In yet another predictable bout of self-assessment and introspection fuelled by our imminent departure, I have been fretting about something that plagues vain political leaders towards the ends of their terms – the l-word. In the last 2.5 years I have paid someone to wash my underwear every day, had my feet regularly massaged by sex workers I suspect were trafficked from China, eaten a lot of bread produced by high-end foreign owned bakeries, underpaid countless motorbike taxi drivers, failed to learn Khmer properly, and spent large sums of donor money on projects for the main reason that the money needed to be spent. Beyond this typically middle class guilt induced self-assessment, I have been wondering, what meaningful things have I actually contributed to Cambodia since I have been here and what could I have done better? This is no doubt a question that many people before me asked, and many people after me will continue to ask.
In the last 2.5 years I have had MANY debates with friends and strangers about what if anything should the roles of ex-pats be in Cambodia. I have also witnessed countless volunteers and other ex-pats come to Cambodia (including myself) and get bogged down in the predictable cycle of naivety, hope, disenchantment and disengagement, and hopefully hope again. With the lofty and likely unattainable goal of informing people that may be thinking of coming to Cambodia, I would like to offer an open invitation for responses from current or former residents to some of questions that I have heard endlessly debated:
Can an ex-pat make a meaningful contribution to the development of Cambodia and in what capacities (length of stay, employment status, role, sector etc.)?
Is it inevitable that every ex-pat working in Cambodia becomes cynical and jaded? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
Can the salaries of ex-pat staff be justified? If so, is there a point that they become unjustified?
To what extent should NGOs try to engage the government when working on projects and is this practical?
Has the NGO sector created a false economy in salaries? Is this having an effect on the private sector?