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Development can debilitate

John Walsh warns that infrastructure projects can exacerbate human trafficking

Though often touted by the government and donors as evidence of development, infrastructure projects can in some cases negatively affect the Cambodian economy while simultaneously fuelling human trafficking, said John Walsh, a professor at the school of management at Thailand’s
Shinawatra University, at a regional conference on migration last week.

On the sidelines of the gathering, dubbed the “International Conference on Mobility Patterns of Cambodian and Other Nationals in the South East Asia Region”, Walsh elaborated on his research
into Cambodian migrant workers.

Walsh drew from interviews with 59 Cambodian migrant workers employed in jobs he described as “3D” – dangerous, dirty and disgusting. The interviews revealed that the workers gained little long-term financial benefit from their jobs in Thailand, and that they faced both isolation and discrimination.

Could you explain in a bit more detail how you think major infrastructure projects can exacerbate human trafficking?

Infrastructure, insofar as it means roads and railways and civil aviation and so forth – in this case it means mainly roads – it’s widely thought among the [Asian Development Bank] and the kind of international development thinking people that such infrastructure will inevitably help aggregate economic activity. But there is much less knowledge specifically about who would benefit and who would not benefit – I mean, who would suffer from it.

If we look at the [Cambodian-Thai Friendship Bridge in Poipet town, Banteay Meanchey province], this road is clearly facilitating migration because it’s just making it easier for people to go from one place to another much more quickly. And since we now have greater ownership of personal transportation like motorbikes and so on, people can go seasonally from one country to another and then go back for the harvest season or so forth, so that’s facilitating what’s going on. Since human trafficking is also clearly occurring across the border, then it is abetting human trafficking. That’s just one of the unintended consequences of the infrastructure development.

You think of a big, nice, new road and bridge, you don’t think of that as the standard avenue through which people would be trafficked.
But if, as so many people here have been arguing, there are established authority figures who have been facilitating human trafficking, then it makes sense for them to use the roads over which they’ve got control rather than taking them through the roads and the jungles through which they don’t have control.

What are the economic consequences of the Poipet Friendship Bridge?

Last night, I went to the Lucky Supermarket, because like all business-teaching people I have to see what’s being sold rather than go to the tourist places. In the supermarket, what can we find? Is there anything from Cambodia?
There are some natural products packed in Cambodia. But the majority of the stuff is Australian or Thai, or some stuff is Chinese and some stuff is Vietnamese and so on. Almost nothing is from Cambodia. OK, now, in a situation where very few Cambodian firms can produce and distribute food items on a reliable, high-quality basis, then clearly Lucky Supermarket as a representative of retail is going to get its stuff from overseas. So it’s easier, presumably, to get stuff from Bangkok and drive it across the Poipet border point than it is to try and get someone up-country in Cambodia for the same products.

So in this case, again, the local people, through lack of their own capacity and ability in business and so forth, are going to lose out, and the larger producers – through economy of scale, economy of scope, all this kind of thing – are going to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the road. But that’s a one-way thing because coming to Thailand you’ll find very few Cambodian products coming the other way.

So it’s not like it’s an equal exchange. It seems, so far as I can tell, to be going just in one direction principally at the moment. Cambodia, meanwhile, is exporting labour, and the research that we did said that remittances are so low that they’re not actually making a difference for the families on a day-to-day basis.

But even if the money is just going into, for instance, paying off debts, surely they will eventually pay off that loan and thus benefit?

Yeah, but is it a loan that is going to improve their lives for the long term? Are they buying livestock, are they building a farm or are they just repairing a house in which they have to live in any case? Or is it just a loan to meet living expenses or educational expenses and so on? The sense that I got from our research was that the loans are not making a qualitative difference to peoples’ lives. They’re enabling the families to keep going, but without necessarily improving themselves.

Interview by David Boyle

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