The Charitable Industrial Complex: Justice, Not Charity, Is What's Needed

The problem is much larger than Somaly Mam or these orphanages. Worldwide there are "victim scripts" that individuals must conform to and perform in order to receive attention and assistance.
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Last month, Somaly Mam, the former director of the U.S.-based foundation that carries her name, stepped down after an in-depth investigation found that she had not only fabricated her own story, but had also coaxed women into lying or performing victimhood in order to raise money for her anti-trafficking foundation.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about how Mam's activities were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to deception in Cambodia, pointing to the increasing numbers of orphanages that host children who are not actually orphans and who are coached to perform misery in order to fuel contributions. These stories, harrowing in their revelations, point to the proliferation of the charitable industrial complex that rests on charity flowing from the developed to the developing world. What the world needs today is not charity, but rather justice.

Recent media pieces highlighting fraudulent practices at Cambodian orphanages reveal a kind of modern-day Oliver Twist story. According to Times journalist Thomas Fuller, more than three-quarters of orphans in Cambodian orphanages have one or more parents living. Directors of orphanages go to homes and tell parents that their children will be given a better life at the orphanages. The children, many of whom are now adults and speaking out, tell a different story of being told to "act sad" in order to solicit EuroAmerican tourists' funds.

Money that the children never see.

The problem is much larger than Mam or these orphanages. Worldwide there are "victim scripts" that individuals must conform to and perform in order to receive attention and assistance. Domestic workers who have been abused must somehow fit a "trafficking script," which -- depending on who is in power in the U.S. government -- can sometimes be tethered to the sex industry. If women were not sexually abused or if they were complicit in their migration, they are not considered "downtrodden enough" to merit assistance. Children are a bit easier, owing to the status children occupy in the donors' imaginations. Seen as victims and innocent, raising money for orphans is demonstrably easier than survivors of exploitation.

What is interesting is that our system of charity is encouraging this type of market-driven humanitarianism. Supporters of Mam have emphasized that Mam was not trying to defraud donors, but rather coaching women to fit a particular "trafficking script" in order to gain assistance. But does the ends justify the means? Because she was able to raise money for her organization, is it justifiable to perpetuate a broken framework rather than challenge it? I would bet that if we could get ahold of the directors of the orphanages that defrauded donors and the parents and children they worked with, they would likely say that they believed they were helping children who otherwise would have lived more miserable lives. Like the scientist who makes up data to support his or her hypotheses, these "humanitarians" may believe that what they are doing is justifiable.

Nicholas Kristoff, the New York Times columnist who was an integral part of creating Somaly Mam's fame, has since back pedaled on his support of the former CNN World Hero. In a series of posts about the Mam scandal, Kristoff seeks to deflect the rising heat he has been exposed to by saying that it is the fault of the developing world for presenting particular challenges to reporting. But placing the blame on the developing world is an egregious error on the part of Kristoff as well as his supporters.

Market-driven humanitarianism says more about the charity givers than it does the receivers. It says more about us than them. Least we forget, charity fraud is something that has been occurring here in the U.S., regarding the very same topic. Remember the story of Bill Hillar, the supposedly retired U.S. Army Special Operative whose "true story" inspired the film Taken? Hillar was supported by many Hollywood starlets and toured the U.S. telling his story of being a Green Beret whose daughter was "taken," trafficked in Thailand and eventually killed. Today, Hillar is in jail on several counts of fraud. Not only was he never a Green Beret, but he didn't even have a daughter. Which raises the question: Why did Somaly Mam make the cover of Newsweek, while the Bill Hillar story was swept under the rug?

Trafficking has manufactured a veritable charity industry complex, where millions of dollars are funneled into anti-trafficking initiatives that lack transparent activities and results. Large donors make grants to organizations about which they have very little knowledge. Numerous organizations and Hollywood starlets alike have funded "trafficking" efforts without understanding the contours of what trafficking actually is.

In the charitable industrial complex, charity has become writing a check and creating what people think are Band-Aid solutions to deeper systemic injustices.

Justice requires creative and more nuanced responses to understanding the situation that caused parents to turn over their children to orphanages in Cambodia or why so many Filipino women to choose to be trafficked as domestic workers or why so many Indian men are willing to be trafficked as construction workers.

What recent news stories show is that the charity industry has created a situation where justice is now needed to remedy the ills brought on by charity.

When you talk actual to survivors of exploitation -- not the pseudo-survivors like Mam -- they will tell you that they don't want charity. They don't want your money if you haven't thought about where your money is going and what it is doing. They don't want you to just feel sorry for them because your condescension challenges them even more. What they want is your understanding. They want you to think about your role in creating the globalized political economy we live in and the policies affecting their lives. They want justice. Maybe it's time we start listening to them

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