Last month, one of Cambodia's donors in the "Quadripartite Group" (the
United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and
DFID) asked me to give a presentation on the problems of governance in Cambodia and
the impact of the Seila ("Foundation Stone") rural investment planning
and Millennium Development Goal/Poverty Reduction agendas on Cambodian governance,
corruption, and sustainability.
I told them in simple terms: current approaches are contributing to destabilizing
the country, to creating conditions for civil war, to impoverishing the country (in
terms of per-capita ownership of national ASSETS), and to promoting corruption.
I don't think they heard me because they just kept asking what they could do to introduce
more foreign capital and technology into Cambodia to make it more "productive."
I told them that Cambodia is like Humpty Dumpty - the royal egg that fell off a wall,
700 years ago and left scrambled eggs. What it needs to be put back together is for
the pieces of governance and society to fit into an overall plan; for there to be
some kind of national social glue that holds it together, and for there to be a direction
that the country is able to choose to go. These three things are missing, largely
because of the foreign agenda and foreign presence, and not really because of the
Where is the plan to hold the society together?
The real role of governance is simple. It is about stabilizing the society over the
long-term by planning how population, consumption, increasing productivity, and assets
will all fit into a long-term vision and cultural logic.
If you keep population down, there's no pressure to destroy cultural or environmental
resources. There are more of existing assets for everyone and any growth increases
per-capita wealth (the real goal of development). If you want to turn the country
into a giant urban zone that won't go to pieces, then you have to find a way to be
uniquely productive once you stop copying all the foreign technology that generates
quick (but artificial) growth and that ultimately has its limits.
Cambodia found out in the 1970s when it faced that limit at a time when foreign transfer
of technology was stopped. Good governance is about organizing this plan, directing
the actions that balance the consumption and population with growth, and protecting
resources (the overall wealth). The functions of government are redistribution, protection,
and promotion of the different resources to keep this balance.
In fact, you won't see a single report in Cambodia that actually has a sustainable
development plan that follows these "Rio Principles" of making the country
stable, and none of the foreign projects or Cambodian planning processes introduce
The international community has substituted a different kind of planning that is
closer to treating the country like a colony or a business, in place of sustainable
Their "development" plans are really five-year "investment plans"
and they aren't about making communities wealthier and better planned. They are about
generating productivity with foreign spending thrown into communities, with the goal
of keeping "poverty" down.
These plans seem to be designed to temporarily control the poor and keep them from
spreading (migrating). This is a poverty postponement agenda; postponement because
the quick productivity gains from copying foreign technology and using foreign money
will eventually be unable to keep up with the growing population and overuse of resources.
Most NGOs in Cambodia aren't helping the problem either. It is nice to help poor
children, but it is much more important to STABILIZE their communities and their
populations in their resource base, and to help people stop having children they
can't feed or educate.
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.
If this growing population can't produce to keep pace, they will eat the forests,
sell the monuments, support developers who are taking the lands of the minorities
in Ratanakkiri and elsewhere and destroy the remaining minority cultures. Once that
land is full, they will either try to take land of other neighbors (not easy other
than in Laos) or kill each other for something to eat in a civil war. This scenario
repeats what happened in the 1970s when the inflow to the country of foreign technology
that had fueled population and productivity for the previous century was stopped.
Unfortunately, national security in Asia has also come to mean population growth.
Wars here are about throwing huge numbers of people across borders to swarm over
land, the way the Vietnamese swarmed over much of Cambodia and the land of the Cham.
Helping poor children now also helps to build these peasant armies of the future.
Foreign projects create dependency and ratchet up the scale of the problem in the
future, because they are treating symptoms and not caring to look at the problem
of population and consumption or the context of what real "security" means
beyond "more productivity and population."
So, why is there so much corruption and so little glue holding the society together?
Corruption is really about two things - it is about elites not wanting to contribute
to the rest of their society because they feel disconnected with it and don't really
believe in it; and it is about money and resources being subjected to no control,
with nobody really having any responsibility for it or caring (or able) to impose
A social bond between wealthy and poor requires that there be some kind of vision
of a community or country as unique and stable. That is exactly the kind of vision
that the foreign donor community has undermined by not encouraging any kind of stable
development plans, by not allowing the country to have any choice over political
vision other than the bleak "productivity," "investment" and
"poverty alleviation" plans through export that the foreign donors have
pushed as a united bloc, and by not showing any interest in the country for its own
value or wealth.
The "investment" and "productivity" approach that foreign donors
have introduced doesn't try to recreate any kinds of stable models that come out
of the history of the peoples in the region. Instead, it is based on an exploitation
of assets and people, based on what can be sold to foreigners in foreign dollars
and measured in growth of these sales.
None of these projects ever measure value in terms of ASSETS per capita, rather than
just sales value. If foreign projects entered communities and began to measure park
space, historic treasures, environment, and other assets, and to ask people about
the enjoyment they valued from these public goods, and to help people to live in
systems that protected them rather than sought to turn them into something to sell
to foreigners, Cambodians might think they had some value. But if the only value
is on what can be sold to foreigners, or exploited so as to reduce poverty NOW, the
message is that foreigners have no concern for the country's long-term and don't
believe it has any long-term prospects.
That sends a message that it is best for everyone to secure their individual prospects,
now, and sell off everything now that can be sold, while always preparing an escape
plan for themselves or their children to leave. Of course it encourages corruption
because the most secure winners in this game are those who sell off what they can
get their hands on, rather than try to protect it for a common vision.
Bhutan, another Buddhist country, has a Gross National Happiness index instead of
a Gross National Product. It restricts tourism and foreign contact. It protects its
culture and it maintains a sense of community. It isn't paradise, but one can see
the difference in its stability and culture.
Without starting with measures of assets, projects like Seila also do not measure
what individuals are consuming, what they are saving and what they can contribute.
In communities that are stable, people invest something in the common good and develop
a stake in the common future and success. It's called tax policy. People are encouraged
to invest in libraries, parks, universities, and mass transit, rather than private
automobiles, or larger families, for example.
But projects like Seila don't do this. They just throw money into communities in
the same way one might give a teenager a credit card. Moreover, it seems that the
worse off the communities are, and the more private savings they squander, the more
money they get. So, the real incentive is to waste the funds and to keep feeding
off of more foreign help.
The Cambodia Daily wrote a story about corruption of World Bank assistance funds
and quoted the lawyer of one of the accused, Mour Kimsan, making a wry comment. "The
World Bank had approved all [$800,000] of expenditures, so if the embezzling charge
. . . were true, World Bank officials should also be implicated." Who says one
can't find a world class lawyer in Cambodia?
The foreign community seems to like it this way, too. It is almost as if they are
in the poverty business in Cambodia; co-dependent on there being more symptoms to
treat. Cambodia sells the image of being a post-conflict country that can't be stabilized.
Foreigners do little to help stabilize it, thus perpetuating the image. Then, more
funds roll in. Meanwhile, some people get very rich off the process; much as in the
country in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a powder keg waiting to burn, and it will become
its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Where is the country's political system, to offer alternatives?
Unfortunately, the country's own political system seems to have been eviscerated.
You can read the Cambodian newspapers about political parties but you won't read
a thing about any party having any vision for the country. When politics is about
personalities, it usually means that someone outside is controlling the agenda.
If Cambodians had choices, you might expect a few different visions to emerge. The
80 percent rural population, for example, might want to follow the Bhutanese example
of slow growth and preservation. Or they might want to debate a different kind of
fundamentalist and restorative vision that recreates some of the water and fishery
systems that once made them the envy of Asia.
But you won't hear anyone promoting these models. The first one is disrupted by the
foreign agenda that pays and "trains" local officials to keep their mouths
shut about population growth and to just focus on "productivity" and international
sales. The second one has been criminalized by the foreign community through the
prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders who used the same kinds of methods that everyone
else in their country seemed to be using (violence) but who took it to excess and
then fell out of power and ... got caught.
The urban population might want to follow the development of places like Singapore
and Hong Kong, which invested heavily in education to develop something special in
the region, that fit their comparative advantage. For the Khmer, that would probably
be expertise in water engineering and everything associated with it (like fish farming);
something that has been the culture's strength since the Fu Nan period and earlier,
more than 2,000 years ago. Water management is the key to the future. But who is
going to invest in this vision? Today, you can barely find praise of the Khmer's
water engineering skills in any of the foreign-influenced school texts.
There's probably no politics because the vision has already been set from abroad.
That vision seems to be that the Khmer's role in the world is limited to being servants
for foreign tourists and producers of commodities for foreigners. When a country
is just serving foreign masters and the agenda is already set, the only real debate
is over who administers the agenda and who gets the spoils. That seems to be a holdover
from the colonial past that foreign influences created. If this is the role that
the international system creates for them, is it any wonder that officials just want
to rip off that system? Wouldn't you?
Plenty is spent on putting the stones of Angkor back together to recreate temples
that glorify the engineering reconstruction efforts and wealth of foreign donors,
for foreigners to enjoy, and for Cambodians to see how far they have fallen. By comparison,
so little is spent on putting pieces together of broken human systems in their wake.
* David Lempert, PhD, JD, MBA, ED (Hon), is Senior Research Fellow at the Center
for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap. He has been working as an international development
consultant for the past 25 years.