Holiday in Cambodia

A few years ago, I visited my friend Z in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a few days. Z was working on HIV prevention and AIDS care programs for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), defying Bush Administration directives whenever, wherever he could by unionizing sex workers. When I arrived, he was in the midst of trying to organize the “beer ladies”—the heavily made-up women tightly clad in red or black one-shouldered polyester gowns, bearing beauty pageant sashes that said “Beer Lao” or “Heineken.” At the outdoor restaurants by the Japanese Friendship Bridge, businessmen sitting under private gazebos announced their beer of choice by pointing to their woman of choice. These hostesses only got paid if the businessmen ordered their brand of beer. If prostitution wasn’t their first job, it was their second.

In the mornings, we watched another group of women hail jitneys to the outskirts of town, surrounded by street kids and begging amputees who lost their limbs to land mines. These women sewed clothes and reported to Chinese factory contractors, who reported to American managers, who reported to shareholders. Every once in a while, an exposé about the sweatshops reached American televised news. To Z, shareholders had an astoundingly predictable, biannual ritual of expressing shock about the sweatshop conditions in which these women earned less than $2 a day. Life went on. Like the beer ladies, these women also worked “second shifts” as sex workers.

(Still, a tourist next to me at the central market argued with his friends, contending that $2 is a living wage. “Why else would they take the job? Besides, half the world lives on less than $2 a day. Clinton said so.” According to the United Nations, a living wage would be roughly three times what the seamstresses were getting. We were talking next to a huge pile of “imperfect” North Face anoraks, $5 to $10 each. It felt like 120 degrees there. I had expected such talk from Polo-shirted tour groups, but not from the backpacking trustafarians who bragged about staying in $4 guesthouses. I wanted to object that something might be better than nothing, but still not nearly enough to eke out a living. Instead, I stared at the jackets and tried to remember the sensation called “cold.”)

I thought Z was doing important work. But he was nervous about the three congressional aides arriving the next day. They were coming from Washington, DC to evaluate Z’s USAID programming. The first thing they did was demand that Z call his boss and increase their per diem hotel allowances from $300 to $400 a day, so that they could stay in a five-star hotel—perhaps even the one Angelina Jolie stayed in—and not a four-star one. Z did so.

Z had made his own contributions to living in high style. Like many other expats in the city, Z lived in a “wedding cake”—a multi-tiered, Rococo confection of a mansion. Z’s was pale yellow, so it was called the “lemon cake.” The guest room my partner and I stayed in was bigger than our New York apartment, and it came with a Jacuzzi. The rest of the house was furnished with hand-carved teak pieces, but Z’s curtains, green and red and yellow, were fashioned from bright HIV prevention campaign banners from his stint in Malawi. Outside our gated walls, homeless locals hung hammocks from their newspaper kiosks, got ready for bed. Such ravishing mosquito nets.

A couple of days later, everyone met for a tour of Z’s key projects. Naturally, on this tour, there was no mention of sex worker unions. First, we went to see a USAID-funded community clinic from a program called RACHA (Reproductive and Child Health Alliance). RACHA had existed for a few years, so Z had not gotten to shape its design or implementation too much. He explained that he tried to give more funds to the branches that were doing interesting work. Still, when we visited a local office, most of the workers, almost all older male bureaucrats, seemed to be milling around the mint green metal file cabinets. They didn’t have much prepared for our visit, and they couldn’t answer basic questions, like how many people the clinic served.

We climbed into a gleaming black SUV emblazoned with “RACHA,” in huge white letters, on the side. I felt self-conscious and didn’t wave to rickshaw drivers pedaling by, curious about the funny-looking foreigners, the way I usually did. Bands of street kids waved anyway, flashing us peace signs and jumping up and down in front of a series of “no pissing” posters, handwritten in English and Khmer. Every once in a while, the hairdressers in the beauty salons stopped picking out lice from one another’s heads to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

We went to a village half an hour away and saw a group of women and children sitting in a circle amidst a cluster of huts on stilts, sunlight streaming through tall, skinny trees. One woman was showing the others illustrations about infant health, asking villagers how they breastfed, etc. Z told us that he had helped to develop this curriculum and outreach program with community leaders around the region. He had tried to get RACHA to spearhead such a participatory project on its own, but the bureaucrats didn’t seem interested.

Finally, we drove to a clinic run by a non-governmental organization. Z told us that out of the different projects we had seen that day, this was the one he helped with the most. He had done more than sign off on funds; he had engaged the clinic administrators in conversations on what they needed, and how USAID could help them become more efficient. As we waited for a security guard to let us through, the shiny metal gates glistened like the ones around Z’s lemon cake house. I wondered if at night the sidewalks here, too, filled with people sleeping in makeshift hammocks, the “luxurious” ones hanging high from electricity poles and outfitted with mosquito nets. Some had been displaced by the high rents paid by the planeloads of NGO workers, all here to help them.

The clinic had pristine white walls, a playground full of cute kids ready to greet us, and a director who spoke fluent English. Instead of rusting steel desks, she had an LCD projector and a PowerPoint presentation ready for us, rife with pleasing phrases like “best practices,” “participatory approach,” and “transparency.” The congressional aides clapped at the end. I was wary of the director’s use of facile buzzwords, but also thought that the place seemed efficiently run and open to innovation. Clearly, Z had set up the day so that we could see the difference his input made.

Going home on the RACHA Mobile, we chatted about what we had seen of the USAID–funded projects. It was then that one of the congressional aides said, “Wait, we funded all this? I thought Russia funded it.” The past eight hours, she must have heard “Russia” every time one of us said “RACHA.” The letters on the side of the SUV must have read as irrelevant gibberish to her. Z’s eyes widened, but only for a split second.

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