When we give to charitable causes, it is often with a hope that our contribution may somehow lend some optimism to an otherwise grim situation for those less fortunate.
So, when a former schoolmate told me that she was going to volunteer at a school for orphans just outside Phnom Penh for three months, I thought she was such a brave person to commit to such a long period in a foreign land. After weeks of preparation and numerous meetings with the founder of a local organisation which was setting up her stay, she departed.
Barely a fortnight later, I received this text message: “I’m coming home.” She could not get used to the primitive conditions. Creepy crawlies infested her en-suite bedroom every night, she said.
I thought immediately of the children that she would leave behind, who she said had been so warm to her. Would they feel like they were abandoned again? Would they release their last/loose grasp on hope because of an abrupt departure – and because she could not bear the filth? The resources that went into planning her stay could certainly have been better utilised on someone else.
This incident brought to mind disgraced Australian blogger Belle Gibson. She rose to social media prominence in 2013 after claiming to have beaten terminal brain cancer through a whole-foods diet – which included eliminating gluten and sugar – and alternative treatments. Her app The Whole Pantry and cookbook are estimated to have earned at least A$1 million (S$1.05 million).
Turns out, she never had the illness. The 24-year-old (even her declared age is dubious) confessed to the Australian media in April: “I am still jumping between what I think I know and what is reality. I have lived it and I’m not really there yet.”
Isn’t it true that there is no medicine like hope, as American author Orison Swett Marden wrote, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as (an) expectation of something tomorrow? One exposed lie shattered the faith of thousands of disillusioned fans who were drawn to her story of hope. One told The Sydney Morning Herald: “I had faith in this lady’s story and implemented some things with my father, who passed away last week from cancer.” Many are seeking refunds and Gibson is reportedly in hiding.
Last May, Newsweek alleged that Cambodian human-rights activist Somaly Mam had fabricated claims of sexual slavery, abuse and violence in her life. She insisted in a separate interview that she did not lie. But she also quit her foundation soon after.
All three had good intentions, no doubt. Gibson inspired thousands to be mindful of their bodies and health. Mam propelled sex trafficking to global attention. My schoolmate simply wanted to help. Still, all became a liability to the causes they supported.
The Somaly Mam Foundation shut down last October, after years of raising millions of dollars and rallying thousands, including Hollywood celebs and world leaders, to its cause. What happens now to the millions who are still enslaved but abandoned without an authoritative voice the outside world can trust?
Australian humanitarian Peter Baines, who founded charity Hands Across The Waters for at-risk Thai children, slammed those who use charity work to make them look good. He said in an interview with the Australian media in March: “It’s like a warm bath – you feel good when you are in it but, half an hour later, the water is cold and the feeling is gone.”
Let’s remember it’s more than one individual. There are enough cynics in the world. Let’s not be distracted by purported misdeeds that threaten to overshadow the imperative of a greater good – and derail honest efforts and funding.