Uncle Sam, Uncle Wang and CambodiaJuly 15, 2007
Twenty years ago I quit a desk job and left home to train as a teacher. Without an income and struggling to make ends meet, I welcomed an invitation from a gorgeous young blond single mother to live in her house for free – providing I assisted her in taking care of her two toddler sons. I seemed like a dream but after six weeks I couldn’t hack it anymore and moved out. It wasn’t just that by planting them in front of the TV all day she was denying them the chance to develop their mental faculties, it was mainly due to the unremitting pattern whereby as soon as the kids would start whining, she’d slap them, thus making them wail, then promptly pick them up, cuddle them and swear never to do it again. And do it again.
I’m seeing the same kind of pattern playing itself out in a supposedly wiser and more mature context here in Cambodia. A June article in TIME magazine entitled, ‘Cambodia keeps taking, gives little’ has drawn some flack but its basic factual premise is sound (even if some of the questions it raises are more controversial): for over a decade now, every summer (usually June) the Western donors give the government of Cambodia a good slapping over the persistent failure to pass an anti-corruption law and fail to meet certain requirements over various human rights and environmental issues. The government apologises and promises to do better. Within days those same international big-hitters hand over ever-increasing amounts of aid. Little or no progress on their demands are made, the money is spent (or otherwise evaporates), and the charade is repeated.
Given that it was before my time in Cambodia, I’m willing to believe (simply because I’m a really really nice guy) that initially at least, the Western donors – and in particular the main player, America, were quite sincere in desiring the money be used to improve the quality of life of all Cambodians. More recently, however, the rules of engagement have changed.
It is a little curious that the US government on the one hand castigates the Cambodian government for failing to tackle corruption, yet has altered a previous policy and now gives aid directly to that government. It does however make sense on the context of the War on Terror and a seeming reversion to the Cold War strategy of ignoring the internal problems of countries that then professed to be anti-communist – a strategy now overtly pursued by the new big-hitter, China.
Having to engage in the new ‘Great Game’ with China is the second factor in this revised foreign policy, and the discovery of oil is, perhaps, the third. I don’t think many would dispute an assertion that all the government donors and major international financial institutions are not in the business of altruism; personally my main concern is neither the donors’ motives, nor whether the donors or the Cambodians are most guilty of denying this supposed largesse to the intended recipients.
My primary concern is those intended recipients – i.e. the poor, humble Cambodians. There is no doubt that the Cambodian economy as a whole is developing at a very impressive pace and foreign investment (i.e. ‘proper’ money that isn’t ‘aid’) is increasing, but the benefits are anything but evenly-spread.
Many foreigners and even wealthy Cambodians living in Phnom Penh have little idea how far the greater part of Cambodia is being left behind in this rapid development. The prime minister recently admitted that the widening gap between the relatively wealthy 15% (mostly urbanites) and impoverished 85% (mostly rural) would result in serious political instability if not addressed; what is more, he confessed that the government lacked the infrastructure to solve the problem.
That his speech was aimed at the World Bank might undermine the credibility of his sincerity; nevertheless, he is absolutely correct. Not only is the wealth-gap huge and widening, but many Cambodians are becoming more disenfranchised and falling deeper into absolute poverty. The city elite cannot afford to provoke the countryside into deep and justified envy again – we’ve already seen the consequences.