For many, she is a source of hope and inspiration, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the epitome of selflessness. The Cambodian woman who escaped a life of forced sexual exploitation and went on to found a multi-million dollar charitable foundation supported by celebrities and business moguls alike, which publicly claims to have rescued hundreds of girls from brothels and “touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls.” Somaly Mam has always been the face of this organization and a leader in the anti-trafficking movement, bolstered by undeniable charisma, and a heart wrenching personal account of her own experience as a survivor of sex trafficking. She has been a powerful force, charming the hearts and wallets of philanthropists, activists and politicians across the globe. The only trouble is the life-story on which her organization was founded, may be a fabrication.
Following a highly critical expose published in Newsweek this past May, Somaly Mam resigned from her own organization. Doubt over Somaly Mam’s story is not new. Accusations from former employees and fellow Cambodians have quietly circulated the internet for several years now about embellishments and even fabrications. However, until Newsweek’s cover story last week, her reputation and the faith of her powerful following effectively insulated her against criticism.
The media coverage, if accurate, provides convincing and damning evidence that Somaly Mam may have built her reputation on falsities and made a career of misleading donors. The allegations against perhaps the world’s most renowned anti-human trafficking heroine, therefore, raise some difficult questions both for the non-profit sector and those working specifically in the anti-human trafficking field.
Some may criticize the media for the fervor with which they attempt to tear down giants who are doing good work. Indeed, the degree of criticism that those in the humanitarian sector face is at times reminiscent of a witch-hunt. The very title of the Newsweek article “The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking” reveals the overly simplistic moral dichotomy by which we view those in the non-profit sector. The standard to which we hold them is that of a saint, but at the moment their human fallibility is revealed, they instantly become sinners.
However, there are also very good reasons for a high standard of moral accountability. Some may argue the good work of an organization outweighs the slippery moral slope of manipulating data or falsifying stories to stir-up sympathy (and by virtue donor dollars). After all, some might argue good done through questionable means is still good, right? Indeed, amongst all the accusations lodged against Somaly Mam, few argue with the general sentiment or even outcomes of her campaign to help neglected and sexually exploited Cambodian girls. However, this ends-justify-the-means mentality is not only ethically questionable, but it also undermines the integrity of the entire non-profit sector. Charitable organizations survive almost entirely on reputation. Donors small and large give money because they believe in the cause, but just as important is their belief in the integrity of the organization and those conducting the work. Few donors – whether they give $10 or $10,000 – will ever know for sure where their money goes. While charity watch dogs like “GuideStar” attempt to increase the transparency and accountability of non-profits, faith often goes further than facts.
As such, when one organization, or its figurehead, is revealed to have misled the public or made false claims, it can damage the entire non-profit sector. When trust in one charity is shaken – particularly one as well-renowned as the Somaly Mam Foundation – all other such organizations fall under public scrutiny. Those who might fabricate stories or falsify data to improve the “worthiness” of their charitable causes, undermine the integrity on which the entire non-profit sector is based – the trust that donor dollars are going to the causes and outcomes they claim. Fierce competition for philanthropic funding creates significant temptation to embellish a cause or overstate an organization’s efficacy. But when one organization gives into this dynamic, it threatens the genuine and honest work of all other charitable endeavors.
Even more unsettling about the allegations against Somaly Mam, are the implications for other survivors of human trafficking. The field of anti-human trafficking is one that is notorious for relying on heart-wrenching images and stories to stir up sympathy for its cause. Somaly Mam is not the first one to use the stories of survivors to incite pity. She is not even the first one that may have embellished or fabricated stories of survivorship to help raise money. However, this approach compromises the value of anti-trafficking efforts by “victimizing” survivors and undermines the true experiences of other trafficking survivors. Capitalizing on an individual’s trauma to raise money in order to ostensibly help other victims/survivors of trafficking is not so different from the logic that allows human traffickers to justify the exploitation of vulnerable individuals in the first place. Exploitation of survivors or their stories to meet fundraising goals or draw attention to a worthwhile cause is still exploitation. Helping the many at the expense of the few, does nothing to further the causes of greater equality and human empathy which might actually help to deter exploitation.
Whether or not the end goal is well-intentioned, whether or not the work of an organization makes a positive difference in other ways, strategies relying on falsities undermine the value of social justice causes. Therefore, it is important to hold non-profits and their leaders to high ethical standards. The current dynamics of fundraising in the non-profit sector create significant temptations to follow the same path as Somaly Mam, but those that give in risk undermining the very causes they set out to address. While the ideal solution is greater accountability and transparency in the spending, programs and outcomes of charitable organizations, or a restructuring of the system through which we raise money, in the mean-time those of us in the non-profit sector must work to ensure our own integrity. We must hold true to the value and understanding that donor funds or organizational renown is not worth the price of compromising an entire social justice movement.