Aid and development professionals moving their families to Cambodia may hope that the experience will foster a sense of open-mindedness and societal responsibility in their children, but a new study suggests otherwise.
The study, published last month by the Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, was the product of five years of interviews conducted in Phnom Penh with foreign aid professionals, their children and their teachers by anthropologist Dr Anne-Meike Fechter.
Fechter found that, in many cases, the privileged environs and elite company kept by the children she studied were no guarantee that they would develop the “reflective capacity or motivation” to adopt a “different engagement with their position between privilege and poverty”.
She discovered that a belief in their own open-mindedness – as supposedly brought about by growing up in Cambodia – often led to a feeling of superiority among children she spoke to.“I think being an international child makes you more . . . superior,” one respondent said.
She also noted that her respondents’ Cambodian friends tended to be fellow international school pupils and therefore presented a very limited vision of what life is truly like for most Cambodians.
The parents of those friends would often, too, have jobs whose functions were at odds with the goals of aid work, and whose values do not include critically engaging with privilege and poverty.
One country director for an international aid organisation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Post this week that he will be moving his 11-year-old son out of the country soon to avoid what he described as a culture of “gangster-ism” in Cambodia.
His son attends Northbridge International School, where he said his classmates include grandsons of Prime Minister Hun Sen and deceased Cambodian People’s Party president Chea Sim, as well as the son of tycoon Kith Meng – who was dubbed “Mr Rough Stuff” in a leaked US Embassy cable.
“Some people think that you send your kids to school with elites, they’ll become elites. I don’t. I think they become a gangster,” he said.
Northbridge principal Sarah Osborne-James said yesterday that the school has to “address these issues in a very sensitive way”, but maintained that if students graduated without an appreciation of the political realities outside the school gate, “we haven’t done our job in making these students aware globally and of their surroundings”.
Osborne-James also maintained that the school’s status as one of 42 around the world in the Nord Anglia network instilled “international mindedness” in the student body, and pointed to the International Bacchelaureate’s Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component, which requires students to undertake voluntary work in order to complete their studies.
In her study, Fechter found that this kind of voluntary work often strayed into the same ethically dubious territory as “voluntourism”, and questioned its benefit.
Leanna Payne, 22, spent all but the first three weeks of her childhood in Cambodia, where her parents – lifelong senior NGO staffers – chose to make their home. “I hear both sides,” Payne said of the study’s findings.
“There’s such a diversity of kids from aid, it doesn’t automatically make you more engaged but it does make you more critical. Whether you do something about it is up to the individual.”