It’s overwhelming in a very different way than America’s poverty. There are poor families in both places, and no poverty is “less legitimate” than another. But poverty in Cambodia and other third-world countries often goes beyond what most poor in developed nations have experienced. In America, for example, the bottom 10% spend about 17% of their income on the food needed to survive. In Cambodia, however, most of the population spends nearly two-thirds of their income on food to survive. This level of poverty, where the majority of income is spent on daily needs, leads to a huge lack of nearly everything else. Homes have one room, food is bought at the market daily because refrigerators are a luxury, everything requiring electricity is unplugged completely when not in use. Clothes are washed by hand, and hung in the sun to dry. Showers are taken from buckets outside the house after a long day working for just enough money to buy food the next day.
The poor in America struggle for daily needs as well, but aid and assistance programs are in place that simply don’t exist in Cambodia. The poor in Cambodia live without what even the poor in America consider basic parts of life – electricity, food, running water, and clothes. The poor in Cambodia are on their own, and the chances that they’ll be able to break that out of that cycle are incredibly slim. Children can’t go to school because they need to work so the family can eat, and without an education, they’re stuck working for that same small daily wage, selling food on the street or fruit at the market. The Cambodian poor need somewhere to turn for help and stability, so that kids can go to school and families can eat.
To me, the most striking part of Cambodian poverty isn’t the degree to which they are impoverished. It’s the seeming permanence of their circumstances. Thankfully, we have an opportunity to help lift them out of their desperate situations through the programs that CGI has created, and there can be hope and change for even the poorest of the poor.
By Alison Gayer