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Foreign aid critic on his long journey to the academic world

Cambodian-born academic Sophal Ear lectures.
Cambodian-born academic Sophal Ear lectures. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Foreign aid critic on his long journey to the academic world

Sophal Ear’s journey from suffering under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to joining the American academic elite has been a long one, and one from which he says he has learned one important lesson: learn foreign tongues – just be careful not to accept too much money from them.

In his book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, the US-based political economist argues that aid dependency in the country of his birth is fuelling rampant corruption. While the book was published last year, the issue is more relevant now than ever: The country was recently ranked 160th out of 172 in Transparency International’s corruption index, dropping from 157th place last year.

The book is an engaging combination of anecdotes from his personal journey and analysis of Cambodia’s development. “It’s a personal as well as professional contribution. I didn’t want to write it as a purely academic exercise; I wanted it to come from the heart,” he said.

In an email from his home in California, Ear wrote that he owes his astonishing tale of survival in his early life to his resourceful mother: “Mom always said speaking another language could save your life.” In early 1976 she bluffed the ruling Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese into letting his family out of Democratic Kampuchea and into Vietnam.

Like so many others, the family had been forcibly relocated from Phnom Penh to work in labour camps. Ear, his mother, father and siblings had been separated from his brother, uncle and aunt, none of whom he was to see again. Extraordinarily, his mother used her limited Vietnamese to pass two language exams and escape with her children from one communist regime to another. His father didn’t survive the journey.

In Ho Chi Minh City, his mother, who knew that having Vietnamese status would prevent the family from being able to leave the country under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, registered the remaining family members as Cambodians once again. For a while, they lived with an aunt, before settling in France for seven years, and then California, where they eventually settled thanks to another aunt in San Francisco.

He first reconnected with Cambodia at the age of 21, when he spent a summer interning at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace as part of a master's program at Princeton University. At first, his mother was against his going back, but stubbornness won her over and she returned herself, first in 2000, then in 2004 with Ear, before her death in 2009.

Ear said: “Imagine returning to a place you don’t remember, because you were too young and for which you could now make new memories. T.S. Eliot said: ‘The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ That’s what happened to me.”

The cover of Sophal Ear’s book, which argues that foreign aid  dependence has led to Cambodia’s corruption.
The cover of Sophal Ear’s book, which argues that foreign aid dependence has led to Cambodia’s corruption. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Now, he believes it is his “responsibility” to “effect positive change on the country”. In his new book, the writer explores various issues in Cambodian society, from land rights activists and prisoners of conscience to bird flu and garment workers.

But his main target is the country’s endemic corruption. Speaking about the country’s increased corruption levels, Ear said: “We’re talking here about a large competitive field of professional bribe-takers.”

Ear’s reasoning is this: Taxation is public money, and can therefore to a certain extent be used to hold the government that spends it to account. But aid, as a substitute for taxation, doesn’t have the backing of the public behind it. In his words: “This undermines democracy.”

And this is where corruption comes into the picture. When people aren’t contributing to public services through taxation, they pay unofficially, through the likes of bribes. Ear said: “I absolutely think the government is capable of raising more revenues to become more self-sufficient, but that would necessitate putting fewer dollars in the private pockets of officials.

“I argue that the corruption money would be sufficient to make a significant difference in revenues, so much so that aid dependence would be reduced and we could finally move away from a model of donor-driven development.”

Between 1994 and 2012, the country’s annual growth rate of GDP averaged 7.7 per cent. Where, then, does economic growth feature in Ear’s argument?

“When you start from a low base, it’s not hard to grow rapidly,” he argued. “In fact, imagine if the last decade had seen better governance, more transparency and accountability – wouldn’t the growth have been even higher?”

There is a crucial difference between growth and development, he said: An economy can grow without developing its basic services.

“Cambodia has enjoyed growth, even double-digit growth, but not development,” he said. “The more a country depends on aid, the more distorted are its incentives to manage its own development in sustainable ways.”

In some ways, Ear isn’t saying anything new. The business of international aid has been thoroughly critiqued, most notably by the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, whose book Dead Aid presents the arguments for phasing out foreign aid to African countries. Aid dependency, claims Moyo, fosters corruption within developing governments.

But Ear, who has read Moyo’s work (“she has nailed it for Africa”), said that while there are similarities in their analyses, these issues benefit from a country-specific approach, and that is what he has done for Cambodia: “I believe that the problems are often similar but the solutions must be customised with local knowledge. Too often we think of blueprints for solutions and that’s the path to disaster.”

At what stage, then, does aid development becomes aid dependence? Where do you draw the line? On this, the writer is clear: “When you’ve got close to a dollar for dollar situation with foreign aid and government spending. I think countries that don’t improve their domestic revenue performance over extended periods of time in which they receive high levels of aid are likely substituting the aid for what would have been revenues.” The solutions – higher taxation or, he suggests, exports – lie with the government.

“It’s the Good Samaritan’s dilemma: what do you do if people are dying and your partner in helping them is corrupt? Do you just hold your nose and keep plugging away or do you say enough is enough, no more of this? I didn’t say there was an easy solution. I only said there was a dilemma.”

You can buy Aid Dependence in Cambodia at Monument Books, #111 Norodom Boulevard.

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