Understanding the problem of poverty in Siem Reap
Many children are brought into Siem Reap from the outlying areas to participate in the many begging scams. A bedraggled mother, carrying a baby and dragging two or three children with her on the streets, may not be related to any of the children she has.
Begging has become a culture in Cambodia and a way of life for many of the children. Children can be found begging for money almost everywhere you go and may in some circumstances even be kept out of school to beg for money if they seem to be earning.
The children that are kept from getting an education to beg on the streets are statistically more likely to remain just as poor as their parents, who also had no education. It is this endless cycle caused by poverty that you are helping to support when you give money in the form of your hard cash.
That is not to say you are a nasty person for doing it, you are almost certainly awesome, it is just that you do not fully understand the situation, and if you did you almost certainly would not do it.
The impact of buying baby milk or powder for children and mothers in Siem Reap
When a tourist dishes out money to the Cambodian children, they should be aware that these children will not be getting very much of that money in the vast majority of instances. There is always someone waiting behind the scenes, who the children are working for, and to whom the majority of the money will be handed to as soon as the tourist has moved on.
Sometimes (Not all of the time) the people waiting behind the scenes will be supplying these kids with yabba, crack, meth or even something as simple as a tin of glue that the kids can use to escape the harsh reality of their life, if only even for a while. Sometimes it will be someone playing the role of a kindly uncle or auntie that are helping to facilitate the family earning money in this way, with a small cut for themselves of course.
By giving these street children your money, you are paying them to not go to school and effectively robbing them of an education. You are not doing it on purpose, but in your ignorance, you are helping perpetuate a problem that already exists in society, and part of that problem is your awareness of the issue.
The ‘baby milk scam involves the begging of milk for the hungry baby, and the milk is then resold to at the back door, by the person the children are working for. The money is then split between the shopkeeper and the employer who is running the scam. The central area of Siem Riep seems to be overrun with children involved in this scam. Many of these children are in fact going hungry and get very little for their hard work.
Some tourists who had become aware of the baby milk scam have refused to buy milk but offered the child some food instead. The child continues to beg for milk while following them. He eventually said he was hungry and would like some chicken, but that no-one could know because he would get into trouble. Sometimes they are more crafty and will take you to a food stall where they have the same backdoor agreement in place with the food stall owner, although feeding them is a great alternative to buying milk, it still in the vast majority of cases just perpetuates the problem.
The evidence of this form of child slavery and poverty is harsh and can be seen everywhere. Child prostitution statistics in are of course high. But again, I must stress that the situation is improving, due to people like you reading posts like this and taking the time to discuss the issues with other tourists about to visit the country.
Understanding potential solutions to the milk scam problem
Long-term solutions to these problems are incredibly difficult to implement whilst giving to the street children continues. These mostly five and six-year-old children should not be working on the streets. Activists for child-welfare and directors of shelters are worried about the upcoming tourist seasons and tourists succumbing to the begging by giving money to the street children they encounter.
Unless you are actively involved with an NGO that is aware of all of the socio and economic issues it is really a good idea to keep out of it after you have informed the people around you about the scam. Charging in with no knowledge of the culture and circumstances or preaching a doctrine or belief based on your point of view really is going to do nothing.
At the same time discussing the issue with tourists to lessen the demand is the most effective way of stopping the scam, BUT, and it is a big BUT, you should realize that by stopping the scam and by meaning well you may just be moving the perpetrators on to another scam or into conducting even worse activity including robbery, childhood prostitution or other activity.
How bad is this scam in Siem Reap really?
It is pretty bad.
For some, not all kids, their little lives of slavery often seem to be going by unnoticed. These children are robbed of their lives and childhood by being used to make money.
Within my first two weeks in Cambodia, I saw a young women puffing up on a crack pipe only to blow it into her babies face in order to stop the baby from crying. This was a pivotal moment of my time in Cambodia, it made me realize how bad the situation was, and it made me want to find out more about the causes of this issue.
Do not be too quick to make judgment based on your experiences
Before you start getting all angry about these young women blowing crack into a babies face, you should probably realize that it is highly likely she had no clue about the long-term damage she was doing to the baby, she has almost certainly never had any drugs education, she certainly wouldn’t be able to tell the good ones from the bad ones.
She was almost certainly is puffing away to escape her own situation and misery. In rare instances, you will find that the parents will no longer work at a job to earn money, but they would rather have their children begging on the streets, normally because these parents are in the same circle of addiction, or because they are the previous generation of street kids and this is what they know. Some parents have more children because every child represents more money for them, and one more ticket to escape poverty even if it does metamorphose by staring down the barrel of a crack pipe.
As heinous as this may seem to you coming from the West, let me assure you that faced with starvation and death your options would also be severely limited. You should also consider the fact that if you think the same practice doesn’t go on in your country that you are probably incorrect, poverty occurs everywhere.
This is not the time for you to imply your moral judgment on the situation, or to impart your religious doctrines and beliefs because it is not going to help, what these people need is your compassion, understanding, assistance, and empathy, but most importantly your assistance and your investment of time & money.
The reality is that most of the kids and the kid’s families that are running this scam are trapped in a vicious circle of addiction, poverty, debt or all three. Imparting your moral judgment is easy, understanding the real issues and doing something to alleviate the problem is of course much harder.
The Siem Reap shopkeepers and the police – are they in on the Scam
Many expats think that the problem lies with the shopkeepers, but there are not a small number of shopkeepers sat above this racket. The reality is that baby milk is distributed to different retail locations wholesale just like any other consumer product.
Given the choice of giving a tin of baby milk to a kid knowing that it will be resold is often looked upon as a better option than just leaving the kid to starve on the street. The popular view is that if the tourists want to give these kids money then it is up to the tourists.
The shopkeepers are often aware that the family and the kids involved in the racket are desperately poor, and in most circumstances, the shopkeepers are not bourgeois capitalists sat in huge stores but small vendors that are often not wealthy themselves. You, of course, can not restrict the sales of baby milk or make it a controlled substance, so it will always be up to the shopkeepers.
With this in mind, the opportunity to make some money by reselling a tin of baby milk a number of times is a lot more of a profitable and sustainable alternative than leaving baby milk stock sat on the shelf, whereas by providing a revolving door for buying and reselling the baby milk generates money for both the people begging and the shopkeeper.
As misguided as this may be it will not change by simply marching into a police station and demanding action with the shopkeeper. I can tell you now it is pretty much every shopkeeper, at the end of the day they are making $2-3 a time and if they sell one tin 10 times per day then it’s obviously pretty profitable.
If you try and educate the shopkeepers in the vast majority they will just tell you the above. I am sorry that I don’t have a better recommendation here, I have spent probably over 100 hours in Cambodia trying to find out about exactly how and why this works by speaking to all of my local friends – and that is the information I am imparting.
Regarding the police, do not be too quick to make a judgment here either, if you were supporting a family on $40-$60 a month you may just do the same. Keep in mind that many of the police will also know the families and they, just like the shopkeepers would rather let them carry on begging than see the families starve.
The police are well informed enough about the situation to know that stopping the scam would likely result in the gangs moving on into either more violent crime against tourists or worse. Again as far as they see it if tourists want to give these kids money then it is up to the tourists. The stop and think posters although effective at educating the tourists to do little in terms of solving the problem.
The majority of the police will chase kids away if they see them scamming tourists, but realistically what would you have them do? Can they not stop the selling of baby milk? Will they lock up the perpetrators in jail? No of course not – because it would do nothing to solve the problem apart from taking them away from the important police work they are doing.
Similarly outraged calls from expats about the scam demanding instant solutions to this problem just serve to annoy the local populous that understand these issues. When discussing the intricacies of the baby milk scam, although many of my Khmer friends look down on the practice and condemn it, almost all of them are quick to defend the actions of those involved by recognizing that if they themselves were in the same situation they would probably do the same thing. Poverty is a great leveler.
Who is involved in the baby milk scam, it is certainly not everyone
In fact in all of my conversations I never found any evidence of a top-down criminal oligarchy at all, there are loose associations of groups from different outlying villages that will claim a patch and defend it, but as I say, and those people may pay bribes to be left alone, but there is no evidence of a top-down mafia-style organization, it is a little fantastical to suggest there is. The reality is that it’s just a bunch of poor people trying to eek out a living by scamming tourists, it is not more complicated than that.
You should be aware that the above is not always the case, many kids on the streets will sell books to put themselves through school or to create just a little money for the family that again could make up the difference between life and death. I know a number of kids that have grown up this way and turned out fine, I myself used to wash cars as a kid out of necessity, and I had good parents, we just happened to be poor. It is the same in Cambodia.
There are also old ladies that have no support from the family that relies on your compassion in order to eat, it is very little in the way of support of facilities for the old and unloved here. It is far-fetched to consider them part of a criminal empire, they normally are not.
I say this just to demonstrate that it is not an easy situation and that making a judgement call can be difficult, and that if you are at all unsure then working with a structured NGO or other charitable organization is probably going to be quicker and more effective than your on the spot decision, but not always.
So what can you do to stop the scam?
Do not think the government or political parties on either side of the political spectrum do not care, they do. There is a strong youth movement in Cambodia that helps to protect and inform these kids, there is an increased spending on government schools and there are hundreds of NGO organizations that exist and are working to solve these issues. The government and opposing political parties are completely aware of the situation.
The Think Twice, ‘Let parents earn and children learn’ campaign was introduced by United Nations Volunteers, aid groups, and child charities. If you want to help poor children and orphans take a look at the Childsafe Network before you spring into action.
The best way for you to assist in Cambodia is to find out reputable organizations that actually demonstrate a tangible impact and a long-term plan that is being successfully implemented. I would stress that last point again, that they should be able to clearly demonstrate that they are having successful and tangible results because NGO’s just like commercial companies can vary in the way that they are run and how effective they are. Some of these NGO’s have the best intentions but end up either doing nothing tangible or making the situation worse.
There are a huge number of things you can do, one of the most simple things you can do is to fund clean water projects. With clean water, many families will not succumb to sickness and the medical bills that can often force them into poverty, (See our clean water project under “Responsibility” they can also raise crops and produce a surplus to sell.
Investing small amounts of money with organizations such as KIVA (Visit the website) that will help fund small enterprises and lift people out of poverty is also a very positive thing to do, women especially have a great success rate in building small micro-businesses, repaying the loans and lifting a family out of poverty.
Of course there is also education, consider funding a child’s education through a reputable charitable organization, in Phnom Penh there is A New Day Cambodia that will pay the desperately poor parents the same amount that the kids would earn picking through garbage, the organization then puts the kids through an education that helps them find employment which can often also lift a family out of desperate poverty. There are lots of these organizations out there that are doing great things, you just need to find one you are comfortable with. I personally like CBAVC in Siem Reap because it is a charity run by monks, so they really do understand the issues in the community as they are also part of the community.
Employment is also a huge benefit for the society if you can employ a person either by starting up a small business, NGO or nonprofit and use the benefits of your education to help lift people out of poverty you can again have a massive impact. Check out the invest in Cambodia pages. Invest in Cambodia Website.
Cambodian culture, on the whole, is family centric, if you can employ just one person then you can effectively help lift a family out of poverty. We are in a generation that survived the last genocide, where people were party to actions that no human should ever have to endure. It is the “hangover” from this time at least in part that is responsible or the lack of education.
The power of positive
Let us not, however, undervalue the massive benefit of being positive and be pro-active. I have known many tourists and even expatriates that are happy to sit and complain all day about how fucked up things are, or complaining about Cambodian culture, to which my first response is quite often ” If you hate it so much, and you are doing nothing positive to change it, why don’t you just f*ck off back to where you came from and be miserable and useless there, rather than being a drain on this society that obviously doesn’t have the resources to support you.”
If you are one of these people you should consider what you are actually doing before you jump to criticize the situation and the people that are having a positive impact.
Moan all you want when you can be shown to be having a tangible and positive impact, that would be your right, until then it is better to listen than to talk from your anus about things you know nothing about, because lets face it until you get up off your ass and do something you are just another talking head.
The net net about the baby milk and powder scam on Siem Reap’s tourists
This was not meant to be an opinionated post, I understand that peoples opinions often do nothing to create positive and lasting change, this is really simply meant to be a statement of a collection of facts that I have gleaned about the situation and living and working with Cambodians for almost five years.
Is it this simple? Hell no, it is a lot more complicated and I am by no means any type of expert on Cambodia.
What I can share with you is that that the solution to the problem it is much more complex than just falling for the milk scam and is going to require more thought and consideration than just reaching into your back pocket or purse for some small change, just because someone can tug at your heartstrings.
At the same time enraged posts on Facebook or citizen journalists blog posts do very very little to help the situation, in fact in many instances they only serve to misinform expat communities about the real depth of the problem and create a gulf of understanding between the expatriate and Cambodian communities.
Just simply telling tourists not to fall for the scam will not in itself fix the problem, and in fact in the short term will probably just result in more aggressive behavior from the beggars.
The good news is that if you are interested in doing something positive and pro-active then even the smallest act of kindness and consideration here goes a hell of a long way. From the perspective of a tourist visiting Cambodia, there are thousands of positive ways you can positively impact the people here, you just need to make a conscious decision to do so.
Of course, the root cause of this problem like so many others is simple poverty. Abject poverty can lead to drug addiction as a form of escapism that ironically enough just serves to further trap its victims into a web of further poverty and abuse, but as I have stated not everyone involved in this scam is pulling up on a pipe every day. So the real cause of the begging and many of the social issues is poverty, no surprise there of course, and to reduce this activity (because I doubt it will ever stop) the best thing you can do is to work with reputable organizations that are working to reduce poverty in Cambodia.
Here is a starter for 10, this is a great list of NGO organizations working here to alleviate poverty, the next step is of course up to you.
The Mad Monkey is a for-profit social enterprise hostel company in Cambodia. We have locations in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Kampot. Find out more about us by looking at our values page.
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