Thursday, January 15, 2009

The country of the NGO

Sorry for the lack of blog. I've been trying to get a couple of websites up to date, I really want to have accomplished something before I leave here. I went to a cafe this morning to work and when I arrived there were two guys talking about a documentary they were working on, from what I eavesdropped - which isn't hard with film people because they talk so loud so that everyone knows they are film people - the film was about the migrant schools, they were looking for some "new angle" on the story. After they left another even louder film maker came in, he oozed LA all over the cafe, he was making a film about a "shoe drop", where shoes donated from around the world are "dropped" on the refugee camps and he wanted to film the shoes journey, he too was looking for a "new angle". And I got this idea that had been gestating for sometime without me knowing, that there is something artificial, something constructed about Mae Sot. 

Mae Sot is nothing. It's a tiny agricultural border town with no attractions. A spanish couple we talked to, told us that 20 years ago when they were last here, there was nothing. You could hire a motorbike and in 5 minutes be in the country, you could ride out to the camps and talk to the refugees. Now the city has three 7/11's and 5 or 6 western restaraunts a Tescos and a Dunkin' Donuts and entrance to the Refugee Camps is strictly limited. What was the catalyst for change in Mae Sot ? NGO's.

Mae Sot is like an island of the NGO, but not quite an island, its more like an annexed colony. I kind of think of it as being like a war fought between two countries in a country neutral to the war. The problem is in Burma, the NGO's are mainly western and they meet in a backwater town in Thailand, which reeps the benefits; they get cheap Burmese labour to work in their restaurants and Guest Houses, whose major customers are NGO's. 

There seems something almost unhealthy about a culture of NGOism, when it is isolated from the rest of society. As Danielle put it, when we arrive back in New Zealand and people ask what we did last summer, they would probably find it kind of honourable (not that that's why we did it), but, when it becomes normative to be a volunteer, it breeds ungratefulness amongst the community. When everyone is volunteering, it becomes not a question of whether you volunteer, but how MUCH much you volunteer - and if it isn't enough, you're treated as though you don't volunteer at all. Or even worse, in that people who are here only on holiday (of any dubious nature) are treated completey indifferently,where as if you don't volunteer enough, you are treated rudely and almost pariahed. The thing about a lot of NGO workers is that, a lot of them are here because they never really figured out what to do in life and are here, in some capacity, to define themselves. Maybe this is why they become so totalitarian about it, they're defending their one definition of self against the great void of being ordinary, of not counting. But the saddest part is that it is the people they are trying to help who are missing out. They love pretty much anyone who gives up there time to come and help them. And the film makers come and make their ready made films, on the wrong side of the border, with hardly anyone making the death defying journey across the Moei river to film beneath the fog, where we really need them. And everyone lives in this strange artificial environment. I think there is a story about our time here and for me it's about the NGO community. 

The drum rehearsals for chinese new year have been going every evening since we moved in. They crash and bang in perfect unison - PERFECT unison - i have no idea why they rehearse so often they could not possibly improve.

1 comment:

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