It’s early evening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I walk through bustling streets. Hundreds of motorbikes whir by, punctuated by the presence of motor cars and trucks. The sidewalks are crowded. The sounds of car horns, chatter, laughter, music and hawkers combine to form a cacophony of life. This is a post-conflict nation that is making rapid strides to lift its people out of poverty. The task is by no means complete, but the throbbing life of the city gives witness to the progress being made.
Amid this explosion of noise I can’t help but notice some who are silent, muted, abstracted from the melody that surrounds them. They are a mother and child lying on the sidewalk; a young boy prone on a park bench. They are weak, hungry, dishevelled, alone. They are the unemployed and the underemployed. For all this nation’s rapid economic advance, there are still not enough jobs for everyone. And that means some are reduced to living on the streets dependent on the largesse of others.
They don’t ask for money. They just gaze silently as I pass by.
What am I to do? I am here as someone working for a development NGO. I know that there is much being done to help communities find long term, sustainable pathways to livelihoods and well-being. I know that this is the only way to a long term solution for those I walk past.
But what about the short term? Is it not within my power to help those for whom economic development is yet to provide opportunity? The sheer weight of numbers numbs me. I cannot provide a short-term fix for all of those I am walking past. But what about that one? That one woman, that one child, that one man. I can provide them with sufficient for one meal, one night, one day. It may not be a long term solution, but it’s still one meal, one day, for one person.
These are the questions of the tourist. Those who live here must learn to walk past the silent ones. If life is to go on, if poverty-reducing economies are to be built, livelihoods made, time enjoyed with friends, errands run, you cannot possibly stop for everyone in need. In Jesus’s parable of the Samaritan there was one wounded man and one Samaritan, but what is the Samaritan to do when there are hundreds of wounded and when the place of every wounded person he heals is taken by another?
I don’t know. What I know is that I am not the first and I will not be the last to struggle with these questions. What I know is that those I pass, the silent ones, should be part of the noise, not simply observers of it. What I know is that the only real solutions are long term solutions. What I know is that the silent ones are witness to our collective failure to build an equitable, just and inclusive world. What I know is that our collective failure does not absolve me of personal responsibility: “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”
May God have mercy on us all.