Expat: Are Good Deed organizations really doing any good in Third World countries? Whether it is done in name by Christian religions or by established non-profit, non governmental organizations, it is certainly a big business. Lots of money flows into the hands of a few. We would really like to get your take on the question.
In Chiang Mai’s farang (foreigner) community, a sizeable percentage of the residents are involved in “Good Works” with secular and religious organizations targeting the Hill Tribes of Thailand. Up in Chiang Rai, the city closer to the mountain villages, there are many more. It is a fairly big industry, employing many people in the money collection, bureaucracies and execution of these good works. Lots of donated dollars and grant monies are flowing from the US and Europe into the hands of those running this industry. For sure it is all well intended, but is it the right thing to do? Are the consequences positive for the cultures? Are the long term effects beneficial? Those are controversial questions that I want to explore in this report.
About a hundred years ago or so, there were colonial intentions on Vietnam and Burma, and a lot of other places in Asia. They pretty much succeeded in the short term. Burma became English, Vietnam became French and most other Asian countries followed similar fates. The European masters changed industries in their colonies, establishing the cultivation and marketing of opium, for instance, and striping away many local resources, including cheap labor, for the benefit of the European elites. The Philippines had a similar fate with American colonization. The West also brought their religions and culture, and the colonized Asians learned that in order to succeed in the new imperial world, they had to adapt to these European and American changes in their ancient lands. Buddhists and other religions became Christians, and created a chasm between them and those that stuck to the old ways. Civil wars ensued, and millions upon millions perished. The American War in Vietnam, which was an outgrowth of this conflict in Western vs. Eastern philosophies, killed about 5.4 Million Vietnamese People, and the French Indochina War which proceeded it (before the US took over the fight) killed another estimated 1.4 Million Vietnamese People. There were many other wars in the region, of course, and some conflicts continue today.
Because of a very wise Siam monarchy, Thailand was not subjected to the colonization of their neighbors. While the other countries were going through their period of Western dominance, many Hill Tribe people left Burma, Laos and Vietnam and settled in Thailand, where they could maintain their ancient religions, languages and culture. Now, in the 21st century, the military colonization in SE Asia is not happening any more (because over the long haul, those colonial powers were unable to maintain their control), but we still have armies of Westerners with lots of money doing their best to become a dominant influence in targeted areas, which include the Hill Tribes areas of Northern Thailand. Today, there are more than 18,000 NGOs registered in Thailand, almost all of which receive their funding from Western countries. They cannot get their funding from the nations where they do their good works because few would contribute to the idea of building Western influence and control stronger in their own country.
In America, churches, rotary clubs, social clubs and business organizations are constantly getting presentations from professional solicitors (some of which are called missionaries) for donations to their cause in Thailand. Very decent sounding projects, like building a school for a village that has no school, or building a road, or saving young girls from sexual inslavement. These professional solicitors also hit up large American charitable organizations and foundations for very big donations. And I have heard specifically from church leaders and club organizers in the US how proud they are to have participated in such worthwhile causes. But is it pure arrogance for these people to assume that their works are superior to the ancient cultures and that they must be Christianized and taught by Americans how to live? Would Americans be equally proud if they were approached for donations by a group of well- intended Thai people that wanted to preach the word of Buddha and build a Buddhist elementary school in downtown Dallas, and convert Texans from Christianity to Buddhism? I think they would be horrified and organize a major protest against it.
Western countries have a set of family and moral values in the foundation of their Christian religions. Buddhism also has family and moral values, but they are not the same as in Christianity. Many Americans “know” that their values are correct, and take the moral high ground by demanding other peoples maintain their Christian values. Women, children and the unfortunate must be treated in Thailand as they are treated in Iowa. If they are not, then expect to have missionaries to teach the evil of their ways. Buddhism has as one of their major tenants the idea that elders should be highly respected by their offspring, throughout their life. So if the young couple in Des Moines is not giving great respect and financial support to Grandma, they do not have the same family and moral values of the Hill Tribe family. Which one is right? The young Des Moines couple would not want a Buddhist missionary coming to their home to preach to them about changing the moral values they have in respect to Grandma. Would they accept the pressure from the Buddhist missionaries if cash were involved to change their ways?
I have personally concluded that it is wrong to have missionaries and other “good deed” folk come to Thailand and show the people of Northern Thailand how life should be conducted. Keep their religion, their values, their morals on the home turf. That’s my opinion at the moment, but I am open to discussion on this.
Let me tell you about another major income stream for the NGO. “Volunteers” are a huge source of income. You may not realize this, but most of those sent to the Hills of Northern Thailand to make life better for others paid dearly for that priviledge of doing so. Some organizations raise funds in order to create a website presence, US offices and staff so that they can recruit “volunteers” that will pay for serving, handling visas, buying air tickets, and covering transportation. This money goes to the non-profit recruitment organization. The cycle keeps a lot of people employed, and some of them at very high income. A typical charge for volunteering is around $1000 for a two week trip, plus the cost of the air ticket. Right now, the UK organization, Starfish Volunteers, is offering a special promotion where you can “volunteer” teach for just $1,740 (US) for three months (ll00£. UK.) There are many organizations doing this, and sending hundreds of paying volunteers to Thailand every month. I have met quite a few of them personally.
Any expat that has lived in Thailand for almost any length of time would be able to tell these volunteer prospects that they should not pay to teach for a short period in Thailand. They should get the needed qualifications (like a TEFL certificate) and find themselves a job in a Thai school that will actually pay them money. There is a big need for this. If someone is so good hearted that they do not want the school to pay them, there are also many volunteer teaching jobs available that that do not charge the volunteer for working. One of the best sources on the internet is www.ajarn.com (ajarn is the Thai word for teacher).
One of the big Hot Buttons for getting donations right now in the US to non-profits is the child sexual slavery issue. No one likes this, and we all want to protect children, and it is easy to see the need in a country with poverty. It is a terrible thing that happens. But it also happens in the USA. And in Europe, West and East. I personally know about one missionary solicitor that lives in a beautiful condo complex in Phuket (the great beach resort city of Thailand, far from the Hill Tribes and poverty of the North) that has a regular circuit of church donation providers, including the largest Christian church in my home town in Castro Valley, California (which has thousands of parishiners). What should be done is an on-site audit of this operation by an outside party (like by hiring an expat in Phuket to check this organization out).
Hey, I am open to differing opinions. So if you disagree (or agree), please comment below.
Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary by Kenneth W. Daniels