The Birth Lottery

One of these people will travel far to sing to small children in a forgotten community.
One of these people will recruit a team of grandmothers to bring love to the poorest orphans.
One of these people will fight for a safe haven for children in a dangerous town.
One of these people will plant a garden to bring nutrition to pre-schoolers in need.
One of these people will bury two of their children on the same day.
One of these mothers will leave her children alone to fend for themselves while she works in a factory.
One of these people will give their children the love, care and attention they never received themselves.
One of these mothers will be forced to send her child to a school with no books, no toys and no sanitation.
One of these mothers will raise two children on her own, while she is still in high school.
One of these mothers will overcome maternal depression to look into her child’s eyes for the very first time.
Some of these children will receive proper nutrition, care and stimulation to develop in their early years, giving them the opportunity to thrive at school, have a chance for employment, and to break the cycle of poverty.
Many will not.
Early childhood development is both a moral and financial issue of our times.  Can we afford to ignore it?  What can be done?  These are the faces at the heart of the issue.

Birth Lottery 01

Writers’ Block has cursed me in recent weeks.  This morning, waiting around for friends to arrive from Australia, I’ve unsuccessfully drafted a number of posts while watching a mouse scurry about the place, seemingly watching me back as it reversed direction every time I looked in it’s general vicinity.  My first sighting elicited a scream as it’s tail, looking initially like the cord of my computer, wiggled around far too close to my toes for comfort.  Chom announced “don’t worry we’ll kill it”.  This came as quite a surprise after the rat infestation we had at the hospital last year, when during a meeting with the cleaners, the translator described a mousetrap with a door that closed the trapped mouse into a small wooden space.  I asked how this would kill the mouse and he looked at me in surprise, replying “we won’t kill it, we will take it somewhere and let it go”!  Perhaps Chom is less Buddhist than my hospital colleagues.  Moments ago the resident ginger cats scurried past me almost on top of each other and I screamed again when I realised that one of them had the mouse in his mouth.  So the non-Buddhist cat has saved non-Buddhist Chom from doing the deed!

The above quote comes from the opening video of a short four week course called Birth Lottery, beginning this week via Future Learn at  During my time fostering children in Alice Springs and watching many disadvantaged children move towards adulthood with predictably undesirable outcomes, this became a topic both close to my heart and also of academic interest.  Early childhood experience has become increasingly recognised as the most significant factor influencing outcomes in adulthood for all of us.  The most lay-friendly book I have read on the subject is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Dr Bruce Perry, a series of stories about children exposed to various types of trauma during crucial times of their childhoods and how this affected their brain development and consequently their adult behaviours.

About ten years ago at a weekend market in Alice Springs a very young, pre-orphaned Mathew joined friends and I as we sat on the grass watching the world go by.  He drank a seemingly infinite number of fresh juice smoothies and then came to a pizza restaurant with us for lunch.  My friend predicted then that this lovable and funny kid would end up in trouble based purely on the circumstances of his dysfunctional childhood.  Within a few short years, Mathew was orphaned by violence which led to further problems when services responsible for his care neglected him and exposed him to abusive situations, which in turn led to my fostering him for a significant period of time.  It came as no surprise to anyone when he began getting into trouble for various juvenile offences. I’ve since fostered other troubled children and could just as accurately predict their troubled futures.  Equally, I think it becomes predictable that in an over-privileged environment some of us are at risk of becoming contemptuous of those we believe to be inferior, based purely on being born or graduating into the other end of the same lottery.  Any number of global politicians, media moguls, televangelists and other similarly-leaning individuals could fit this classification of arrogant and self serving antagonists.

The disciplines used to cover this topic include demography, development studies, health studies, family studies, sociology, comparative social policy, history, political science and economics.

Yesterday Phter Koma plus “Vincent”, who I taught last year and sponsor to English school now, went on a day trip to a resort about an hour from town where an underground reservoir fills a flowing lagoon with clear water.  A 9th century temple and a small functioning zoo are both within a short distance of this resort.  I was the final pick-up.  The 12-seater mini van pulled up with 21 bodies hanging out of the windows waving and shouting excitedly.  The front seat was reserved for me, Number 22 (the sixth adult), and our resident seven year old joined me, agreeing to a seatbelt going around us both which was the only seatbelt in place.  Within moments his little head flopped into the crook of my elbow and he remained unconscious for the duration of the journey.  His tiny eleven year old mate stood upright in the centre floorspace between the driver and passenger seats, eagerly watching the busy road with his wide eyes.  Children swapped seats, jumping in and around each other and I was taken back to the days of sitting on the floor of Mum’s Morris Minor or lying down to snooze in the back of Aunty Mary’s child-filled station wagon.  On our way home at the end of a long day, bodies sprawled out atop each other asleep, we pulled over for some hitchhiking Italians who squeezed in somehow and brought us up to 24 bodies in a van built for 12!  Pinned under a seatbelt in the front seat with seven year old conked against me once more, I have no idea where our guests sat, but they chatted happily with our French volunteers, seemingly unperturbed by the congestion!

Our day consisted of visiting the zoo which was a lot nicer than I anticipated a Cambodian zoo to be, although I never enjoy seeing animals caged, some of whom looked very sad.  The children took pedal boats out onto a small lake while I waited ashore with the deaf attendant who managed to explain the cost of each boat using his fingers and a clap of his hands.  We fed fish and saw crocodiles, bears, ostriches, monkeys and rabbits.  We then visited the nearby pre-Angkorian temple ruins, sheltered and obscured by a beautiful overgrown jungle, where the children posed for photos before heading to the lagoon.  Under a thatch-roofed, bamboo platform-floored shelter we ate lunch and spent the afternoon alternating between hammock-lounging and swimming in the clear waters with a crowd of about 50 other children who informed me they were from an orphanage center based in Phnom Penh with an outpost home nearby.  Mingling with this other group who approached our Khmer staff asking for food, we floated on tyres, played ballgames, splashed, swam, soaked, socialised, climbed or were climbed over, during a fun but utterly exhausting afternoon of craziness.  The day ended with a “house meeting” encouraging the children to reflect on their day’s experiences.  Chaz suggested that they had shared happily all day and this should become a habit at home, where fights over who owns what etc, are not uncommon – as you’d expect in a house of fifteen!

Ultimately children – and adults – are the same wherever you go.  The Phter Koma kids are no different to myself and my siblings growing up in another place at another time.  In a country where children often have to work at least some of their days to keep the family fed, the Phter Koma kids, despite coming from extreme adversity and facing futures filled with challenges that I will never have to know, are actually some of the lucky ones.  Hopefully the memory of our very happy yesterday will help to strengthen their capacity to face what lies ahead.  It will be interesting to observe how their outcomes compare to the children I know in Australia whose social challenges are an incomparable set of circumstances in an incomparable environment, but not any better.

This quote is relevant on a globlal scale, where we are at risk of living in rich-world castles, surrounded by a poor-world wasteland.
This quote is relevant on a globlal scale, where we are at risk of living in rich-world castles, surrounded by a poor-world wasteland.

3 thoughts on “The Birth Lottery

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