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Giving Back in Cambodia

Before we can talk about philanthropy in Cambodia, we have to get a little wonky; policy wonky, to be exact. A few facts and figures will help you understand why Cambodia is a destination worthy of our charitable contributions.

Cambodia has come a long way since its nadir in the late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge regime pushed the average male life expectancy down to a shocking 19 years. Once the poorest of the poor, Cambodia has surprised everyone with its resurgence. It halved its poverty rate four years ahead of schedule: from 53% in 2004 to around 20% in 2011. Its economy is growing swiftly, largely thanks to a burgeoning manufacturing sector (take a look in your closet and see how many of your clothes were made in Cambodia). We passed a few of those garment factories on our trip, sprawling white complexes that represent, as our guide explained, far greater opportunity than a rice field ever could.

But make no mistake: Cambodia is still very much a developing country. Millions of Cambodians live in poverty and millions more are right on the edge, living on less than $2.30 per day. Less than 50% of the population has access to proper sanitation facilities. While health has improved (the average life expectancy is now around 70), infant mortality remains high (around 25 deaths per 1,000 live births; in the United States, by comparison, it’s less than 6) and there is only one physician for every 5,000 people. Among some recent World Bank recommendations for how Cambodia can continue to rise out of poverty, it noted the importance of increasing access to health care for the poor, reducing child malnutrition, and combating counterfeit drugs (which cause significant harm). They still have a long way to go.

In addition to manufacturing, a significant driver of Cambodia’s economic growth is tourism, and Cambodia has become a stellar example of how responsible tourism can help alleviate poverty and generate real benefits for local communities.

Siem Reap, in particular, is a hotbed of philanthropy. The province surrounding Angkor Wat, the country’s primary tourist draw, is rife with poverty, and numerous nonprofit organizations (or NGOs: nongovernmental organizations) have tapped into the tourism industry to help these poor communities. As a result, Siem Reap is home to many “social enterprises” that operate at the intersection of tourism and philanthropy: they run restaurants, shops and other businesses that contribute a portion of their proceeds to development projects; often, they also provide training and development opportunities for local people directly in their businesses.

This makes contributing to a worthy cause in Siem Reap as easy as going about your normal vacation activities. Our tour of Angkor Wat was provided by Beyond Unique Escapes, a local tour operator that founded and contributes to an NGO to support poor families in nearby communities. In downtown Siem Reap, we had a delicious lunch at Sister Srey Café, which trains and employs disadvantaged Cambodians. And we did most of our souvenir shopping at Artisans of Angkor, an organization that trains local people in traditional Cambodian arts (such as carving and silk weaving) while providing their 1,300 employees a good income.

Other NGOs in the area fit the more traditional philanthropy mold. The Trailblazer Foundation provides direct support to poor villages in the areas of clean water, health, food security, and education. The foundation’s health projects focus on preventing water-borne diseases, which are a primary threat to health in this part of Cambodia. Grace House Community Center provides education, family support, health care, and services for children with disabilities; they also offer vocational training programs. Some of these organizations welcome visitors to see their work first-hand. (Be careful, however, about visiting orphanages. Vulnerable children can be harmed more than helped by a steady stream of strangers passing through their lives.)

The list of organizations that do wonderful work around Siem Reap is long, bordering on overwhelming. Fortunately, ConCERT Cambodia (“Connecting Communities, Environment and Responsible Tourism”) unites many of the social enterprises in and around Siem Reap, and it helps travelers identify the best ways to give back as they travel. So you can easily make your explorations of Cambodia that much more rewarding.

To learn more about worthy philanthropic organizations in Cambodia, I recommend starting on the ConCERT website:

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