All posts by Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

Poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started

This post originally appeared on Beacon Reader and is reprinted here with permission.

Susadey, srei sa-art.”

It’s the cheerful greeting I receive in Cambodia. Hello, pretty sister.

Srei means sister, and is the polite way of referring to a woman, so it’s a word I hear often. The idea of family is woven into the Cambodian language. Cambodians refer to each other as brother or sister, or to older Cambodians as aunt or uncle.

But when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975, they abolished all the traditional forms of address. No more sister, brother, aunt, uncle. Just one word: comrade.

The language change was part of a broader Khmer Rouge policy to weaken the family and ensure loyalty to Khmer Rouge above all else. Family relationships were frowned upon. In some cases, husbands were separated from wives, and children from parents.

Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, and the traditional forms of address are back.

But this does not mean all is well for families in Cambodia.

How poverty breaks up Cambodian families

Decades later, poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started. It presents families with difficult choices that often lead to them being pulled apart.

Cambodia is a very poor country. In 2013, the annual per capita income in Cambodia was just over US$1,000. One in five Cambodians are below the poverty line, living on less than US$1.25 per day, and they face hard choices when it comes to supporting their families.

In some cases, these choices lead to the doors of orphanages. The majority of children living in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans, but have been brought to the orphanage by families hoping to ease their financial burden or give their child the opportunity for a better education.

Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.
Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.

Though in the last decade, Cambodia has been stable and the economy has improved, the number of children in orphanages nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010. Of the 12,000 Cambodian children living in orphanages, over 70% are estimated to have at least one living parent.

Some orphanages exploit poverty by actively recruiting children from poor families. Overseas donors who fund orphanages and well-meaning tourists who visit orphanages provide financial incentives for this disturbing practice. This is one reason “voluntourism,” or volunteering while travelling, has been heavily criticized in recent years.

Similarly, poverty is one cause of human trafficking in Cambodia, whether for forced labour or sexual exploitation. Children from poor families are much more likely to be trafficked into forced labour. Many end up in Thailand or Vietnam, where they are forced to beg. Often, these children were sold to traffickers by their parents.

Other parents do what they can to keep their children in Cambodia, and leave the country themselves. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians work illegally in Thailand, drawn north by the hope of finding better jobs than are available at home.

Many of these workers leave behind children in Cambodia. Sometimes grandparents or older siblings are left in charge, and sometimes children are brought to orphanages or to other charities.

How fewer families will face these situations

Of course, not all Cambodians live in poverty. Many families live together without ever considering placing their children in an orphanage, or working illegally in Thailand.

In the past decade, the economy in Cambodia has steadily grown, and this is the best hope for families to be able to be together. As household incomes rise, fewer families will have to choose between being together or apart.

But while the economy is improving, and while Cambodians say sister or uncle rather than comrade, it is nonetheless disheartening how poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started by making it hard for families in Cambodia to be together.


Three ways to avoid being misled by humanitarians who lie

This post originally appeared at Beacon Reader and is republished here with permission.

Somaly Mam was the kind of hero that captures people’s imagination. Her story was inspiring: a Cambodian woman overcomes a tragic childhood, which included being sold into a brothel, to become a crusader in the fight against sex trafficking in Cambodia.

The only problem is the first bit of the story wasn’t true.

In May, Newsweek broke the story to the international community. It revealed key details of Mam’s backstory were fabricated. She hadn’t been a domestic slave as a child. She hadn’t been forced to marry a violent solider when she was 14. And she hadn’t been sold as a sex slave.

Mam’s deceit has become big news, with hundreds of articles online and counting.

Many of them mention Greg Mortenson, whose story of building schools in Afghanistan also turned out to be too good to be true. In 2011, his account of how he established his charity to build schools in Afghanistan was exposed as a sham.

As Jon Krakauer investigated Mortenson, he “… felt ashamed at being so easily conned. How could those of us who enable his fraud — and we are legion —have been so gullible?”

The Somaly Mam scandal again raises this question – how could we have been so gullible? Why do we continue to be so gullible?

Truth, lies, and telling the difference between them

We’re gullible because we’re suckers for a good story.

Stories hold our attention and activate our brain in unique ways. As Fast Company describes, “… story acts like a drug that reliably lulls us into an altered state of consciousness.”

In other words, a good story puts us into a haze, making us vulnerable to absorbing false stories from people like Mortenson and Mam.

This is your brain on stories.
This is your brain on stories.

There are three ways we can be better at identifying stories like Mortenson’s and Mam’s as false.

1. Be wary of creation myths

Both Mortenson and Mam had compelling creation stories that were really myths.

Mortenson’s went like this: While trekking in Afghanistan, he was separated from his party and got lost. Weakened from the trek, he was nursed back to health in an Afghan village. Before he left, he promised to return to build a school. Later, he was kidnapped by the Taliban. When they released him, they threw him a big party and gave him money to build more schools.

Mortenson’s creation myth is breathtakingly dramatic, as is Mam’s tale of being sold into prostitution and escaping the brothel. A story should raise red flags if it seems so sensational as to be crafted with a Hollywood script in mind.

2. Be sceptical of exaggerated threats

When someone is sounding alarm bells of a grotesquely dire threat, it may be an indication that something’s off.

In Mam’s case, she misrepresented the nature of the sex industry in Cambodia by claiming girls as young as three years old were being held in brothels.

Yet research on child prostitution in Cambodia demonstrates that few minors below the age of 15 are in the sex industry, and children as young as three are almost unheard-of.

Similarly, Mortenson mischaracterized his schools as bulwarks against Wahhabi radicalism in Afghanistan.

The introduction to Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea states “… Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.”

Another great soundbite and another exaggeration. As Krakauer says in his Three Cups of Deceit, “Only a small fraction of his schools are found in locales that might be characterized as breeding grounds for terrorists. In Afghanistan, the majority of schools CAI [Mortenson’s charity] has established are in areas where the Taliban has little influence or is simply nonexistent….”

If someone is raising a grave threat, it’s possible they’re exaggerating the severity of that threat.

3. Stop the hero worship

Hero worship is too common within the social sector.

Daniela Papi summarizes the problems with elevating humanitarians as idols: “By focusing on the individual, we not only miss out on supporting the opportunity to learn about or highlight the true impact of the work, but we also fuel a market of praise which attracts non-profit leaders who might be more interested in the publicity than the impact.”

The Mortensons and Mams of the world are able to capitalize on our awe of individuals who accomplish great things, because it blinds us to checking the facts too closely. We need to keep this tendency in check.

As the Atlantic pointed out in its discussion of Mam, Ernest Hemingway once said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

This is true not only for writers. When it comes to evaluating the claims and work of public figures and humanitarians, we all need this type of detector.