In July, MCC East Coast published a set of cards telling the story of school-kits to Kampuchea. These are a fantastic Sunday School resource that illustrate how children (and teachers) can change the world.
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia (then Kampuchea) and overthrew the Khmer Rogue regime. The new Cambodian government that resulted had very close ties to Vietnam. The United States and China had both just ended wars with Vietnam and wanted to limit Vietnamese influence in the region. This lead to Cambodia being placed under an international embargo (which lasted until the early 90s). Only India and the Soviet bloc recognized the Vietnamese backed Cambodian government.
Mennonite Central Committee was one of only three American NGOs active in Cambodia during the embargo years. The other two were the American Friends Service Committee (also based in Pennsylvania) and Church World Service – all Christian agencies. Under the embargo, ‘relief’ aid was permitted but ‘development’ aid was not.
“When in 1981 the Mennonite Central Committee sought to supply pencils and paper for schoolchildren, a United State export permit was at first denied on the grounds that employees of the Heng Samrin regime would be handing out the goods and this would enhance the regime’s image. This was, of course, true; but it was true for almost everything that the U.N. program or the Western voluntary agencies delivered to Cambodia itself. It is fact impossible to draw a hard and fast line between relief and development. When donors tried to do so, the results were inevitably arbitrary.”Excerpt from page 380 of The Quality of Mercy by William Shawcross
In 1981, MCC asked churches throughout North America to put together school kits to send to Kampuchea. Kids living in the US gathered supplies and packed them to send (as they still are doing today).
However – when MCC put in an application to the US Department of Commerce to send the school kits the US Department of State stepped in and denied it. When the kids who packed them found out they wrote letters to President Regan. Three months later the school-kit shipment was approved.
The nearly 48,000 school kits – along with 170,000 notebooks – arrived in 1983. A second shipment of 33,000 school kits arrived in 1984.