The Meanderthals

Putting his cello where his mouth is

Wispy strands of hair spring from Dr. Beat Richner’s head as he enters the
auditorium promptly at 7:15, as he does just about every Saturday night. Head
down, he quickly makes his way to the cello case that rests on the edge of the
stage, plucks the strings to check that it’s in tune, then hoists his weapon to
his chest and once again heads into battle.

“The cello is my weapon,” the altruistic pediatrician is quoted as saying as he
has waged war against childhood illnesses in Cambodia. It’s a 20-year battle for
Richner, who since 1991 has overseen the formation of five hospitals through his
Kantha Bopha foundation based in Phnom Penh. Over 80 percent of Kantha Bopha’s
funding comes from private donations, so every Saturday night Richner hauls his
cello and portly self onto the stage for a classical concert – and an appeal for

“Beatocello”, the stage name he has adopted as a brilliant marketing ploy and as
a means to raise money, is a gifted cellist, actor and, notably, pediatrician
who was asked by King Norodom Sihanouk to bring medicine for children back to
Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge was vanquished in 1979. Since then, Kontha Bopha
and its hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have saved an estimated 650,000
children’s lives by providing emergency and preventive health care for people
whose poverty would otherwise prohibit medical attention and lead to death by

It is not an overstatement to say that he is responsible for saving a generation
in Cambodia.

The Cambodian government gives $2 million a year to Kontha Bopha, and the Swiss
government gives an additional $2.5 million. Most of the rest – an addtional $18
million per year – comes from grants, donations and proceeds of Reichner’s
tireless efforts to raise money so he can save children’s lives.

Like the daughter of my colleague, Mak Buntheourn.

Buntheourn is a smart, educated man, and his wife, the daughter of a doctor, is
a medical school student. Yet these intelligent, educated people were hopelessly
lost and had no heathcare choices when Buntheourn’s two-month-old daughter
became seriously ill.

“There is no healthcare for children here, not in government hospitals,” he told
me Monday with the characteristic grin of a Cambodian under duress. “A
private hospital, even one night, is $100. I do not have $100, so my daughter
would die.” Instead, Buntheourn and his wife took their daughter to Kontha Bopha
and, because she was critically ill, were quickly ushered past the long line of
people waiting for their children to be treated.

Although their daughter remains ill – she is due for a return visit to Kontha
Bopha’s Phnom Penh facility on Sept. 15 – there is at least hope for the life of
a child who otherwise would become yet another statistic in a country all too
familiar with the concept of loss.

“Of course I am worried,” Buntheourn told me. “Even my father-in-law, who is a
doctor of children, he does not have comment on what is wrong with my daughter.”

But he at least has hope.

And in Cambodia, hopes comes not from the government, which last week proudly
announced plans to build the world’s second highest tower on land near my office
in Phnom Penh that it took from dispossessed poor a few years ago. Here, hope
for sick kids and their families comes from a rotund cellist/actor/doctor, a
former Swiss Red Cross worker who initially came to Cambodia to help in 1974,
and whose stage pitch is far more about the money he needs than the stunning
accomplishments he can claim:

– 9 million outpatients treated between 1993 and 2008;
– 740,000 hospitalizations for critically-ill children in 2009;
– 16,000 surgical procedures in 2009;
– 550,000 lives saved by providing care that, if not available, would have
resulted in 550,000 deaths.

Richner uses Kanta Bopha’s statistics as a foundation to build his case for
additional funding. Kanta Bopha’s annual report makes the message clear:

“The smallest sum from a child’s piggy bank, a notable legacy from a will,
regular contributions from many private companies…as well as contributions
from church congregations and political councils are always a hopeful sign for
us that there is still a feeling of solidarity towards people in this world who
are worse off than ourselves.”

There’s more.

As a guiding principle and as a wise hedge bet against corruption, Kantha Bopha
pays all of its 2,400 employees a decent living wage. By paying a liveable
salary to all of its workers – doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and
support staff (even custodial workers earn at least $240 per month, compared to
a typical local salary of $20 per month) Kantha Bopha creates an environment
where theft, graft and corruption is unnecessary as a means of survival.

Consquently, he proudly declares from the stage, there has not been one case of
theft or corruption from within Kantha Bopha since its inception. Medicines –
all purchased, none donated – all make their way to those in need. Boxes of
supplies do not “fall off trucks” or into the hands of black marketers by staff
who steal to make ends meet.

I have met my share of noteworthy men: Bishop Desmond Tutu, former Soviet Gen.
Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Ned Johnson, Warren Buffett, Sen. Ted Kennedy and
countless accomplished and important politicians, business leaders and thinkers.

But last Saturday night was the first time I have felt in the presence of

Beat Richer wages war with his cello, voice and dogged commitment against
sickness, poverty and, mostly notably, injustice. He rails against what is wrong
with sharp words, a soft voice, and the determined look of a man with whom one
should not trifle.

He tells a story.

The World Health Organization’s “experts” came to Siem Reap last year to meet
with Richner and assess the hospital’s work. One of them stayed in an upscale
hotel near the hospital that charges the outlandish rate of $340 a night. After
several days of meetings and consultation, the expert delivered his findings:
that Kantha Bopha delivers an unrealistic level of service to an impoverished
nation incapable of paying for healthcare. Devotees of the “single payer” model,
WHO experts say appropriate health care should be to provide only what a
population can pay for – sustaining anything greater than that is,
well, inappropriate.

Richner pauses before the microphone, his cello resting against his leg, and
measures his words carefully before he completes the story.

“The average cost of a child’s hospital stay in Kantha Bopha – five days – is
about $240 US dollars, among the lowest in the world, yet this expert tells me
that is not appropriate when he is staying in a hotel that costs $340 for one
night?” Point made, he shakes his head, then leaves the stage briefly for the
viewing of a short movie which tells Kantha Bopha’s story and makes yet another
plea for funding without pandering to human sensitivities or engaging in Sally
Stuthers-like emotional appeals.

Then Richner is back for one more classical piece, and a final plea for help.

“Kantha Bopha is about children, and it’s about health care, but it’s mostly
about justice,” he says, his furrowed brow above piercing eyes framed by
enormous spectacles. He peers intently into the audience and fidgets with the

“Without justice, there can be no peace.”

To learn more about Kanta Bopha and to join me and Gabi in giving to their
efforts, please visit them at


  • Michael and Amie from Muscles

    Hey Gabi! This is Michael and Amie from Muscles and by now we have attempted to contact you by about every outlet of communication – plus your blog ha ha. We can’t seem to get your phone number to work so if you get a chance shoot me an email…michaeldavidconrad@gmail.comThanks!

  • kate

    "Consequently, he proudly declares from the stage, there has not been one case oftheft or corruption from within Kantha Bopha since its inception."Seriously??…You’d have to be as naive as a babe to believe that!

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