Let's keep that pointing finger at the government accountable; however, let's also focus on the three other fingers pointing back at us. Let's focus on the hypocrisy and outrageousness of the do-gooders - donors and civil society - in light of other dark, societal norms.
What are some societal norms darkening current Cambodia? And who are the enablers of these darkening norms?
We live in a society where outrageous behavior - by us Khmer and foreigners alike - is the norm. As donors, civil society and other "do-gooders", we enable this outrageousness, and sometimes engage in it with full confidence that we can get away with it. Take for example the event of this past Thursday at CSD where "good people" hired armed Ministry of Interior police to exact emotional violence (that easily could have turned into physical violence) on staff and others. Where do we even begin in pointing out the countless, irregular, illegal, "undue process" and outrageousness of this act?
The more outrageous acts are the norm, the more dense and obtuse we become; the less we are able to hear and understand, the more outrageous we become. It's an upward, vicious, spiraling cycle of raising the volume. "We" in this regard includes both us Khmer and foreigners.
Disproportionate reaction is the norm. Instead of reacting to these outrageous acts with outrage, we stay mute; we claim neutrality; or, we smile and laugh and shake our heads at the Cambodians or the crazy foreigners hiding in Cambodian society. We are so used to the outrageous (which is beyond our scope to exact control) that in order to still feel we do have sensibility, we over-react to the minutiae where in light of the totality of circumstances, it has no significance. This is why killers of millions are permitted to get away with murder and are still held in awe.
(As an aside, I'd like to make a distinction between fairness and neutrality, as they are often used interchangeably. If one is a stakeholder and has adequate information, one can no longer claim inaction as neutrality and not enable the other side. Neutrality is reserved for 3rd parties who are not in the know, nor should have interests in knowing. But to be inactive or not take a stance as a stakeholder with sufficient information is to not be neutral but to inadvertently and foolishly be enabling. As I often tell my staff: As your boss, I want to be and will be fair; I do not want and will not be neutral. If one staff brings to me shoddy work, and another excellent work, do not think I will remain neutral and not make a distinction. To the contrary, if I do not praise excellence and be indifferent or dismissive of mediocrity, I am being unfair to the one who worked hard and produced excellence, and stripped all incentives for future excellence. Fairness relates to using the same measuring stick; neutrality relates to information and how far or close we are to a situation.)
Another aspect of disproportionate reaction that is a societal norm relates to the interaction between a Cambodian and a Westerner. Generally speaking, a Cambodian is passive and deferential; the Westerner assertive/aggressive and overbearing. This imbalanced equation creates a norm whereby a Cambodian will always be at a disadvantage in relation to her foreign counterpart - in a discussion, in a negotiation, in a relationship.
We Khmers are still lacking in sophistication as our verbiage too often are viscerally empty and crude; they are understood as such and accepted as norms. We function at this level of the reality of unreality.
Foreigners are more sophisticated in masking their e mpty verbiage. But sophistication is only a higher art-form of façade, superficiality. One example of how foreigners have normalized the empty rhetoric is in the area of "capacity-building" or "local ownership". Foreign donors "train" and train and train and train on ownership, on building local capacity because it sounds good and right; just don't "do" ownership, as that competes into their terrain; competes into their survival; they need to justify their existence through the "incompetence", the "divisiveness" of the local NGOs, the local Cambodians. The growing pool of highly capable Cambodians is swept away by these generalizations to their detriment.
We are so envious of excellence and success and do nothing to strive toward them but rather expend our energy in being in a state of envy. If only envy could stay within the self and not spill into destructive, obstructive behavior of gossip and tearing down.
Mistrust arises from misrepresentation, from a disregard for the sentiments of the affected individuals or groups. It also arises from political spin. We Khmer must be more careful of this in light our culture of fear, secrecy and the paranoid produced by the Khmer Rouge years and other regimes since.
Dependency, perpetuate "Lords of Poverty" mentality
Perpetuating the status quo is perpetuating poor governance, perpetuating mismanagement, perpetuating a "lords of poverty" mentality.
In 1993, yes 99% of foreign consultants were justified; now, 5% are justifiable. The others are embedding and enabling the mentality of dependency.
Ownership - how many local NGOs are truly "owned" by that director or senior staff? Many are run (behind the scenes) by consultants and sometimes ambitious/over exuberance 2nd year law students who have the legal expertise but cannot "feel" the situation nor understand the larger vision of what is Cambodia and "Cambodian".
Disincentives of reform
The societal norms mentioned above are disincentives of genuine reform and change.
The way we at CSD try to fight against these darkening societal norms is by encouraging a little bit of attitude among the staff. Strike that. We encourage a lot of attitude. With a lot of heart. It is the necessary first step toward ownership and social development.
Theary C. SENG
For past columns, please visit www.csdcambodia.org"Voice of Justice Program", particularly "A Soulless Nation", "Love for Sale", "Education through Imagination".