Racks of Gasoline

When I arrived in Cambodia, I traveled to the Phnom Penh city center from the airport in a tuk tuk.  Along the way, we passed countless roadside stands – usually just an orange cooler, an umbrella propped over a chair, a cash box, and a few bags of chips.  There was also, nearly always, a metal rack full of two-liter Pepsi bottles.  The bottles were full of yellow liquid just the color of urine.  I thought it was tea.

I’ve seen the gasoline sellers tipping these bottles into rusty funnels to fill tuk-tuk and moto tanks.  I still worry about how safe it is to store gasoline in glass bottles on metal stands, but I’ve never heard of any explosion.

The friend who took me to the corrugated loft diner told me that when he first arrived, he looked at these racks and thought, “Oh, those poor people!  Drinking that dirty water!”

He used this vignette to make a point about good intentions entering from outside.  Many of the people donating money and effort to charity are just as ignorant and just as inclined to fit any picture into a Western frame.

We all have stories like this, some about ourselves and more about other people.  I asked my boss if a tuk-tuk driver needed a driver’s license.  A donor to our NGO told me how shocked she had been to learn that the children only used squat toilets, because they were too poor to use a seat toilet.  Our donors used to send us limited-edition DVDs for thirty dollars plus shipping because they didn’t know about the bootleg stalls at the market.  Goodhearted foolishness is a trope in the narrative of nonprofits, both for the onlookers and the philanthropists.

I think that this is accurate, but the problem isn’t only misdirected intention.  It’s misdirected ideology.  Unfamiliar can very easily become unsafe, unhygienic, or inferior – those squat toilets were a vector, that gasoline became dirty water because the water here is filthy and the people so poor they must drink it anyway.

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