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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's woes and the perverse effects of foreign aid

Cambodia's woes and the perverse effects of foreign aid

In "Foreign Aid: Creating conditions for the next civil war," (Post,

December 29, 2006), David Lempert tackled the difficult task of making a holistic

appraisal of Cambodia's present woes and the perverse effects of foreign aid. He

must know Graham Hancock's Lords of Poverty, which in 1994, already gave an acerb

criticism of the negative effects of international aid. However, as he rightly asserts,

the international poverty business is still going strong, regardless.

His comments are thought-provoking. But at the same time, I found some aspects of

his article confusing. The catchy heading "Creating conditions for the next

civil war" makes me feel uneasy, even if the Prime Minister himself has evoked

the possibility of civil unrest. It is not a question of whether this might or might

not be a possibility, but because I got the feeling he was using catastrophe to dramatize,

as predicators tend to do. The English is sometimes tortuous; for example, "The

majority of poor children will grow up to have more poor children because no one

explains to them not to have them before they have saved enough money or developed

the skills to care for them." I reread this sentence five times and still don't

understand it. Another complicated statement was "Unfortunately, national security

in Asia has also come to mean population growth." Would it not be preferable

to talk of "social fabric" rather than "social glue"? Society

should not be seen as some kind of stopgap to hold a material world together.

There is an old Turkish proverb that says "It is easy to break an egg, but impossible

to put it together again," so comparing Cambodia to Humpty Dumpty, strikes me

as fatalistic.

Nevertheless, Lempert touched on a lot of issues that are critical to the future

of this country, not least the problem of the social fabric that was almost annihilated

by the Khmer Rouge. It is hard for even the most sensitive and searching person to

fully apprehend the effects of the total obliteration of a society's own history,

cultural heritage and identity.

As a Secretary of State stated in 2005 "It is my belief that this generalized

amnesia and loss of knowledge about its cultural heritage has undermined all attempts

to rebuild Cambodian society."

Aid should stop being fixated on "treating symptoms" instead of addressing

the root causes of human degradation and deprivation. The economy is there to serve

society isn't it? Or is it? The technocrats, enamored with statistics, seem to forget

sometimes this simple fact as though humanity should mobilize itself just to improve

economic indicators. Lempert's criticism of the "investment and productivity"

barometer is entirely justified.

Using an economic indicator called ASSETS per capita is interesting but how does

he suggest evaluating ASSETS per capita by the 1 percent rich, in contrast to the

lack of ASSETS per capita by the 90 percent poor? I suggest another kind of evaluation

based on an assessment not only of Cambodia's material assets and natural resources

but of its intangible resources.

Another of his recurrent themes was "stability" as a goal to reach, but

I wonder if this isn't a Western concept. Anyway Lempert didn't define what he meant

by "stability" and in what way it was a value in its own right. It occurs

to me, as I'm writing this, that mobility is one of the cultural values of Cambodia.

It is interesting that he cited Bhutan, Singapore and Hong Kong as potential models

to follow. Especially as they all disclaim the concept of "democracy equating

with sustainable development" that is the moral backbone of most international


There is a necessity for a "long-term vision and cultural logic." Like

every nation in the world, but probably more than most, this country needs a "vision"

for its development, it needs leadership that is prepared to devote/sacrifice itself

to improving the lot of the man in the countryside (and the man in the street), and

it needs to create the political framework to support this and the will to implement


This vision should be based on an appraisal, not only of the country's national assets

- bricks and mortar - but on its rich but intangible cultural assets. For some reason,

Lempert avoids the subject of globalization, but if there is one thing Cambodia could

do to succeed, it would be to identify its tangible and intangible assets, and devise

a vision for development based on its intrinsic qualities and authenticity, rather

than some kind of copy/paste "investment and productivity" plan. This would

enable it to stand out as the unique country that it really is rather than competing

for a place on the global economic indicator ladder. This is also what Bhutan, Singapore

and Hong Kong have achieved.

To a certain extent it is also what Cambodia succeeded in doing after independence

in 1953. Sihanouk was a founding member of the group of non-aligned nations whose

pact was "anti-colonialist and neutral." Instead of trying to copy a World

model the Sangkum Reastr Niyum found its own way of doing things and was looked upon

as an exemplary development success story by the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding

figure of Singapore, who recognizes the fact in his biography.

And today, Cambodia's greatest asset is its human resourcefulness and know-how. Living

in quasi-autarchy, practically abandoned by any form of commitment from the government,

without easy access to education or health care, the rural people who are 90 percent

of the country survive using their own wits and willpower. The reality is that 12

million people are dependent on uni-personal or small family enterprises of all kinds,

from the street vendor to the cyclo-driver, from the krama weaver to the mango seller,

from the potter to the prahok manufacturer, from the farmer to the fisherman, none

of whom figure in the statistics. Help those who are already helping themselves.

Improve on what is already helping them to survive. Encourage structural development

instead of conjunctural investment.

The way to go forward is not to emulate the example of Western or Eastern neighbors

in a race towards a rung on the World's industrial nations' ladder, but to improve

on existing economic activities and markets, encouraging traditional arts and handicrafts,

bio-agriculture, adaptation to the environment and tropical climate, respect of the

lunar cycle and the monsoons - an ecological mode of development - to promote Cambodia

as a whole with a positive image based on its unique geography and history.

Water, this magnificent natural resource and heritage, was the basis for the Khmer

civilization and Lempert is right in mentioning, be it in passing, that water "has

been the country's strength since the Fu Nan period and earlier." Eighty percent

of this country is in the flood plain of the Mekong river delta. If Cambodia had

undergone an industrial revolution, technology would have been focused on developing

water transport, water energy, water agriculture and living on water. But as the

industrial revolution took place in cold North Europe, the earth-bound car became

the world mode of transport, even if the geography lends itself better to boats.

It is important to revive a pride in water as Cambodia's traditional element, not

for sentimental reasons, but as a question of survival. Neglecting the reality of

the complex water geography of this country is condemning it to destruction.

An in-depth cultural evaluation would reveal the complexity and value of this water

resource and could inspire a vision for development that would be unique in the world.

Imagine urban development respectful of the water-shed, using the annual ebb and

fall of the Mekong (12 meters between the highest and lowest water levels) and a

unique modern transport system based on the complex water highway that is a gift

of nature. Lempert touches on Cambodia's unique aquatic environment. Imagine floating

cities, waterways instead of roads, solar-powered boats, fish farming and floating

markets, such as described by the visionary Ernest Hebrard, the designer of colonial

Phnom Penh. Imagine an economy and society composed harmoniously with this aquatic

environment instead of the present tendency that is slowly but surely transforming

it into yet another earth-based one, filling in precious water reservoirs left, right

and center, without any feasibility or environmental study.

Pragmatism and imagination are needed for a successful vision. What is Cambodia?

What are its assets? This is a simple question that can be answered. Somewhere along

the road of colonialism, war, cultural destruction and genocide, Cambodia lost track

of itself. By restoring knowledge about its physical and cultural assets it could

be an innovator on its own terms instead of being at the bottom of the material ladder

dictated by the international dark-suit brigade.

Helen Grant Ross - Phnom Penh



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