The Giving Game: Effective altruism and Cambodia

At dinner on the first evening of our trip, we got talking about Australia’s $40 million deal with Cambodia: to send refugees from Nauru to Cambodia. See, for example: ‘Australia enlists Cambodia in drive to deter refugees’ or, ‘Welcome to Cambodia: What’ Australia isn’t telling refugees’.

Somehow, I missed even hearing about this deal in the first place and I am still trying to understand what it means for all involved. I have decided then, for this point to be a springboard for my research on The Giving Game.

  • Could our work with Cambodian non-profits be problematic in some ways?
  • What’s the best way to help those we encounter who are in need?
  • How can we make sure that overall, our trip benefits those we work with?

I looked into the article, ‘Cosmopolitism, National Interest, Selfishness and Australian Aid,’ by Ware (2015), to gain some perspective on Australia’s responsibility to assist poorer countries (article also accessible via UoN library databases). The article discusses some issues on doing the most ‘good’ by looking at foreign policy, such as the objective of the Australian aid program being part of the national interest, the distribution of this aid, as well as the difficulty in measuring its effectiveness.

In December 2014 the Abbott Government announced the biggest aid cuts ever to be made to the Australian program (Ware, 2015). Note: Cambodia is 10th on the list of top ten recipients of Australian aid (Ware, 2015).

Interestingly, Ware (2015) reasons that an aid program rewarding the achievement of benchmarks will almost certainly reward better off countries and better off regions whilst leaving the poorest of the poor and those outcast by society to one side. In addition, Ware concludes; “[we] should support an aid program for the sustainable benefit of the poorest people and the poorest countries (p. 56, 2015).”

Our group project in Cambodia has not set benchmarks per se, rather, we have goals and objectives. Hence, I am hoping this means that the quality of my work with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) is going to be somewhat more effective than if I was working just to maintain a level of expectation. In this way, I want to ensure my work is beneficial and goes beyond what can be measured – is that a better form of giving?

Subsequent to reading this article and in relation to the present project, I do question whether Australia is a ‘good’ international citizen and, to what extent is effective altruism being shown? For now, it’s hard to say. However, I do intend to improve my understanding of the complexity of what effective giving is, as well as how I can best embrace my experience here in Cambodia to positively impact on the lives of others.

Meanwhile, there is a school of thought that developed countries should abandon their aid programs and simply hand over the cash to poor individuals via their mobile phones (Ware, 2015). Although I do not necessarily agree with this idea, it reminds me of one evening in Siem Reap when Jess and I bought smoothies to-go from a stall at the night market. The lady at the stall did not have small US dollars for our change, and we decided not to worry about receiving change in Riel. Is this simple act a form of giving? Is it then effective giving? What was the intention? What is the effect?

In looking at Ware’s article, I have gained insight that often there is no clear answer on how to do the most good because the issues at-hand are so complex. So, for The Giving Game, I am keen to continue researching to build an informed understanding of effective altruism. This understanding will influence my decision and the subsequent discussion when we all meet to allocate funding in a couple of weeks time.

More to come on the kinds of tasks I am working on now that me and Jess have met with Seng!

A village we passed when travelling by bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.
A village we passed when travelling by bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.


Ware, H. (2015). Cosmopolitanism, national interest, selfishness and australian aid. Social Alternatives, 34(1), 51-57.


  1. Very informative post Matt! Its interesting to consider whether we are part of effective alturism by taking part in this initiative by the government or whether those funds would have been better allocated. I would like to think that our presence and work is more efffective than a direct monetary donation but what implications does our presence have also?


  2. Thanks very much Matt for this thoughtful and informed post. It certainly raises some important questions about aid, altruism and responsibility, both at the personal and the governmental levels.

    We in Phnom Penh are looking forward to attending a Human Rights Debate tonight, on the topic of the recent resettlement in Cambodia of the four refugees that Australia had been holding on the island of Nauru. We’ll keep you up to date – perhaps one of the others will make a post on it!


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