A few months ago, I began a series called "Charity Tuesday," where I began featuring charities that I believed were in the business of doing good work. One of the charities I featured initially was the Somaly Mam Foundation, an organization with the aim of ending sex trafficking and rehabilitating former sex workers. I got to know about the foundation and the eponymous leader of the organization through the book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" written by Nick Kristof, two time Pulitzer Prize winner and renowned journalist at the New York Times. In the last couple of weeks however, several stories broke on reputable news outlets, claiming that Somaly Mam had lied about her life and her experiences as a sex worker. Also, not only had Mam fabricated a series of stories, but she got others to do the same. Interestingly, it was also reported that Kristof might have been aware of the untruths but did not blow the whistle because the stories were sensational and perhaps aided in the sales of his book.
I was rather blown away by the reports because I respected Mam who had won several awards for her good works, including being a recipient of the CNN Heroes Award. Now, I was severely outraged as I rightly should be by Mam's lies but I was also perturbed by Kristof's complicit attitude to the allegations being made against him and his journalistic credibility. It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword and this holds true otherwise censorship will not be as prevalent under dictatorships. Thus, being aware of this truth, it is imperative that those we entrust with delivering the news do so with a standard that is above reproach. It is one thing to be duped as some have suggested that Kristof might have been, but then it is another to accept that one was either gullible or perhaps motivated by the wrong reasons.
Stories like Mam's do a huge disservice by creating distrust and adversely affecting organizations that are not only truly charitable but also honest. With every post on Charity Tuesday, I always included a disclaimer advising that organizations and their financial practices be researched before making the choice to lend financial support.
Somaly Mam is not the first individual to craft a moving tale that was false in a bid to gain notoriety. Before Mam, there was Greg Mortenson who lied about building schools for Afghan children and before Mortenson, there definitely have been many others.
The phenomenon behind Mam's lies is what some have referred to as the cult of glamorized victimhood, a scenario where an individual plays victim to garner some kind of sympathy because they rightly think that communities of people are gullible. Thus, when journalist are able to deliver compelling stories, the like of Mam's with vivid imagery in support of the victim's cause, the gut reaction is to get sucked in and ask where to sign up to offer help.
Understanding that not all victims should be believed wholesale, informed philanthropy becomes our best defense, but sometimes even the best of us are gullible. More so, in an age where social media campaigns spread like wildfire, it is even easier to fall for such schemes. In the end, it is worthwhile to support causes, but ultimately with eyes wide open.