Where were their two children of school age going to get an education if they left the dump?

Both children are going to a school close to the dump. Both children are doing well at school and their parents recognize the need for them to get a good education. A dilemma for mum and dad: stay in the dump or move back to Prey Veng and deny their children am education?

I visited the family’s village in Prey Veng and found that there were 100 children of school age who were not going to school because there was no school to go to. I toyed with the idea of trying to build a basic bamboo school and employ a couple of teachers but this is not, at least at present, a viable option for me.

The 100 children in this village need a school. How many villages like it are there in Cambodia? How many schools are needed? I am not talking about the buildings. They are easy. I am talking about schools with properly trained and paid teachers who do not need a daily bribe from parents of students and who do not need to have a second job to make ends meet; where the kids can learn a range of subjects and not merely Khmer and English; where the kids can acquire skills that will equip them to get a job, earn a living, when they finish school?

The new Neeson Cripps Academy may well provide just the education I am referring to here. This is good, right? Yes, maybe, but what are the parents of the 100 kids in the village in Prey Veng to do to educate their kids? Move to the Phnom Penh rubbish dump and wait for their kids to be rescued by the Cambodian Children’s Fund and other such NGOs and for their children to have an opportunity to learn at the Neeson Cripps Academy?

If I were a parent of school age children living in this Prey Veng village and I wanted my kids to get an education, I would move to Steung Meanchey,go to work in the dump with my kids, and await rescue.

Multiply this one village by all the others like it in Cambodia that have no school and you have, potentially, thousands of families moving to Steung Meanchey who would not do so if there were a school in their village.

So, my concern is that your new school will act as a pull factor, just as the proliferation of orphanages in the mid 90s pulled the children of impoverished rural families into Phnom Penh to become street kids to be ‘rescued’.

When I spoke with the Village Chief in this village in Prey Veng about the possibility of building a school he was so excited that he said the community would donate the land required for it to be built on. To build a basic bamboo structure with a solid roof, chairs and desks would, he told me, cost around $1,000. Paying trained teachers teachers $200 a month would cost around $5,000 a year. Of course there are lots of other costs involved but I figured that it would be possible to run a very basic school for 100 kids for around $10,000 a year.

Let’s double that and say $20,000 a year. For the amount of money that you will spend on a school that bears your name you could run 200 very basic schools a year in rural Cambodia and give the parents of the children receiving an education one good reason NOT to gravitate to Steung Meanchey to be ‘rescued’ by the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

I offer these thoughts for discussion because it seems to me, with 20 years of experience, that there is all too often no discussion in public about issues as important as education; that there is a presumption that the building of a $4 million school must, by definition, be a good thing.

Back in 1995 the proliferation of ‘orphanages’ was seen as a good thing and a whole industry has been created around the ‘rescuing’ of these children of impoverished families.

Some discussion, debate, is required before CCF or any other NGO builds ‘state-of-the’ art schools in Phnom Penh whilst leaving 100s of villages in Cambodia without any properly functioning school at all.

No doubt Team Neeson will be quick to attack me in their usual fashion. This time around I am going to delete comments that are merely personal attacks – not because I believe in censorship but because I do not want what could be a productive debate about education to be derailed by angry men and women with nothing to contribute to such a debate.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

# 134 Is Scott Neeson the knight in shining armour he presents himself to the world to be?

“You are a voyeur who has the luxury to romanticize a situation that you know nothing about.”

So wrote Scott Neeson, Executive Director of the Cambodian Children’s me in Sept 2011.  

Scott’s ‘voyeur’ observation was in relation to documentary filming I had done over the previous few years with a family that worked and lived in the Phnom Penh rubbish dump.

The family's dad, Chuan, and mum, Ka

“Your view that this family had a richer life than you and your community in Sydney is the paternalistic nonsense of someone who gets to fly in, film their hardship, then fly back to the luxuries of home, to pass judgment on those of us who remain here… Having Sokheng (Sokayn) remain on the garbage dump with her family may have fulfilled your vision of a life-lesson on the human condition.”

I had neither written nor implied what Scott suggests here but Scott was not going to allow the facts, the truth, to deflect him from his expression of self-righteous indignation.

“Sokheng and her family loathed living on the garbage dump – the squalor, ill health, degradation and other conditions you are blissfully unaware of – and wanted nothing more than to transcend that existence.”

Sokheng, whose name I have always spelt phonetically as Sokayn, was 7 years old when I began to film with her family.

After 16 years of experience in Cambodia at the time (now 20 years) I was not "blissfully unaware" but otherwise on this point Scott and I are in complete agreement.

Sokayn's family dwelling (background) rested on top of a 30 foot pile of decayed and decaying rubbish in the old Phnom Penh rubbish dump.

It is Scott’s next sentence that is problematic, to say the least!

“CCF gave the children a Western-quality education and provided the parents with a new life back in their homeland. We provided real, tangible help to them.”

Scott was lying, as he has a tendency to do. At the time he wrote these words in an email to me, the mother and father of the family, Ka and Chuan, were still working in the rubbish dump. The family was not living a new life back in their homeland thanks to the Cambodian Children’s Fund. 

Ka and Chuan were living in a squalid windowless box close to the new Phnom Penh dump that does qualify for the word ‘home’.  Between them they were earning $1,000 a year scavenging in the dump.

Ka and her husband Chuan at work.

 In its 2013 tax return the Cambodian Children's Fund informed the IRS  in its tax return that it cost (and CCF was presumably spending) $2,000 a year to educate Sokayn and a further $2,000 a year to provide her with dormitory accommodation in a CCF residential facility.

So, whilst CCF, according to its own figures, was 'spending' $4,000 a year to take care of Sokayn, her mum and dad were earning $1,000 a year.

Sokayn at work in the dump

It gets worse. 

Sokayn had an older sister, Sokourn, who was also residing in a CCF institution. Another $4,000.

According to CCF it was spending $8,000 a year to take care of Sokayn and Sokourn. Unless CCF was lying to the IRS, I think it fair to presume that CCF was raising, through sponsors and donors, $8,000 a year to take care of Sokayn and Sokourn.

Sokourn (older sister) and Sokayn at home - 10 square feet of open space with a roof made of plastic sheeting

When Chuan and Ka asked me to help get their daughters back, Scott Neeson insisted that they had signed a contract handing control of the girls to CCF. Chuan and Ka maintained that they had never signed a contract with CCF. When asked, Scott refused to provide a copy of the contract. He subsequently informed me that CCF had entered into a contract with MOSAVY. Maybe he had but what right did MOSAVY have to be entering into a contract with CCF regarding the custody of Sokayn and Sokourn?

The answer is: "No legal right". However, as I discovered in another case (Citipointe Church's illegal removal of two other daughters of a poor family), MOSAVY's decision as to who can and cannot retain custody of children removed from their families is not determined in accordance with Cambodian law. If you are a rich and powerful NGO, with an Executive Director well connected politically, you can retain custody of whatever children you choose to, regardless of the parent's wishes, and be held accountable by no-one - including human rights organisations  such as LICADHO or the English language media.

Scott Neeson eventually gave Ka a job at the Cambodian Children's Fund. This enabled her and her husband, Chuan, to stop working in the dump. Ka's job was, however, contingent on her signing a non-disclosure contract forbidding her from speaking with me or anyone else in the media about the illegal detention of her daughters by CCF.

When Sokayn turned 14 she was give a job teaching at the Cambodian Children's Fund.

The family is now totally dependent on CCF.

My filmic record is the only evidence that is likely to see the light of day regarding CCF's illegal detention of Sokayn and Sokourn.

The family's work environment. Smoke from burning rubbish, including rubber, fills the air all day. Respiratory illnesses are common amongst the 700 or so men, women and children who work in the dump in August 2015

Sokayn collects plastic bags in the dump for recycling
Sokourn returning home from CCF school. Shoes were, at the time, a luxury that her family could not afford and were not supplied by CCF.
Ka, 8 months pregnant at the time the photo was taken, worked 10 hour days in the dump, 6 days a week, earning around $40 a month

The plastic bags that Sokayn collects are usually filled with putrid smelling organic rubbish

Sokayn and her mum, Ka, on the way home after a day's work that has earned the family around $3

The family diet at the time of my filming was basically rice. Even after Sokayn and Sokourn went to stay with CCF, the rest of the family's diet remained rice.

Despite extreme poverty, this was a close, loving and happy family at the time of my filming. In Scott Neeson's view, an observation of the kind renders me guilty of having a romantic view of poverty. The reality is that being poor is not a bar to being happy - anymore than being rich is a guarantee of happiness.

The family kitchen

Sokayn, always smiling, challenges the widely held view that poor people must, by definition, be 'miserable'. This is not an argument in favour of keeping the poor poor, despite Scott Neeson's conviction that it is!

In August 2015 there are still 100 children working in the rubbish dump.