Spending for a Good Cause

March 15, 2007

Cambodia is teeming with NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. Years of war has given the country a lot to deal with – orphans and street children, the blind and disfigured victims of landmines, heartbreaking, desperate poverty – and the Cambodian government either can’t or won’t deal with these issues yet. This leaves private and foreign-aid organizations to fill in the gaps.

Most efforts are your garden variety, government- or UN-sponsored “give aid money to build a bridge/building/road.” The Japanese government sponsors many of these kinds of projects, I’ve noticed. The abundance of signs and plaques never lets you forget it.

Smaller, non-governmental bodies, however, run projects with more pizzazz, that are aimed at the tourist and expat markets with money to burn. Many of these take on the form of small businesses – restaurants, boutiques, bakeries, bookstores, etc. – where the profits go towards related NGOs and charities. The prices at these places are slightly higher than what most backpackers would like to pay, but that warm-fuzzy feeling of contributing to a positive cause is very rare on the tourist route.

In our few days in Cambodia, so far we have eaten dinner at the Boddhi Tree in Phnom Penh, a restaurant that trains and employs street children. The menu featured creative, tapas-style dishes that were a little bit Khmer, a little bit Western. We ordered squid in mustard-cream sauce, a spinach, feta, and chickpea salad, and Khmer fish curry that probably would have cost $30 at some too-cool-for-school South Beach brasserie. We paid $8.

For breakfast, we munched on French toast and fruit salad at a bakery, Epic Arts Café, that employs and supports NGOs for the deaf and disabled. Many of the waitresses were deaf and the menu featured a page of sign language diagrams to facilitate communication. The café also sponsors an dance project for the physically disabled and an organization that trains sign language interpreters. In one corner of the store, they sold cotton t-shirts, hats, and bags made by local Kampot women.

Later today, we also got a massage at Seeing Hands Massage 5, in Kampot. All of the masseuses are blind. With branches across Cambodia, this NGO has proved very popular with the hot and worn-out tourist sector – and also with Cambodians, too. My masseuse, Mr. Dara joked that while many seeing Cambodians can’t find a job, the blind ones are happy because they can. He also runs the Cambodia Music Association for Disability, which sells concert CDs for his orchestra of blind musicians.

The makeshift gift shop in our guesthouse, Blissful, sells cute toiletry and shoulder bags made by Cambodian street children. Different to the usual hempy, organicy handmade crafts for sale, these are brightly colored and funky. I’m seriously tempted to buy one. They are made by the organization, Friends, based in Phnom Penh.

I’ve never been disappointed with the services I’ve gotten from these NGOs-cum-small businesses. Not only have I noshed on a dark, rich chocolate brownie and had my muscles beaten and kneaded into relaxation (for only $4 per hour!), I’ve been happy to part with my money. Perhaps spending for a good cause makes the brownie that much sweeter, allows the healing touch to reach that much farther to the core.

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4 Responses to “Spending for a Good Cause”

  1. interesting that the fish curry cost $8 – would you know where most of this money goes to – would they reinvest it in getting more kids off the streets or are they banking on the good hearts of visitors so their pockets get fatter? i’ve always wondered about that and can only hope that the money goes to the right places.

    in some parts of Asia, $8 can feed an entire family for an entire month.

    enjoy and take care!

  2. c*devotchka, that is a pretty cynical view… it costs more money, generally, for the NGO funded cafes as they have more overhead then your run of the mill family run operation. You pay more, certainly… yes there may be some scams out there, but on the whole, many of these operations are a good thing… I would love to see more of them!

  3. Keiko said

    Wow I had no idea all those NGO things existed. I’m totally going to look up seeing hands because as a physical therapist I can’t imagine not being able to see my patient. SO COOL. The organizations seems practical and useful. I’m getting sick of the UHO (united homeless whatever) on the corner of 6th avenue yelling at people to give them money while they beat on the empty zephryhills water bottle thing. Blah. It looks like you’re having so much fun.

  4. Jessi said

    c*devotchka,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. It was $8 for the whole meal, not just the curry (not sure if I’d even pay $8 for a curry back in the States, much less Cambodia!!) Sure, even $8 for a meal here is a lot, but I consider it my way of “donating” to all of the beggars who come up to me on the street everyday. Chances are the NGO cafe/boutique/whatever will be doing something more positive with the money than the street children who beg for money outside of the tourist attractions.

    Also, James, thanks for your comment, too. I’d like to believe that most of these operations are doing good work. And even if they’re not, they’re turning out good products so for that in itself, it’s worth going.

    Keiko,
    The thing about the massage was that it was really, really good! They’re trained in Shiatsu and back in the day in Japan, they used to have blind massages, so I guess it’s part of the tradition. (

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