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Fiction novel takes cynical look at Cambodia’s aid industry

Fiction novel takes cynical look at Cambodia’s aid industry

In Honor Among Thieves, a new novel set around the aid industry, protagonist Mary-Anne is sent to Cambodia to coordinate a large project on behalf of fictional Washington DC-based NGO World Aid Corps. There’s half a million dollars on the table, but only if the donor – the mysterious Maxima Enterprises – decides that WAC is the right place for them to drop their cash.

Mary-Anne is jaded and exhausted even on arrival, but she’s still the closest thing you get to an optimist at WAC: there’s the local boss who describes the aid world as “a global, evangelical mega-church”; the Washington DC chief executive who measures her success by the number of think pieces she’s published on the Huffington Post; and the Cambodian staffer trying to calculate which gone-tomorrow Westerner to throw her weight behind.

Then there’s naive Trevor, who acts as a foil to WAC’s entrenched aid world bureaucracy. Fresh off the plane, it takes one encounter with a street seller to convince Trevor that he must set up Help For Cambodia Now – a charity whose mission statement amounts to buying as much noodle soup as he can before the money runs out. Trevor responds with righteous indignation to suggestions that a little more planning might be necessary. “No wonder [it is] taking so long to make poverty history,” he muses to himself when confronted with another wad of government paper work.

Author J has worked in the aid industry for 24 years
Author J has worked in the aid industry for 24 years. Photo Supplied

There are few out-and-out villains in Honor Among Thieves: no mention is made of corruption, and even the most scheming character believes themselves to be acting from some charitable motivation. It’s a move which shifts the book’s criticism from individuals to the aid industry as a whole.

The book’s author is an anonymous full-time aid worker and prolific blogger, who goes under the moniker J. His previous works include what he pegs as the world’s first “humanitarian romance novel”, Disastrous Passions.

J, who has worked but never lived in Cambodia, explained via email why he chose to set the novel in the Kingdom: “I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that was and is more wide open, really, to pretty much just anyone who wants to try stuff out in the name of ‘making a difference’,” he said. He also saw it as the perfect setting for a novel with plenty of juicy characters. “I am directly aware of more expat marriages, relationships and personal lives going into the toilet in Cambodia than most other places,” he said.

Despite the generous smattering of guns, mean brothel madams and salacious back stories that make Honor Among Thieves a light read, it’s clear that the author’s message is a sober one. At WAC, donor preferences are the first priority for any policy decision to be made, with genuine need so close to the bottom that Mary-Anne finds herself constantly worrying about where the line between “not helping” and “not hurting” lies.

Both plot and writing are solid, although never quite edge their way above amateur. J switches between a dozen-strong cast of narrators every few pages, but has a confusing habit of slipping in and out of omniscient mode, which can leave you uncertain about who knows what. Long sections of dialogue are broken up rather clunkily with repeated references to what people are drinking – usually stale coffee.

But when it comes to the thoughts and dilemmas that the characters articulate, you can sense the weight of the author’s 24 years of experience working in international aid. And while NGOs might publicly say otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that all the issues highlighted here are confined to the realm of fiction.

Honor Among Thieves is available for Kindle on Amazon for $6.50.

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