Opinion

Somaly Mam Should Either Defend or Explain Herself

By John Lowrie

There can be no excuse for lies and deceit in any organization seeking the generosity of kind, caring people to assist innocent victims of suffering or abuse.

Somaly Mam must answer the questions raised (October 12-13 “Secrets and Lies”). She must exercise her right to defend herself, and if she cannot do that, to try to explain herself.

She should not stay silent until the fuss dies down.

There are, however, more important questions to be asked and answered: Firstly, even if important aspects of Ms. Mam’s stories are fabricated, is the picture she portrays accurate of the situation as far as victims of abuse are concerned in Cambodia?

If it is—and the evidence from many credible local and international sources suggests it is—then it would be a travesty of justice if this story were to damage other worthy organizations helping victims and preventing abuse.

Their detractors have often accused them of exaggerating the state of human rights, to raise funds, to justify their existence.

Secondly, as with all such organizations, “Are the funds raised for a specific purpose used for that exact purpose?”

Only full transparent, accountable disclosure will answer that.

There can be little doubt that donors expect their money to go directly to assist victims.

It should not be used to enrich people. It should not support extravagance in the way NGOs operate.

Thirdly, “Is this an effective use of the money for the stated purpose?”

A simple analysis of the ratio of funds expended to victims assisted will reveal a lot and allow comparison with other NGOs. Rehabilitation programs can be expensive, often benefiting a few.

A balance has to be struck in order to reach out to help the majority of victims, and more importantly, for preventative work to stop their flow and to tackle root causes.

Poor Cambodian families can work their own way out of poverty for as little as $100 in the right circumstances. Most do want their daughters to go to school. Those are the real solutions to the supply side of human trafficking.

The Somaly Mam Foundation’s Cambodian NGO Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) often selects foreign perpetrators of abuse, with high-profile raids including on brothels. These tactics do little to search out the most common groups of perpetrators—Cambodian men from all walks of life, especially those with power and wealth.

In fact, most crimes are unreported, committed with impunity and seldom are those responsible, i.e., up the supply chain, apprehended.

Even worse, very often the system treats the women and children “rescued” as criminals and condemned as outcasts of society.

Fourthly, are the revelations here just an aberration, or the latest from a flawed system by which overseas aid and development is administered?

There have been many authoritative studies on this subject, with Cambodia featuring due its place as one of the most prominent and assisted developing countries.

Sadly, with regularity, organizations and individuals fall from grace. Sometimes their stories appear in the media, at other times they simply fade away.

Donors usually prefer to avoid publicity. Some donor representatives even regard impropriety in developing countries like Cambodia as anunavoidable and inconsequential aspect of the mission. If I am to have an epitaph from my 15 years so far in Cambodia, it will probably be “John, why be an island of propriety in a sea of corruption?”

This is the advice one head of a major aid agency proffered me after declining to take action in the case of one (now fallen) aid hero.

I know of three cases where expensive vehicles, imported tax and duty-free, intended to go in the service of poor people, have ended up as the personal conveyances of NGO leaders.

Around the same time, I spotted an international appeal for funds by a disability organization. I recognized the little girl featured in the appeal, but without her customary smile.

The NGO did not even operate in the province in which she lived, and the message of pity they conveyed was not hers. She, like most disabled people I know, just want the chance prove that “they can do” and be given an equal chance to do so.

In fairness to the NGO, it did withdraw the advertisement after my remonstrations, but we gained no such apology from a similar transgressor organization. This one escorted potential donors to a beneficiary to show the quality and impact of its work. Only the client happened to belong to my NGO and one of the visitors had gone there before!

There is a colleague in the aid sector who has vented his frustration publicly about the conduct of its NGOs. He has paid the penalty. His organization has demonstrated more than any other the “we can do” ability of Cambodian athletes who happen to be disabled. Their team rose almost to the top of the world rankings in volleyball.

However, since his critical writing on the aid sector, funds have dried up.

Most donors do not want bad news.

It is a fact that they and their implementing NGOs feel pressured to paint a positive picture of projects.

Future funding depends on it.

I have been the final editor of reports to donors. In several cases, NGO bosses have exhorted me to “talk up” achievements, and “play down” failures in those reports.

Failure, apparently, is a politically incorrect word for NGOs and donors. Instead of failure, they use such terms as “unanticipated variation from the original plan.”

If that phrase cannot disguise the flops, then “underachievements” will do instead!

A colleague and I to this day always have a laugh on this subject. It was his job to synthesize the reports I had edited, with those of other grantees.

His brief was to also further “strengthen” those reports before submission to International HQ, where the final editor completed the task.

The trend in recent years is to have accuracy checked by external evaluators.

Such exercises are intended to reassure donors and stakeholders. Evaluators are well-paid.

I have read many such evaluations. They follow a pattern with the aim of securing repeat funding and future evaluation commissions. I upset one author and his donor. He had failed to mention in his “independent” report that he was the founder and former director of one of the 10 NGOs studied.

Maybe this had something to do with him praising the NGO no less than three times in his executive summary?

I have been advocating for years for unannounced random mid- and post-project inspections, and not by people from same inner-circle of development actors.

Nobody yet has taken it up.

Accuracy and truthfulness cannot be measured objectively in any culture, let alone one like Cambodia where in the recent past to lie, and to lie well, was a way to survive Khmer Rouge scrutiny.

I have heard often that “A lie is not a lie if it is for a greater good!”

Honesty is also problematical.

In the Khmer language there is a single word “smoch trong” for “loyalty” and “honesty.”

Cambodians, conditioned to “korup” (respect) and “kaowd klach” (admire and fear), may not understand the antitheses.

Provided they stay loyal to a leader or a cause, can they be dishonest? Even where they know that it is wrong to take money from poor people, the “greater good” is to please their patron, who may return some of it in the form of gifts or handouts!

This issue should have enormous ramifications when examining governance and corruption.

It may also help to understand, if not excuse, Ms. Mam.

John Lowrie is a human resources officer by profession. He has been an aid and development worker since 1985, working in five developing countries, and Cambodia since 1998 where he has been country representative of three international NGOs and formal adviser to seven local development and human rights organizations.

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