Working and living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I am learning to recognize the differences in the American dollar. Coming from Australia, where our cash looks like its colors were inspired by a LSD trip, I have to admit to almost handing over a $20 U.S. note, thinking it was only $1.
The Cambodia economy is based upon the U.S. dollar—supplemental to the national currency (Riel). The stability provided by the U.S. dollar helps to protect developing nations like Cambodia from the negative effects of excess inflation (I think).
Even so, the Cambodian economy is being hit hard by the downturn in places like the U.S. Just last year I was here in Phnom Penh, and I remember the sky was always hazy from the many industrial factories on the outskirts of the city. Now I can see blue sky, since thousands upon thousands of jobs have been lost due to the closures of the ever-growing list of factories. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that the environment is beginning to recover, but I am frightened by the fact that in a nation where a vast number of people struggle to live day-to-day, there are now fewer jobs to go around. Add to this, rice prices have doubled in one year, from $6 a bag to $12, AIDS is still spreading, children are still being sold into the sex industry, fathers are leaving families for younger wives, mothers are raped and their resulting children discarded. The picture is bleak and becoming bleaker for a great many people.
For a vast number of the population, to earn $5 in one day would be a boon! How far can a dollar go over here? I bought one kilo of Mangosteen for a buck (even though that was double a locals price—my Cambodian friends say I am too white to get a good deal). I’ve even seen copies of the new sci-fi movie involving pointy eared folk for $1. For $1 I can get halfway around the city on a Motodoup (a moto taxi). I could even get 3 cans of Coke for $1. Anybody in the west could afford to enjoy a day in Phnom Penh.
But to balance this out, I speak and spend time daily with broken-hearted young people who can’t even afford to study since it costs too much to bribe their teachers for the privilege to sit in the classroom.
I am challenged deep to my core, since all I have ever known is a regular paycheck, and while my wife and I have tried to live below our means, we have never ever been in want. Yet here in Cambodia, my neighbors struggle to have their needs met daily.
What good can the almighty dollar do? Not much, unless I’m willing to put it to work.
I spent some time out in Takeo Province last week, assisting in a microfinancing training and development day. I was able to watch firsthand a local Cambodian development worker’s response to the struggles of daily financial living. He spent the first part of the morning teaching about giving. He taught a broken and disheartened group of villagers about the amazing gift of generosity, about how they can assist each other, about how they can care and provide for their families. He told them about the God who held nothing back in giving salvation to all people, and about how people who live for and know this God can express His heart in their own giving. He moved on to practically teaching the villagers how to use their small plots of land to grow food, and to develop mini-farms so as to feed their families, as well as being able to sell the excess produce to the markets. My friend went on to offer an interest-free loan to any family willing to commit to the program (provided they go through the rest of the training program). The mood in that little meeting place shifted. People began to move from their poverty mindsets. They began to laugh and dream again. It was like they were waking from a long restless sleep. It has given me so much hope that the answers can be found, that people can be saved out of poverty, that the almighty dollar is nothing compared to the Almighty God’s plan for loving communities who live to share His generosity.