'A person's good acts cannot compensate for the bad acts. You cannot offset accounts.' -Chhay Soeun
In 1992, staff members of then fledgling ACLEDA Bank met to decide on the company's
logo. Hoping to spark an inspired discussion about ACLEDA's nascent mission, general
manager In Channy opened the floor to suggestions from his colleagues.
The room fell silent. War-weary and fearful, ACLEDA's earliest employees had struggled
for months to muster the dynamism needed to launch a financial institution.
Channy recounted the episode to Heather Clark in her engaging new monograph When
There Was No Money: Building ACLEDA Bank in Cambodia's Evolving Financial Sector.
"Okay, if no one has any ideas, let's choose the pig as our logo," Channy
said. "...In everything we do, people will see this pig as the symbol of what
we stand for. It's decided, then."
The prospect of a swinish letterhead jump-started the staff, and several hours of
lively debate ensued. Near midnight, it was decided that the hong bird would represent
ACLEDA to its customers in Cambodia. In Khmer folklore, the golden bird signifies
Thirteen years later, ACLEDA appears to have lived up to its logo. What started as
a donor-funded microfinance project for demobilized soldiers is today a nationwide
commercial retail bank network with US$81 million in its loan portfolio. Industry
observers applaud ACLEDA's rigorous ethical standards and principled corporate governance
structure. Moody Investor Services even rated ACLEDA-a first for a Cambodian commercial
Though perhaps not beach reading, When There Was No Money is a surprisingly interesting
book. Clark chronicled ACLEDA's unlikely rise in the mid-1990s against the backdrop
of Cambodia's broken national banking system and a financial market driven solely
by foreign aid. She interviewed dozens of longtime ACLEDA employees and outside advisers
for the project, and she wisely allowed those narratives to stand alone amid the
(sometimes jargonistic) analysis. (In one memorable account, a former loan officer
recalled her own anguish when her poor clients failed to repay their loans. "It
was my fault," she told Clark. "I made the loan. I should accept the responsibility.")
Khmer Rouge prohibitions on private property ownership and currency in the 1970s
decimated Cambodia's monetary network and drove most pecuniary activity underground.
When There Was No Money picks up nearly 20 years later, in 1992, in the Site II refugee
camp on the Thai border. The International Labor Organization and CARE International
recruited ACLEDA's future leaders-among them teachers, government planners, and mechanics-to
staff a business development project for decommissioned soldiers.
From the outset, ACLEDA's leaders refused to tolerate corruption. Explicit policies
prohibited employees from seeking bribes from customers, or paying bribes themselves.
Chhay Soeun, ACLEDA's finance department manager, linked the bank's hard line on
corruption to Buddhist teaching: "A person's good acts cannot compensate for
the bad acts," he said. "You cannot offset accounts."
Also in the early 1990s, the microfinance community grew increasingly divided between
two camps: One side favored a donor-sponsored alternative banking system for the
poor, with small loans targeted at small enterprise owners. The other side sought
independence from large donors, and instead envisioned a market-based commercial
operation for serving the poor.
According to Clark, ACLEDA's early incarnations - first as an NGO, and later as a
microfinance institution - targeted the poor with donor-sponsored funds. But over
time, ACLEDA evolved into a self-sufficient commercial financial institution, though
Clark's figures show the relative percentage of micro, small and medium-sized loan
customers remained stable from 1999 to 2004. In the book's introduction, Clark duly
disclosed her partiality toward the bank's market-driven approach. But she maintained
that commercial banks can accommodate poor customers, though she also acknowledged
that the drive for a higher rate of return serves to push institutions away from
"Business and development goals make for the uneasy alliance of microfinance,
" she wrote."
Though When There Was No Money was written for an audience of researchers, NGO professionals
and businesspeople, the book serves an equally important archival role for one of
Cambodia's most compelling business stories.