Something Fishy aka Consultants in Cambodia

We hear a lot of stories about corruption in Cambodia, but how about this? One evening recently I found myself trying to calm down an elderly American friend who was distraught at the behaviour of his own embassy staff.

He was helping a non-wealthy young Cambodian friend who wanted to visit his sister in America. He wanted to meet and underwrite all the lad’s expenses. The lad had to pay a $100 non-refundable just to apply for a visa.

For that money he got a thirty-second interview in which he was summarily humiliated, being told he was of no use to America, and to not bother reapplying.

The next day I heard a staggering tale from an English friend. He recently married a Khmer girl I know; they have a new baby and she has a teenaged son. He wants to take them to England. The British authorities have just doubled the fee so that to apply for a settlement visa you need to stump up a non-refundable fee of a few nickels shy of $1000. With the two kids and various ‘extra’ fees he has to find over $3000 with every chance that the money will be summarily flushed straight down Her Majesty’s toilet.

I live here, I’ve met all sorts and I know the cheating slime-balls from the decent folk. In both cases I know these people and can vouch for their integrity; for the embassies there is only one criterion they care about: money – do you have a fat bank account and will you give us a fat wad for doing very little?

Poor countries are ‘corrupt’; rich countries are noble and civilized and follow due process of law. However, when both the intent and the result is that the rich and powerful look down on, rip off and frankly poop on the poor, I fail to see through the semantics and detect the difference.

And there’s more – here’s a classic tale of foreign big-shots ‘developing’ Cambodia: four years ago a certain leading international bank invested $20 million in a project to develop the fishing industry on Cambodia’s huge Tonle Sap lake. It’s one of the biggest fresh-water lakes in the world which both employs and feeds a huge proportion of the country. The project was to bring thousands of fisher-folk out of poverty whilst ensuring the industry was environmentally sound and sustainable. Very worthy goals I’m sure you’ll agree. With the project due for completion this year, Oxfam have just published a report showing that less than 10% of the fishing community has so much as heard of the project, let alone be consulted or, god forbid, benefit from it. So where’s all that money gone? Well, thankfully with a major reputable international financial corporation there can’t be any question of corruption, but in the first year alone there were foreign consultants to recruit, expenses to be paid, land to be acquired for offices to be built and furnished, SUVs and speedboats to be bought and participatory workshops to be held, which used up the initial $20 million.

Since then far more has been squandered; it’s all loans of course; the fishermen and women will hear about it when they’re expected to repay the debt. To enhance Oxfam’s aphorism – give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; give him a fishing line, he’ll eat forever. Give a fishing community $20 million, they’ll eat forever; give it to a consultant, he’ll do something fishy.

Sralang Apsara

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