Saudi aid helps lift Cambodia's children out of the dump

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2006, 12:00am

Poverty has a smell and it hits you like a fist at the rubbish tip in Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey district. The visuals are no less shocking. Puddles of bubbling ooze waft toxic air into the grey sky and sticky maws of mud threaten to consume your foot at every step. Then there are the residents.

Human figures, clad in rags, move through the detritus. A crowd, including many children, chase a rubbish truck as it moves in to dump its latest load. Soon they are picking through its cargo to find tidbits or a saleable piece of junk. Out of shame or guilt, eyes move away and capture a lone, barefoot child standing, crying, amid the carnage.

It's a home no human being should inhabit - yet 20,000 Cambodians live in and around Stung Meanchey.

Just down the road, 14-year-old Sineath plays with her friends in the playground of her school. She stops to talk, crisp blue and white uniform gleaming in the sun. She tells of her five sisters and one brother who have made the escape from Stung Meanchey. Her father is still there she says, eyes dropping, and her mother is sick, probably with tuberculosis. But there is a spark in her eyes and, as she stands to pose for a photo, amid a jostle of friends and fellow students, she shines in the glow of the attention.

'I want to be a teacher here,' she offers when asked of her future.

Sineath's journey from refuse to the three-R's is shared by all the 870 or so students at the non-profit For the Smile of a Child education and training facility. Started by a French couple in 1995, Smile of a Child provides support for children to make the leap out of the rubbish tip. As the children chow down on a lunch of rice and vegetables, support is coming from a hitherto untapped source for a non-Muslim country in Asia: Saudi Arabia.

Later that day, robed and keffiyeh'd Saudi officials and suited Cambodian government officials act out a handover ceremony that will provide a warehouse full of rice, some 1,034 tonnes, to feed local children, like those hoping to flee the horrors of Stung Meanchey. The rice, delivered via the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and through them to local non-government organisations such as Smile of a Child, is enough to feed almost 15,000 students for one year.

'Saudi Arabia has given over US$85 billion in aid over the past 30 years which amounts to 4 per cent of gross domestic product,' said Abdul Aziz Arrukban, the peripatetic special ambassador for the WFP. 'In fact Saudi Arabia donates more aid based on GDP per capita than any other country.'

Cambodia is an appropriate target for Saudi largesse. It is the least developed country in Southeast Asia and, according to WFP's director in Cambodia Thomas Keusters, 36 per cent of its people live below the poverty line. The agrarian demographic of the country - 85 per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas - posed special challenges for poverty relief, he said, as food security was poor and seasonal fluctuations played havoc with crop yields.

The WFP's School Feeding programme uses free meals to attract children - especially girls - to school, and to encourage their parents to send them. A full stomach helps them stay attentive.

Of the more than 15 million children who benefited from the programme in 2003, just over four million - or 27 per cent - were in Asia. Of these, more than 300,000 were in Cambodia, making that country the fifth largest recipient in the region.

In the grand geopolitical landscape, the need may well be mutual. The Saudis, along with other Arab countries, have been criticised for reserving the vast majority of their giving to other Arab countries and charities.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal published in 2004, the World Food Programme provided humanitarian aid to 57 million people in countries who are members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Yet, just 2 per cent of those funds came from the richer Islamic countries.

Coming from the Arab world's richest and most generous country, the Saudis appear stung by the criticism and look to correct what may loom as a pressing image problem.

Nabil Ashri, the Saudis' Charge d'Affaires in Cambodia, denied there was any political motives at work in the Cambodian aid project. 'This is about humanitarian aid,' he said. 'Everybody is in need, not just Muslim countries.'

Whether it's geopolitics, or altruism, or a bit of both, the Cambodian donation represents a significant shift in focus from the world's largest aid donor.

That's good news for those at the Smile of a Child facility. At the spotless, if modest, on-site restaurant, 19-year-old Van Naroath works with the professional purpose of a seasoned hospitality worker. She has been at the centre since 1999, and now works at the restaurant as part of the training scheme which helps students get jobs and leave Stung Meanchey behind them.

Describing the period she spent living on the refuse dump as 'the most difficult time' of her life, mainly because of the stench and the disease, she is keen to ensure she doesn't return. She hopes to marry and have children of her own. Stung Meanchey is not on the agenda for her future family. Saudi money might just make sure it's off the agenda for the generations to come.

Hopefully, as a result, Stung Meanchey will become a monument to human endurance and home to nothing more than rats.