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Sok Siphana becomes candidate for top United Nations position

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Cambodian lawyer and government advisor Sok Siphana, the Cambodian candidate to head UNIDO. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

Case made for post-crisis environment experience as beneficial to other countries in need; wealth creation as opposed to poverty reduction.

ambodian lawyer and government advisor Sok Siphana has been chosen by Prime Minister Hun Sen to represent Cambodia in the competition to be elected director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

UNIDO is the specialised agency of the United Nations that promotes industrial development for poverty reduction, inclusive globalisation and environmental sustainability.

Sok Siphana used the occasion of an interview for Cambodia in the Larger World to announce his candidacy for the position and put forward the idea that Cambodian development experience at the top levels of the United Nations would be beneficial for the developing nations of the world.

If his speech to the United Nations Industrial Development Board on May 21 in Vienna is successful and persuasive enough to get him elected to the office following the vote in June, it will mark the first time a Cambodian has been selected for a top job at the United Nations.

Other nations with candidates vying for the position at the moment are China, Poland and Italy.

He says if he’s selected, at that moment, he will have allegiance to the United Nations.

He’s interested in going for the top UN job because he’s been asked to do so by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“Minister of Industry Suy Sem wrote to the Prime Minister, proposing that I be the natural candidate, and the PM endorsed it. My official candidature has been submitted to the UN already,” he said.
Because the posting is global in nature, he says his vision has to be global too, not just Cambodia focused.

“I happen to be Cambodian and happen to bring the passion to develop a country, and I’ve seen my country emerge from ground zero. We are beginning to industrialise. I have hands on experience of this progression.”

He says he’s bringing hands-on knowledge and a passion for development to the job.

“Life is comfortable here and my law practice is booming. To me it is a personal life sacrifice, the pride of a nation, and a call to higher duty as a contribution to a global mandate.”

If elected, he will have to live in Vienna for the next four years.

“This is an historical opportunity for me to contribute to world development. This only comes once in a lifetime,” he said. “I have no illusions. Cambodia is a small country and when you’re a candidate from any small country you better be a realist, because you’re up against big countries with more resources and political clout. It is merit based, but it is still a political decision.”

A martial artist, Sok Siphana says he believes in the honour code system, articulated by the phrase “may the best win”.

“I will do my best, present my case, raise the flag of Cambodia and let them know that we are now in a position to contribute and serve a world organisation like this. We are as capable as everybody else.”

Sok Siphana said he will emphasise the role of the private sector in the developing world as well as sustainability.

“I see myself reaching out to the private sector as a source of knowledge, innovation, creativity, and combining the strength of the UN to help the private sector to develop their own country. It’s the SMEs that change the country. It’s the small rice millers who are now struggling to understand the effects of climate change.”

He sees scenarios in which small business people like rice millers are taken to seminars to learn about programs to reduce emissions.

“The agencies can say look, we have a program to help you reduce emissions. We can take you to seminars where you can learn the best practices of other countries. This is what I see as poverty reduction at its best. A rice miller can learn better by going to Thailand than America, for example.”

Since impact of change will be felt the most in smaller and developing countries, he says, there has to be a vision of partnership, teamwork, and how to bring the best of different agencies, different countries to bring synergies to help the development of the less privileged in smaller developing countries.

“In the context of climatic disorder, the vulnerability will be most felt in smaller and developing countries. If you want less war, you better bring prosperity to them. When you’re poor there will be more wars. Better employment of technology and improvement of agriculture: these are things that UNIDO can do. I think they need a leader who can understand the heart of the issue. I know refugee life and the frustration of development. I’m not coming from the Ivy League,” he said.

Sok Siphana says public discourse will allow the candidates to debut their ideas about how to approach the job. His own approach is taking Cambodia’s experience and applying that to the other countries that need development assistance.

“Number one is that UNIDO needs the voice of a least developed country (LDC),” he said.

“This is not just for big countries. UNIDO is an organisation that assists LDCs and developing countries and Cambodia is a country to look to. We are post crisis. We are growing our economy nearly 10 per cent. Our exports are booming and our industrial development is thriving right now.”

A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime himself, Sok Siphana says real life experience could make a big difference in making decisions about what developing countries need.

“I’m a candidate with real life experience, not just theories in the clouds,” he said. “If I get this job, for sure I will want to work with other smaller countries to further their economic development through industries that protect and sustain the environment.”

While he wants the job and he thinks Cambodian experience will enable him to do something effective, Sok Siphana says he won’t use his position just to focus on Cambodia.

“I will be a global citizen. I will be swearing an oath to serve the world. Cambodia happens to be a country,” he said. “We are a country that emerged 20 years later, post-crisis. If Cambodia can produce qualified candidates to enter into a global race, that is an achievement. There are other post-crisis countries that may not be able to get out of crisis.”

Compared to sub-Saharan Africa, for example, he says Cambodia is lucky.

“Other countries in sub Saharan Africa are not that lucky, they are not able to secure critical growth that everybody is happy with. The trick is how do you bring jobs and prosperity and reduce poverty and create opportunities for those people, for the youth. Coming as a Cambodian who went to America as refugee, I’ve seen poverty and I know what hardship is and I can relate to it.”

He says it is important to understand the predicament that poverty leaves people in and therefore the best ways to address it.

“I know what poverty is and I know what it takes, from hands-on life experience, how to tackle initiatives that can deliver opportunities. I’m talking about wealth creation, rather than reducing poverty.

Getting people less poor is not a solution. You have to create wealth for people, not just get them out of poverty, and the trick is to make it equitable and that’s how you have social stability,” he said.

UNIDO is a technical specialised agency that works with governments to develop programs to grow the country.

“We’re not peacekeeping. After the peace is secure, we go in and develop the country,” he said.

Sok Siphana, who earlier served as Secretary of State for Commerce and helped Cambodia join the World Trade Organization, says he wants his candidacy to be recognised based on merit.

“We got the WTO done by negotiating and mobilising the whole country to work on policy and liberalisation,” he said.

“It is important that you are coming from a smaller country, but you need somebody who is passionate about development, passionate to help other countries that want to get out of poverty. I want them to see a passionate guy.”

He says now that Cambodia is largely out of poverty, helped by the world, it is time for Cambodia to give back.

“Living through killing fields, refugee camps, I know that if not for so many people helping me, I would never have gotten out of it. I want to return something back.

“When I see bombing and people in crisis on CNN, I can relate to that. People who have not experienced that, they just see a picture on television.”

As far as Cambodia goes, Sok Siphana says the country needs to start shifting the paradigm from sympathy to productivity.

“You move from sympathy mode to capacity building and strength, and then you can produce your own. You have to change your mindset from a cheap labour country, to a country with young engineers, and mechanics who can deliver. Do you want to reduce poverty or increase wealth? Wealth creation is about getting these young 18 year old students to get good vocational training, language skills, scholarships and come back and get a job that is not a poverty-level job. Think outside the box. Do a paradigm shift. That’s a recipe for sustainability. With poverty reduction, you always get ready for the next handout.”

He says thanks to the internet, young entrepreneurs have access to information they never had before.

“This is the era of high-tech, Google, Facebook. They can’t say they don’t have information. Nowadays everything is at your fingertips. Success is because of you, and with failure you also take the blame because you’re not working hard enough. We should start by pushing young Cambodians to do more reading and it will open a world of knowledge for them.”

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