There is a lesson in the story of Somaly Mam, not only about being careful about non-profits who know how to motivate you to donate to them, but to also be careful about political crusades. These same hustlers who lie to win you over are also used as lobbyists to speak to legislatures to motivate them to enact new laws.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown sums up the story at the Reason blog.
Activist Somaly Mam earned international acclaim and a spot on Oprah’s book list by brandishing tales of horrific sexual slavery and abuse—many of which she seems to have made up. Now the Somaly Mam Foundation has announced that it has accepted its founder’s resignation.
In March, the Foundation hired an independent law firm to look into Mam’s personal history. “As a result of Goodwin Procter’s efforts, we have accepted Somaly’s resignation effective immediately,” it said yesterday.
Much of this started with the investigative work of Simon Marks who wrote up a profile in Newsweek. He noticed that her sensational story had inconsistencies, as did some of the stories of the girls she claimed to have rescued.
He found that Long Pross—a girl whose terrible story of sexual slavery and torture has been told in The New York Times and on Oprah—was making her story up.
Other girls had also lied after being coached in how their story should sound.
Mam’s own story has holes as well: Marks’ interviews with Mam’s childhood acquaintances, teachers, and neighbors turned up no one who had met or even saw Mam’s grandfather or the man she was allegedly forced to marry. They say she lived with her parents and was a happy, well-liked kid.
And “Mam’s confusion isn’t limited to her book, or the backstory for some of ‘her girls,'” Marks points out. In 2012, she admitted to making false claims in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly about an alleged Cambodian army attack on one of her shelters that killed eight girls.
Countless acquaintances, colleagues, and former employees offer up horror stories about Mam, who comes across as utterly sociopathic in the article. Many of them offer some variation on the same sentiment: People want to believe Mam is good and honest because of the work she’s doing, so they do. Most people simply won’t question the motives of alleged do-gooders—why would someone lie about child rape?
Well, it turns out they lie for fame and fortune because successfully lying about such events will bring them both.
Again, this is a story with obvious implications about political campaigns. The kind of people that start non-profits to address a problem are also the kind of people who are treated as experts on the issue and who get to lobby lawmakers.
These false realities are then used not just to tug at the heart and purse strings of potential donors but to launch initiatives and make lawmakers weepy-eyed at Congressional hearings. They inspire policy…
Can you think of someone else who is influencing policy but who isn’t telling the truth?