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The Complacency of Poverty

It is difficult for Americans to even imagine what real poverty looks like in a developing nation. I could tell you stories about growing up poor on a farm in rural Washington State, but that was poor with amenities. My family had a home and acres of sugar beets. We had a car. We never took vacations and I don’t remember ever going to the movies when we lived on the farm; we did without niceties. My mother sewed most of my clothes for school. We were poor, but even as a child I expected better when I grew up. I was told if you studied hard and went to college you would have more options—we lived in the Land of Opportunity. A bright future was ours through self-determination and the right attitude. We expected it.

In Cambodia being poor does not mean doing without niceties, it means doing without necessities—like clean, running water and toilets. Like having enough to eat or a comfortable place to sleep. Poverty and complacency are a package deal. If by chance you are born into a poor family, chances are that is where you will remain. Truth is, no one here expects much. This complacency is part of Khmer Style. It is the Asian non-confrontational tradition of not showing your true feelings, of accepting what you are given. Not expecting much.

Recently I was on a torry ride in a packed van, headed down the road for 15 minutes, when the driver got a call, turned around and went back to the village to pick up four more passengers. Twenty-four crammed into a van that would comfortably fit nine in the USA, twelve in Cambodia. When the new passengers peered skeptically in at the already full van, the driver pushed the younger men into the back and told the women to sit on each other’s laps. They tisk-tisked, but did what they were told. I simply got out. “Chup.” Stop. Enough. But it appears there is no tipping point for my Khmer friends. No one else on the bus said, “Stop.” Enough.

Another Peace Corps Volunteer told me that during rice harvest the school director cancelled classes and had students harvest his rice. They did not like doing the work, but they did it. It’s a bully system with petty bribes or threats. There is only one school director and many students. Why didn’t they say, Enough? Perhaps it is part of this complacency of poverty. When you are poor you have no expectations for change and no confidence to complain. You do not expect that things could be better.

Into this mix of perennial poverty and petty corruption the Peace Corps Volunteer arrives to save the day. Except that no one ever really wants to be saved. People in your village are curious, maybe even glad that you’ve come to help at the Health Clinic or teach English at the local school, but if you are not careful you become Madame Money in their eyes. Big projects requiring grants can work against the real progress of self-determination and sustainability if they aren’t managed carefully.

A few days ago I struck up a conversation with a Khmer man who worked for an agricultural NGO. Their focus is on farming practices. He said the farmers came to meetings and were open to new ideas, but did not want to invest any of their own money in it. Some said they would do the project only if the NGO funded it 100%. He was exasperated at the farmer’s lack of buy-in for the project. But why should they? They did not arrive at these new ideas on their own. Why should they risk it? You give a nice package of tools and ideas and expect them to take it from there. In a land of that has no built-in expectations this is what is taught: Aid organization give aid. Soon enough, the poverty of complacency changes into the complacency of expectation. “What else ya got?”

Unless the farmers want to make significant changes in their efforts, or the people on the bus demand more legroom, or students tell bully directors they did not come to school to harvest rice, things will remain the same. The way I see it now, from my year-and-a-half in Cambodia perspective, real change is incremental and personal. I have two dedicated co-teachers with whom I have deep conversations about change at the school and in the village. It is doubtful that anything I do will alter the path of poverty here, but I can instigate questions that challenge complacency. This is the best I can do.

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