Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It Doesn’t Take Much to Make A Difference

Phnom Penh street seller
This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. Somewhere during my month long stay in Cambodia this past February, faced with the overwhelming poverty of that country and its long-suffering citizens, the thought occurred to me that, It doesn’t take much to make a difference. Let me explain with three examples.

1. Street Seller Beaten To Death
A few days into my trip, I read a story in the Phnom Penh Post reporting the murder of a female street seller. The woman had been beaten to death by a Cambodian couple who had lent her some money. Apparently, the woman was having trouble repaying the debt, and in their anger, these people had beaten her so severely, she had died as a result of her injuries. What really struck me about this story though, was the amount of the debt.

The street seller had been lent around 40,000 riel (the Cambodian currency). This sounds like a lot of money – and clearly it was for the woman who was having trouble paying back her loan – but here’s the thing, in dollar terms, 40,000R was less than ten dollars! Yes, you read that right. The hapless street seller was beaten to death for less than the price of a cup of coffee and a panini at my local café.

2. Villagers Struggle to Buy Their Own Homes
Another item in a subsequent issue of the Phnom Penh Post related the story of a group of villagers who were being forced to move into new housing for which they would have to pay rent for a period of five years. At the end of five years they would own the homes they were living in. However, some of the villagers (whose flimsy timber and thatch homes were about to be destroyed), were concerned they would not be able to meet their monthly payments, and as a result be evicted from the new housing.

Again, in western terms, the amount of money involved was trifling. The families needed to come up with just $23 each month to meet their obligations. At the end of five years they would have paid just under $1400 and own new homes.

Twenty-three dollars. A month. Again, even if I only bought one coffee a day I would be spending more than $23 a week on cappuccinos, let alone each month.

3. Language Learning
I’ve written several times on this blog about learning new languages, so I was very interested to learn from one of my tuk-tuk drivers that he was attending night classes to improve his English. Not only that, but he was learning Chinese as well, due to the massive numbers of Chinese tourists now visiting Cambodia. His ultimate goal was to become a tour guide, since there seemed to be more money in that line of work.

Unfortunately, this young driver was not always able to pay for his lessons and often missed them. When I asked him how much the language classes cost, I was shocked by his reply: each time he attended class, he had to pay a fee of five dollars.

I should point out here that I did not clarify with the driver whether he paid five dollars for each lesson, of five dollars for both, but I suspect he probably had to pay for each language class separately.

Making a Difference
There are many other examples I could have added to this post, but the three mentioned above will do.

Dear reader: in a world were a woman is beaten to death for owing less than ten dollars, and villagers labour to find $23 each month so they can ultimately own their own homes, and a young man struggles to find five dollars to pay for language classes – it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

I came back from Cambodia determined to make a difference in the lives of some of that country’s poorest citizens. I’m also looking for other ways to give back, and support causes and projects that excite my imagination and I will write about these from time to time on this blog – not because I want to big-note myself, but because I want to promote the idea that: it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

I urge readers to think about ways they too may be able to make a difference in the lives of fellow citizens wherever they may be. You don’t have to look as far afield as Cambodia, however. I’m sure there are great projects and causes in your own neighbourhood that would appreciate your support and assistance, whether financially or by your physical presence. And if you are able to contribute financially to help some charitable cause, you don’t always have to give hundreds of dollars. Sometimes, only a few dollars given on a regular basis can help make profound changes in the lives of the world’s poorest people, and I would urge you to find ways you can contribute to a more equitable, just and peaceful world.

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