Monday, January 30, 2012


After posting on Thursday that I am to receive a medal, one of our students sent me this photograph on Friday:

He's on a scholarship to an international school, and he won THREE medals at a sports day last week.

I think I've been trumped!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A medal!

So there we have it. Now someone's gone and given me a medal.

It's Australia Day today, and I've been appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for my work with street kids and victims of trafficking. This is an award from Australia's Governor General, and yes I will actually be receiving a medal like this one:

This is great recognition for the work that my whole team of staff and volunteers has put in over the years; and it's definitely an award to be shared with the Blue Dragon kids. It can go right alongside their football trophies and school certificates.

For everyone who has lent a hand, donated their hard-earned money, and sent us encouraging words over the years: Thank you. You can be proud of this, too.

I do have a confession to make, though. When the Governor General visited Vietnam last year, I was invited to her reception but didn't attend: instead I went for pizza with one of the street kids. Well, it was his birthday, and he'd never had anyone celebrate that before. (I'm assuming the GG isn't actually going to read this - and anyway, the medal's on its way, right?).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What it's all about

Today is the last day of the Lunar calendar. Throughout Vietnam, millions of families are finishing off their preparations and returning to their ancestral homes to spend the coming days together.

As a foreigner who has lived in Vietnam for almost 10 years, I enjoy watching the traditions and festivities, although I will never really be part of them. The great joy for me is having time to catch up with kids who I haven't seen for a while, hearing how their lives are going, and sharing in their joys and sorrows.

Two weeks ago I was in Hue, in central Vietnam, to celebrate Tet (Lunar New Year) with the kids we've rescued out of garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City and returned home. About 80 children and teens were there, all from villages around the coast which are targeted by child traffickers looking for cheap labourers to sell to the factories.

While I was making a short speech to the kids, one of the teen boys stood up to interrupt. He had something he wanted to say.

This was a boy named "G", about 16 or 17 years old (but without a birth certificate, age is just a guess). I met G back in 2008 - he's the boy featured in the first photo on this blog entry. G has never been trafficked, but his family was being approached by the traffickers and, frankly, it was hard for them to refuse. G and his younger brother lived with their mother in a tin shack which had recently been blown away by a typhoon. Neither of the sons had been to school; neither could read or write a word.

When you live like that, it's very easy to accept the "help" of a kindly stranger who comes offering a chance of training and employment. But of course, the "help" means 18 hours per day in a garment factory, learning nothing and earning a few cents per day.

So we built G's family a new house, and they went from living in this:

... to living in this:

That was a good start, but definitely not enough. G and his brother were too old to start in First Grade at school, so we found a teacher to come to their home and teach them basic literacy and numeracy. Later, when we opened a community centre in their village, they were able to join in many more classes and activities.

And later still, we started a small project in their village teaching families how to raise fish in the local lake to earn a better income. G's mother joined the project, and 2 years on she knows all about feeding the fish, preventing disease, finding buyers for her product, and so on. It's all very technical, but with this knowledge she's able to earn enough money that she and her sons do not have to go hungry any more.

With G getting a little older, he's thinking about the future. Although he doesn't know exactly what he wants to do, he's enrolled in a preparation program for a hospitality course. This means he now lives in Hue city, about 45 minutes from his home, and studies English every day. Just a few years ago he was illiterate; now he's learning English!

So there we were at our Tet party, and G stood up to speak. I was shocked that he had the confidence to do so; this is something completely new. The children were just as surprised as I.

G spoke for only a minute, but what he said was beautiful. He wanted to say thanks for all the help he has received, and to express his hope for the future.

Such a small thing, but for G to stand up and speak like this was a momentous act of bravery. Later, he came to me privately to say thanks again.

And this is what it's all about. For all of the difficulties, the setbacks, the failures, and the regrets, G's own personal success - which is his very own success, and not something he needs to thank anyone for - is a reminder of all of the good in our world.

There is hope.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The most beautiful night of the year

Friday night was the annual Tet Awards celebration for Blue Dragon's kids in Hanoi. And what a night it was.

The Hilton Hanoi donated its ballroom for the event, and about 400 kids came to join in our once-a-year party.

Much of the day was spent setting up...

... and the stage was set by 6pm!

Then the kids started turning up, and everyone wanted their photo taken...

We kicked off with a speech by one of Blue Dragon's older guys, who now studies in New Zealand and was back in Hanoi for the new year:

Speeches over, it was time for some singing and dancing!

Everyone had a great time...

...and, just as importantly, each of the kids was recognised for their progress and achievements throughout the past year:

We finished up with a closing speech, and yes that's me in an ao dai:

Then came the food, which seemed to disappear very quickly!

A beautiful night, to celebrate the lives of 400 beautiful people.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

End the campaigns, now!

Last week I mentioned that my team and I are thinking about starting up a new branch of our work, focused on rescuing Vietnamese people who have been trafficked into China.

We've already completed a few rescue trips - the first was in 2007, and the most recent was in December - but it's always been in response to a particular call for help rather than part of any plan. We don't have any funding for these trips, or staff. We just do them when we need to, and so far they've worked really well.

From our earliest days, I've always seen Blue Dragon's role as looking out for the kids who nobody else is looking out for or nobody else can help. These girls and young women we've rescued so far definitely fit into that definition; in each case, we've been certain that if we didn't go to get them, nobody would have. And for me, that's enough justification to go and help.

The strange thing is, though, that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of charities, NGOs, multilateral programs etc etc throughout this region that have 'anti-trafficking programs'. The United Nations estimates that the human trafficking industry is worth about $10 billion a year. I can't help but wonder: what is the 'anti-trafficking' industry worth? I suspect it would be far more than $10 billion. Are charities thriving on the back of the trafficking industry?

From where I stand, there seems to be a spectrum of 'anti-trafficking' programs. At one end, there are the small, hands-on initiatives where charity workers roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work. These organisations aren't usually well known, and their budgets are small. But they're doing the work and they can show you the people they have helped. Here in Vietnam, one such charity is the Catalyst Foundation. I'd like to believe that Blue Dragon falls into this category too.

At the other end of the scale are the organisations with massive marketing power behind them, huge funding, and fantastic websites... but which can't really point to anyone they've actually helped. These are the organisations which tell you "We don't get involved in individual cases," and work on mass campaigns which, by no coincidence, heavily feature their name and logo.

My own view, which I hold passionately, is this: Mass campaigns are a waste of time. And yes, MTV Exit, that includes you!

I have no doubt that they get the message to many people, but their impact is minimal. I mention MTV Exit because, curiously, so many NGOs have jumped on this bandwagon... but who does it reach? None of the 157 boys, girls, or young adults we've rescued so far have even heard of MTV. Many don't have TV at all. The concerts and videos are brilliantly produced and very compelling, but provide no call to action and don't reach the people they need to reach. All at a massively high cost. That money could have much greater impact elsewhere.

The MTV Exit website declares: "40,000 youth joined in the fight against human trafficking with After School and The Click Five." No they didn't. 40,000 youth enjoyed a concert. And if it was anything like the Vietnam concert a couple of years back, it was meant to be free to the public but scalpers were selling the tickets outside for $10 each.

Apart from my own rantings, I haven't found much criticism of this campaign, or others. The NGO world here in Asia is soaking it all up. Why could that be? Well, for starters, the numbers look great. 40,000 people attended a single event in Cambodia! The donors will love that! Sadly, that's how much charity work is designed - around numbers rather than results.

Some of the greatest successes that I have seen, though, have come from small group discussions, chats with villagers, often over a cup of tea or a bowl of rice. No slick marketing, no mass appeal, just a heart to heart talk from one human being to another. And you know what? That approach is massively effective.

Blue Dragon has been rescuing trafficked kids from central Vietnam 2005. They get taken to Ho Chi Minh City and put to work under the pretext of "training", but it's just slave labour.

Our experience is that, except in one case, we need to organise just 2 rescue trips from any one commune (a collection of villages) in central Vietnam before the trafficking from that commune stops. Two rescue trips are enough for the local people to realise the dangers of sending their kids away with the traffickers. Once the trafficking has stopped, the people need ongoing support to send their kids to school, and to earn an income. That's all it takes to end trafficking, which has been going on for decades.

The anti-trafficking industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. This addiction to campaigns needs to end. NGOs, charities and governments need to stop talking about 'programs' and start talking to people.

Yes, it's dirty work, but the only way to stop trafficking is village by village, and sometimes house by house. Everything else is just fluff.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Seven plus 1

We had some good news yesterday, with Blue Dragon staff locating and freeing 7 children from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City.

The children, aged from 12 to 15, are all from a district of Hue province in central Vietnam. We went in search of them having received a call from their local government leader, who had heard of our work in other districts and asked if we could help deal with the trafficking problem in his area, too.

The kids will be returning to their homes this morning, following the overnight train trip home. We'll have a welcome party for them, and then this Sunday the children will take part in the new year party for all of the Blue Dragon kids in Hue, at the Best Western Premier Indochine Palace. I'll be there on the weekend to meet them, and join in the party - which I'm very much looking forward to!

My staff have reported a couple of interesting incidents that occurred during this rescue trip. As expected, it was a difficult trip; the factories are working overtime in the lead-up to Lunar New Year (Tet), so will do all they can to prevent us from taking their slaves away. But one factory owner recognised our team from 3 years ago, when we took a child from his factory, and he invited them to go and look at his factory now. He no longer employs children; only adults.

That was an unexpected, but very nice, encounter! We're wondering now if we can recruit that man to join our work!

The second incident involved another factory owner who suspected that we were coming - people in Hue new that we were looking for trafficked children and somebody must have told him. He had one child working for him, and he was so worried about us coming that he sent the boy home the day before the Blue Dragon team arrived, just to avoid any problems.

Again, this too was unexpected, but we're happy to hear it. So today 8 children are back home, and now our work of helping them resettle in their communities begins.

Late update: I've just received some photos of the factories the kids were living and working in. Here are 2 images that give an impression of the conditions.