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#Firstworldproblems in Haiti?

October 8, 2012
Have you seen this ad for the Haitian NGO “Water of Life?” It has Haitians reading #firstworldproblems tweets, from places that look like they have bigger problems, like crumbling buildings or abandoned school yards.

To me, the way this ad presents Haitians is pretty great. They are real people, with a sense of humor and irony, intelligence, and knowledge of the world beyond them. Do they use Twitter on a daily basis? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that the idea is so far-fetched to them, or that they don’t know about the internet or social media.

On the other hand, I’m not sure making fun of people to guilt them into giving makes for a longterm relationship with donors. The ad’s a great social education tool, that will be used for years to mess with young Sociology majors’ minds, but unless it’s followed up with ads that are increasingly nuanced and insightful, I’m not sure if it will build a solid donor base. Plus, I’m not a big twitter user, but aren’t the people who use this #firstworldproblems hashtag making fun of themselves, and pointing out that their problems aren’t really that important? Those seem like the people you’d want to engage, not insult.

Donor engagement and fundraising questions aside, I was happy to see an ad that made viewers think about the problems people around the world face, while avoiding poverty porn or playing into a savior complex.

Introducing: Our Strength

September 19, 2012

Yesterday, we sent out Our Strength’s introductory newsletter. I wanted to share the letter that Theary and I wrote with readers here, and encourage you to check out our beautiful new website and sign up for our newsletter.

Without knowing its name, we have dreamed of Our Strength together for years. In March, Theary and I took the leap and launched this new organization to fully and openly serve women in Battambang and all of their health needs. We could not have done it without the encouragement, financial support, and cups of tea from our partners and families.

In just six months Our Strength has grown from an idea thrown out at our kitchen table, to a small group of friends dreaming and scheming sprawled across mats in our living room-turned-office, to a registered, respected, and effective organization working for women in Battambang with seven staff and sixteen village health volunteers.

Even though we work in communities plagued by poverty, domestic violence, poor access to health services, and environmental degradation, we find our purpose and drive in women’s power, resilience, potential, and yes, strength. In turn, the women we serve find strength in greater health and education.

Our team leads tailored education workshops in eight partner communities and visit women in their homes on a daily basis. At the same time, we work to promote our training and education services to other organizations and businesses to share our knowledge and working towards our goal of covering all of our staff salaries and administrative costs through consulting, so that all donations will go straight to programs and capacity building. We are already well on our way, with six jobs booked in our first six months.

We are really excited to be able to share so much about our work with you: our new website is launched, our Facebook page and blog have frequent stories from the villages, and this newsletter is the first of many monthly updates. Let us know what you think, and thanks for being a part of this new adventure.

Theary and Meg

Recular pour Mieux Sauter

September 5, 2012

‘Why did you come home, Prune?’ she asked…

‘Why did I come back, Ursula?’ she repeated. ‘I have asked myself a thousand times.’

‘And you don’t know?’

‘Yes, I think I do. I think my coming back home was just reculer pour mieux sauter.’

And she looked with a long slow knowledge at Ursula.

‘I know!’ cried Ursula, looking slightly dazzled and falsified, and as if she did not know. ‘But where can one jump to?’

‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, said Gudrun, somewhat superbly. ‘If one jumps over the edge, one is bound to land somewhere.’

I first read this passage from Women in Love in October 2010, on the plane to LAX for my first trip to the US since I moved to Cambodia more than a year before. I never did finish the book, abandoning it instead for catch-ups with friends and television that used to be unavailable over here. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago though; it’s still sitting on my nightstand outside of Boston, and as I spent weeks in bed recovering from dengue last month, I would see it and remember that line.

This most recent trip to Boston really was “reculer pour mieux sauter,” a retreat to jumper higher, a rest that would hopefully help me finally recover from an aggressive case of dengue.

Two months after my fever first spiked, I am finally back in Battambang, settling into my new life, ready to jump higher. In a way, I hope that’s what this year-long break from writing has been as well; a much-needed rest in order to re-enter the world of blogging (and maybe academia) in a more serious and thoughtful way.

The year since I have written here has been one marked by transition: with Theary and some of our other team members at the Romero Center, I launched a new women’s health NGO, Our Strength (more, much more, on that in the weeks to come); I got into a relationship and moved into an amazing house in downtown Battambang with my partner, and I made the decision to leave Cambodia within the next year to finally go back to school for my Master’s.

There is much more to tell, but as Our Strength’s website and newsletter launch in the next few weeks, I hope my writing will share a little bit about what it looks like to start a new NGO in Battambang with an awesome team of women.

Foreign volunteers counseling domestic violence survivors? Please, no.

August 9, 2011

I received a comment on my blog the other day. I responded by email, but I thought that the message and my response might make an interesting post here. I’ve changed/removed all identifying details from the original comment (which was posted publicly, but which I did not approve, so that I could use it in this post anonymously) and edited my response a bit. Based on the original commenter’s IP address, I think the mission group is coming from somewhere in the US.

Hi Meg,
I’m going to Cambodia on a mission trip.  One of the groups we are working with has a problem with domestic violence.  I was wondering if there are any support groups, shelters, or counselors that you could recommend?  We were asked to provide these ladies with counseling but no one on our trip has expertise in that subject matter as it relates to Cambodian society.   An alternative would be for us to educate them on the resources already available in their area to help them.  So I’m on a hunt to see if any resources exist.

(I replied with suggestions of CBOs and NGOs working with women in the province her group will be visiting first, and then shared the following questions and ideas.)

What organization are you visiting? Does anyone in your group have professional certification in medical, counseling, or social work fields? If so, do they have experience working in resource-poor areas or cross-cultural settings?

I would strongly recommend against having foreigners do any domestic violence counseling here unless they speak Khmer nearly fluently and have spent a significant amount of time living in rural Cambodia. I support counseling sessions with local staff, but even after two years here and nearly fluent Khmer language skills, I almost never do domestic violence counseling on my own. (The only exceptions are when women specifically request to speak to me individually, without other staff present.) There are several reasons for this:

  • Even with professional translators, lots of information and nuance gets lost; it is difficult to pick up on the intricacies of a woman’s story and personal response without strong conversational language skills. Beyond the direct translations, the cultural context is so different, from explanations of violence to necessary support for women to the way the local authorities can and should be involved.
  • The strategies and recommendations we would make in cases of domestic or sexual violence in the US just do not apply here. Urging a woman to consider leaving her husband or family would often be one of the first steps at home, but here, leaving would mean removing herself from her entire social support network, which tends to be more concentrated and tightly knit than in the US. The shelters and social services that we assume are available for women at home often do not exist here, or are lacking resources to provide for all the women who would like to use them.
  • Our conceptions of gender and equality are so different from what exists here that there is real potential to do damage by presenting inconsistent or confusing ideas to women who need, perhaps more than anything, tangible support.
  • The power dynamics between foreigners from the US and locals are likely to be so imbalanced that it is hard (if not impossible) to create a safe space for honest and helpful communication/problem-solving.
  • Domestic violence laws here are inconsistently enforced and difficult to navigate, so it is essential to have an understanding of the criminal justice system in a specific community before knowing how to help women there.
  • Counseling can create extremely close bonds, especially on the part of the client, very quickly, and since I imagine your group will not be for a long time, it can be really damaging to clients to build those bonds quickly and then have people leave.

In general, I am very wary of short-term groups having any role beyond listening and learning from survivors of violence (who have of course been able to freely choose if/how they share their stories with visitors). Having done some informal counseling for sexual violence survivors in the US, I would never have felt comfortable advising people unfamiliar with New England culture, English language, or our legal system to counsel the women who came to me, and I think the same standard applies here.

That said, there are incredible amounts to learn from women in Cambodia, and I hope that some of them are able to share their stories with you and your group in a way that honors their experiences and needs, and helps your group get a clearer picture of life here.

I hope this is helpful and not discouraging. It’s wonderful when people want to come here and help, and I know it means so much to many of the people in our communities here. Finding the right way to do it requires a lot of time, energy, and humility. If you don’t know the site Good Intentions Are Not Enough already, I would recommend checking out some of Saundra’s posts on volunteering abroad.

What do you think of my response? Did I forget anything important? Do you think there can ever be a role for short-term volunteers to support counseling programs? What other resources would you recommend for this volunteer or people like her?

where I have been

July 2, 2011

The wind was blowing just the right way this morning, so that I woke up to the call of prayer from the mosque a kilometer or two away from here. A few minutes later, the monks started their morning chanting, and after an hour, the choir began practicing for Mass. Today’s celebration is special; it marks eleven years of the Prefecture in Battambang since Khmer Rouge.

There are so many reasons I have neglected my writing recently, not just here on the blog, but also on my own. My best friend from home was here for several months, my workload has more than doubled in the two months, and honestly, I’m just exhausted. Work’s tiring me out, but what drains me is the constant stream of news that seems to be almost uniformly discouraging and upsetting. From a war in Libya to violence in Syria, the release of Oscar Grant’s murderer after only 72 days in prison to the unrelenting attacks on women’s reproductive rights (and lives) across the U.S…. it’s a lot.

I was at a big aid and development conference here in Cambodia last week, and it tapped into a lot of my frustrations — and a few of my joys — about the aid industry. The notion of creating frameworks that can be practically applied to organizations of varied size, purpose, budget, and political ideology around the world and the idea that a human rights language is universally useful for development — these premises went virtually unquestioned. It reminded me of papers I would write in college. I used to joke with older friends that I had the luxury of being allowed, maybe even encouraged, to make wildly impractical arguments and recommendations about the ethics and implementation of development and aid, as long as I could defend them with strong analysis and a respected theoretical framework. No one was actually going to listen to my recommendations; they were exercises in critical thinking, application of new theories to case studies, and unbridled idealism.

But I was surrounded by some incredibly smart and powerful people last week, people who control millions of dollars of aid funding and will contribute to the direction and priorities of international aid over the next decade. Their work is much more than term papers that will be critiqued, graded, returned and then thrown into a bin to be used for grocery lists and notes to roommates. It was, and remains, scary and a little bit heartbreaking to see the gap between theory and practice, all carried out with the best of intentions (and funding).

So yeah, I’m exhausted, but not nearly as much by life here in Battambang as by everything beyond it. I’m sitting on my bed now, listening to a monk chanting at a nearby funeral and a soccer game right outside my window. I have a nasty cold, so I skipped Mass this morning, but I can hear everyone applauding from inside the church right now, as they celebrate their anniversary here together.


May 8, 2011

To have a Sunday morning to clean my room top to bottom.

For parents who have not only given one of my best friends a place to stay for a few weeks, but have made her part of the family. And for a friend who is giving my parents a wonderful education about Cornel West and Paul Farmer over dinner and baseball games.

To be incredibly busy; it means I have employment, direction, and purpose.

For the recycled shoes, silverware, spatulas and skillets that friends have given me to ease the financial strain of moving into a new home.

To find myself in a deepening community of friends, Cambodian and foreign, in Battambang, who keep me growing and laughing.

That I get to be a part of this beautiful family.


A friend recently asked me what it is exactly that makes me so happy here. I wasn’t sure how to respond; he laughed when I said “I just love my life right now.” I pushed into the question though, and I think that as a foreigner trying to make a life in Battambang, I’m constantly aware of being a guest here. So every smile, conversation and friendship is a renewed welcome, an extended invitation to find myself at home.

And in the midst of all of it, I get phone calls, emails, video chats, postcards, and more visitors than I ever expected from the US, reminding me that I have another home there as well.

Be well everyone!

now the eyes of my eyes are opened

April 24, 2011

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– e.e. cummings

A perfect Easter poem, right?


And here’s the perfect Easter song:

Happy Easter to everyone who is celebrating today.

Thought of the Moment

April 19, 2011

One good check on the Robin Hood archetype is to ask how much the bender-of-the-morals will personally benefit. Another check is to remember that, ultimately, for justice to work it has to be inseparably married to truth.

Mortenson needs to provide clearer answers, and he says they’re coming. He also needs to increase transparency all around. As givers or as people leading a charity, our hearts constantly need to be in concert with our heads — that is, with what is true. Transparency, accountability, and sharing power are crucial for making this happen.

And for all of us who are charitable givers, well, Mortenson’s story is not an excuse for a lack of generosity to help, for example, educating girls in Afghanistan or Haiti or elsewhere. To use this as an excuse would be flimsy and cheats justice. But to blame the media or not to insist on clearer answers short-changes the need for truth.

The right position is to be in mutual service to justice and truth — and to keep being humbled by this posture.

That’s Kent Annan at The Huffington Post on the Greg Mortenson scandal (emphasis mine).

This is why we’re friends, part 5

April 1, 2011

I have an internship interview tomorrow morning with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is part of the (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  In my written application, I cited Elizabeth Johnson‘s name as a liberation theologian I had read.  I hope they ask me about her.  And my views on homosexuality.  Interview should go well.

Pulled from an email from a friend who shall remain nameless here. Check out the linked article — Elizabeth Johnson is an incredible eco-feminist theologian who’s under attack by the USCCB. They also quote Steve Pope, one of my favorite professors from Boston College. (Hi Steve! You’re awesome!)


March 27, 2011

The last few days in Battambang have been blissful: Theary’s back from maternity leave, we went swimming this afternoon, the weather’s been gorgeous, and it’s mango season. I wake up in the morning wanting to twirl and thank someone — everyone — for letting me live this life here.