Struggling to Understand Poverty from Mesang District
By Peter Nelson
Peter Nelson, from Harleysville, PA and Harrisonburg, VA is a SALT volunteer. He is working at the Organization to Develop Our Villages (ODOV) in Mesang District, across the Mekong River from Phnom Penh in Prey Veng Province.
This article has turned out to be my personal take on the “appreciate what you have because most people don’t” theme. You may find it redundant, but you also maybe need to hear it. I know it has helped me to write it. The reality of life here in Mesang district can be frustrating and confusing.
Working with ODOV has helped me to learn about the layers of poverty; its causes and effects. It takes a lot of planning to come up with ways to boost household incomes in a way that will stick as well as benefit the whole community.
It seems to be really hard to nail down a specific cause for poverty. Actually, in my opinion, what might initially look like causes are just as much effects of poverty. Take education for example. Inadequate education increases the likelihood of a person being poor, but poor people lack access to quality education. This is especially true here in Mesang District. With widespread corruption in Cambodia, you basically need to have money in order to get a decent education. From what I can tell, the average class size in the public high school is about 50 kids—not exactly the best learning environment, especially in the hot season when it’s over 100 degrees during the day. According to government data, the student to teacher ratio in Prey Veng province was about 80:1 for 15-17 year-olds in 2008. I have also heard and read about public school teachers who require bribes from their students even to teach anything at all, because their government salaries aren’t high enough to provide for their families (although I don’t really know how common this is). The tuition at good private schools is more than most families earn in a year.
Why are people poor? Is it because they are discriminated against? Because they lack the training or skills necessary for employment? Because they are lazy? Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question and all these things happen because they are poor and not the other way around. For example, have you ever considered that poor people might appear to be lazy because they simply don’t get enough to eat? It’s hard to work in the field or factory for 8 plus hours when you’re barely eating enough to keep you alive. It’s also difficult to take advantage of even the minimal education opportunities you do have if you are starving. The fact is, if you start poor, there are a lot of forces to prevent you from changing that. And if ODOV’s mission is to reduce poverty, that means there are a whole list of things they need to “fix,” or at least things that need to happen to improve people’s livelihoods. It definitely isn’t simple.
As an example, one of the issues facing the people ODOV serves, and I could guess most all of the agricultural communities throughout Cambodia, is the ability to market their rice. Everybody harvests their rice around the same time, and they need to sell it. But often they only have one choice of who to sell it to, so the buyer sets the price and the farmers can take it or leave it. Of course, leaving it is never really an option, because that would mean starving. In response to this system, ODOV is trying to get a project off the ground to staff and fund Agriculture Cooperatives, in which farmers could work together to market their rice and maybe turn it into value added products like pig feed, which in turn could be used to raise pigs, boosting income and nutrition. This is one example of the integrated approach ODOV takes to improve lives here in Mesang.
But with so many things lacking here—poor education, minimal infrastructure, a government that is basically unresponsive to the needs of the people—this organization is fighting quite the uphill battle. Starting an Agriculture Cooperative might seem simple at first, but with lacking education and literacy, there is a lot more to it than you would realize if you haven’t spent time here.
What I’m trying to say is, being poor in Cambodia is difficult. And while public policies in Cambodia appear to attempt to improve this situation, the reality is that they actually serve to keep poor people poor. If you are born poor you start off at an extreme disadvantage—no access to quality education, probable malnutrition (in Prey Veng about 50 percent of children under age 5 experience stunting), and if you want to borrow money to start a business, you are likely at the mercy of predatory lenders and almost insurmountable interest rates.
Thanksgiving recently passed and now it is Christmas time, and I am constantly reminded of how much I have to be thankful for. If you are reading this, you probably have plenty to be thankful for too. I challenge you to think about the abundance in your life, and whether you have been “blessed” or if maybe you just are incredibly lucky to have the opportunities that you do. Maybe you were poor growing up, in which case you know how stacked the odds are against you in that situation. It’s cliché to say, but being here has opened my eyes to the suffering in this part of the world. What I’ve found especially eye-opening is the incredible divide here between rich and poor. And sadly, for the most part, the rich people and the government (often the same people) don’t seem to care too much about changing that divide. It’s sad, but it’s true.
So, when you think about why people are poor, please don’t assume it’s somehow their fault.
In the US right now we are scrambling for ways to reduce spending, and things like unemployment benefits and public school spending are on the chopping block. If you want my opinion, these public spending programs are one of the things that separates the United States from a developing country like Cambodia. In the US if you are born poor, the odds are still stacked against you, but there are at least some government programs that serve as a safety net. Here it is much worse.
You might be stressing out about your last minute Christmas shopping, just stop it. Please. Count your blessings. Be nice to someone else. That’s all. Merry Christmas.