Thursday, October 19, 2006

Road Signs

I have seen many rather amusing road signs and billboards in Cambodia, but this little gem that we spotted in Kampot a few weeks ago is pure gold. I will award something to the person with the most amusing caption. My first question was, why are they all wearing scarves if they are that close to the sun?

Also in the amusing photo category is this road sign on the highway to Siem Reap. It would appear that this highway (which, a cynic would point out is the route most travelled by tourists) has been the lucky beneficiary of the all new national road safety initiatives and funds. Not only are there speed humps (which most Land Cruisers seem to speed up for), ripple lines (ditto), but these nifty new road signs. Without wanting to delve too deeply into the realms of petty ex-pat intolerance/racism, the positioning of these road signs seemed to exhibit the customary Khmer foresight and critical thinking.

The L-word and an open solicitation

In yet another predictable bout of self-assessment and introspection fuelled by our imminent departure, I have been fretting about something that plagues vain political leaders towards the ends of their terms – the l-word. In the last 2.5 years I have paid someone to wash my underwear every day, had my feet regularly massaged by sex workers I suspect were trafficked from China, eaten a lot of bread produced by high-end foreign owned bakeries, underpaid countless motorbike taxi drivers, failed to learn Khmer properly, and spent large sums of donor money on projects for the main reason that the money needed to be spent. Beyond this typically middle class guilt induced self-assessment, I have been wondering, what meaningful things have I actually contributed to Cambodia since I have been here and what could I have done better? This is no doubt a question that many people before me asked, and many people after me will continue to ask.

In the last 2.5 years I have had MANY debates with friends and strangers about what if anything should the roles of ex-pats be in Cambodia. I have also witnessed countless volunteers and other ex-pats come to Cambodia (including myself) and get bogged down in the predictable cycle of naivety, hope, disenchantment and disengagement, and hopefully hope again. With the lofty and likely unattainable goal of informing people that may be thinking of coming to Cambodia, I would like to offer an open invitation for responses from current or former residents to some of questions that I have heard endlessly debated:

Can an ex-pat make a meaningful contribution to the development of Cambodia and in what capacities (length of stay, employment status, role, sector etc.)?

Is it inevitable that every ex-pat working in Cambodia becomes cynical and jaded? Is this necessarily a bad thing?

Can the salaries of ex-pat staff be justified? If so, is there a point that they become unjustified?

To what extent should NGOs try to engage the government when working on projects and is this practical?

Has the NGO sector created a false economy in salaries? Is this having an effect on the private sector?

Anger and ignorance

Several weeks ago Anth and I were trying to purchase an updated Lonely Planet (to get some information for our trip to Mondulkiri) from one of the many young children that ply the riverfront with baskets of books. In the throng of negotiating simultaneously with multiple young merchants, I accidentally forgot with whom I was supposed to enter into the transaction with. After paying the wrong kid, the aggrieved party started yelling “Fuck you! Fuck you! You shit! Fuck you!” repeatedly at me. Knowing that this young boy was most likely hooked on glue and was understandably annoyed that I hadn’t paid him, I probably should have let this go. Instead, I made it pretty clear in Khmer that this was not appropriate behavior. He continued to abuse me, and followed Anth and I across the street to the car (DISCLAIMER – it had been raining very heavily and we are both sick that week, so the bicycles had been abandoned in favour of more obtrusive NGO wheels) where he ripped a part of the project sticker off, flicked it at me, and then spat on the door.

Later that night, my housemate was returning home from a few quiet drinks on his motorbike along an empty road, when he was rammed pretty hard from behind by a guy in a government pickup who was on his phone. After the driver sped off down the wrong side of the road, he decided to pursue the vehicle to make his disapproval known. A short chase around town (that mysteriously involved another motorbike following the pickup) ensued that climaxed in my housemate letter out a torrent of abuse (whilst this guy was still on his phone no less). My housemate is a pretty level headed person - so how does this happen? Why was I arguing violently with a 12 year old earlier that day? More importantly, how do things like this happen on a weekly basis in Cambodia?

As a foreigner in Cambodia, you get a lot of the petty "Oh my God I can’t believe my maid didn't buy me the right bread", or the "look at how these ignorant savages ruined my favorite underwear" type annoyances. But what causes the previously mentioned all out explosive impulses and episodes? One could very convincingly argue about the lingering effects on nationwide post-traumatic stress disorder, the social complications associated with loss of face, the relative value of human life, or the effects of having to suppress one's emotions to conform with local cultural norms. I'm neither Khmer nor a sociologist or psychologist – so I am not qualified to delve too deeply into these issues.

One thing I do experience on a regular basis, and that I am convinced is a major contributing factor (for both Khmer and ex-pat alike), is the rampant culture of impunity and the blatant disconnection from and disrespect for fellow human beings exhibited by the privileged few – examples of which I could rant endlessly about. A question I have been asking myself for the last 2.5 years – and don't feel any closer to answering – is why Cambodia's elite behave the way they do? Simple responses would be because they can, or because the entrenched social hierarchy and associated sense of entitlement. There has to be more than this though.

I’m always hesitant to tar all of this country’s ruling elite with the same brush, surely they aren't all the same. I also wonder how my lifestyle as a wealthy ex-pat is morally superior to theirs. One of lingering regrets I have leaving Cambodia is that I never sat down face to face with members of the elite and asked them a bunch of questions to ascertain their values and priorities. How do you view your fellow Khmers? Do you think its morally acceptable to pay $100 to the family of someone you ran over and killed while you were drunk? Do you really need your underlings to chop down another 10,000 hectares of rainforest so you can buy some more investment properties overseas? Do you genuinely want to change the current system of patronage but are afraid of the consequences if the people in your network don’t get their cut? Are you so distrustful of the future after the last 30 years that all you can think about is making enough money so you and your family can live comfortably in France and Australia if and when things turn to shit again? Are you caught up in a status war with all of your friends about who has the newest car, the most bodyguards, the biggest house, and the prettiest mistress?

I know that many of the individuals I’d like to talk to are seemingly rational Western-educated individuals and would be able to offer some interesting responses. Alas I will never know…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Imminent Departure... (Part I)

For anyone in Oz that may be interested, Anth and I will be back home on December 3 and embarking on an extended Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney road trip. We changed our tickets this morning so that we can see...

Clean Hand Treaties

Last week 110,000 Clean Hand treaties were presented to the National Assembly. Logistically the event went well considering the very short timeframe in which it was organised (2.5 days). One member from each political party was invited to attend the event, but at the last minute the CPP (Cambodia's ruling party) pulled out and the event was swamped by MPs from the Sam Rainsy Party (the opposition party). Given the lop-sided attendance, you could question whether all the advocacy goals were achieved. Hopefully though, a small percentage of the 110,000 people that signed the treaty realised that their voice is being broadcast to those that matter. Now if only the MPs would cease busily squirreling all their monumental assets away in hard to reach locales, and focus their attention on passing the 13 year old anti-corruption law, which is the victim of a protracted game of hot-potato between ministries.

Proud to be Australian

Its really heart-warming to see that the Hun-Sensation is getting a warm welcome from the Australian government. In return for behaving like a true statesman and condenming his friends in North Korea for their rogue ways in unison with Howard, deals that will no doubt benefit everyone are being struck left right and centre, and also:

BHP Billiton/Mitsubishi sign agreement to explore for bauxite in Cambodia 10.11.2006, 01:48 AM
SYDNEY (XFN-ASIA) - BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi Corp have signed an agreement with the Cambodian government to explore for bauxite in eastern Cambodia, BHP Billiton said. A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said the two companies will also look at the potential for constructing an alumina refinery if bauxite mining proves feasible. 'It is very early days with pre-feasibility and feasibility studies still to be carried out,' she said. The spokeswoman said the studies will include environmental impact and the possibility of unexploded ordinance being within areas which may be mined. She said BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi will have exclusive rights to negotiate a mining agreement with the government once the initial studies and exploration work are completed, which is most likely to be by the end of 2008. Earlier, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is visiting Australia, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard ratified the agreement at a meeting in Canberra.

Its nice to see that all that deforested land will be put to something useful. Current information puts the size of the concession at 1 million hectares - which represents %5.5 of the entire country! It should also be noted that BHP are also in on the great oil game that is currently taking place in Cambodia, as they have exploration rights for one of the offshore blocks near Thailand. Roll on resource curse...

Cambodia in a picture

Monday, August 21, 2006

Expedition to Yim's House

Last weekend, Anth, Ben, Bec and myself drove down to Kampong Speu to visit Yim's family for an extended lunch. Thanks to the stratified classes we have here in Cambodia, Yim has had the dubious distinction of picking up my dirty clothes and washing them for the last 2.5 years. As well as spending way too much time looking after lazy foreigners, Yim is also a wonderful wonderful human being. It therefore brought us immense joy – and ridiculous amounts of humility – to visit her village. Anth has just posted a description of our trip on her blog.

Friday, August 18, 2006

This photo was sent to me two days ago by a friend in Oz who left Cambodia earlier this year. He took the photo in Olympic Market in January. Ben pointed out that this must be the only application of a Clean Hand on an AK 47 in the country...

Given the high levels of extortion and bribery practiced by the local police, here is another ironic appropriation of the sticker:

First of many boring work posts

With the formalities out of the way, I can finally be boring and talk about work. A few weeks ago, there was a public launch of a report that we commissioned by the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC) on corruption in the private sector. As a result of their research and macro-modeling the EIC determined that the high levels of unofficial fees paid by the private sector have a serious impact on the effectiveness of tax collection. They found that the official tax rate on the private sector is much higher than the effective rate actually paid. In spite of the significant progress in collecting domestic tax revenue made by the Tax Department, only about 25 percent of the potential tax was collected from the private sector in 2005. They estimated that the potential loss in government revenue could reach US$400 million.

The Finance Minister took great umbrage to this figure and very publicly boycotted the launch of the report. About two weeks later the Hun-Sensation also launched a very strong verbal attack on EIC. This week it was announced that one of the few TV outlets for independent news was cancelled. I would certainly count that as a success for an anti-corruption program...

Lots of links

Given my tardiness in getting a blog online, I will rely on the diligence of others and provide a grab-bag of external links to their accounts of events from the last few months:

07/06 – Road Trip Kampong Cham (Anth's blog)
07/06 – Road Trip to Ho Chi Minh (Erik and Leah's blog)
04/06 – Visiting Erik and Leah's new daughter Nahanni in Bangkok - (Erik and Leah's blog)
12/05 – Visiting Steph in Queensland (Steph's Flickr account)
09/05 – "Holiday" in Ratanakiri (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6) (Anth's Blog)
06/05 – Steph's Birthday Party (the password is "opensesame")

Thank you to above mentioned for letting me shamelessly appropriate their IP.

A Brief Introduction...

Dear friends and enemies, I have finally joined the online community. If I had done this 2.5 years ago I would no doubt have had a bounty of witty and insightful anecdotes about living in Cambodia. Instead readers will have to make do with potted descriptions of my final few months here, and then a cavalcade of self-indulgent posts as Anth and I traverse the globe and end up in South America in search of work in late 2007. I have no idea who often I will update this blog, or what sort of form it will take, so please bare with me. I hope that I am not as neglectful in updating this as I am at sending emails to those I care about.

For those of you that need a potted history of my last few years post university and public service in Canberra (which I left in mid 2002), I spent most of 2003 working for a Monash International Projects a small unit within Monash University in Melbourne that managed small AusAID and Asian Development Bank projects within the region. It was the sort of job that sounded much more interesting than it actually was, and most of my days were spent writing proposals for projects that we never won or writing CVs for and negotiating with self important over-paid consultants (quite ironic that I have now joined this band of merry mercenaries myself). I was left with the firm conviction that the vast majority of interesting work in international development occurs outside developed countries. Post Monash I had a short - but professionally and ethically interesting – stint at Marie Stopes Australia. Due to a combination of declining client numbers and my reluctance to accept an offer of an additional 9 months employment I found myself without a job in February 2004 (one consolation is that I was the first employee with the dubious distinction of being given 4 weeks notice and not fired immediately). This left with me no choice but to follow through on the itchy feet that had been plaguing me since teaching at Xiangtan Normal University in 1999. 6 weeks later I ended up in Cambodia....

...which is where I have been since. A week after arriving I started working as a volunteer with an American NGO called Pact – where I have also been ever since. In the last 2.5 years I have done consultancy work for Population Services International (primarily evaluating their network of franchised private healthcare providers) and also volunteer work for local rural development Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and conservation NGOs (such as this one). My main gig though, has been with Pact. I spent my first few months working with the HIV/AIDs program that developed the first materials in Cambodia directly targeted at people living with HIV/AIDs, before moving on to temporarily manage Pact's Decentralization program. In this time I have written, edited and designed a lot of publications – all extremely frustrating, time-consuming but ultimately rewarding pursuits (the most recent one that have I worked on is a handbook for village level advocates).

For the last year and a bit, I have been working with Pact's anti-corruption program. My main job has been designing and implementing an education and behavior change campaign. Early on in the process we developed a brand called the "Clean Hand" as a symbol for anti-corruption activities. The hand itself was blatant lift from the UN Convention Against Corruption, but it also draws upon local Khmer traditions - the white represents purity, and the blue background represents wisdom. The hand has several additional symbolic meanings: a clean hand that is free from corrupt money; a symbol of wisdom in Buddhism; saying “Stop!” to corruption; and reaching out our hands to work together. Luckily for us, the brand seems to have resonated with people, and stickers featuring the brand are now feature on a large proportion of motorbikes and other miscellaneous items across the country.

Other activities that we have been busy with include a symbolic Clean Hand Treaty that has been signed by over 110,000 people, a bunch of concerts and forums for Anti-Corruption day last December, a song and drawing competition for school children, and sponsoring boats at the annual Water Festival (when the population of Phnom Penh doubles in size with visitors coming to watch the boat races). We are currently working with a local NGO to develop a comic book for youth and erecting about 50 Clean Hand billboards. I doesn't sound like much, but believe me – each one of these feels like a minor victory when you consider the extreme inertia, aversion and paranoia that we induce from the Cambodian government whenever the word corruption is mentioned.

So... the above hagiography pretty much leads us to the present. Needless to say I have experienced and learnt a LOT in the last 2.5 years, but I don't know where on earth I would start in elucidating them. Hopefully though, there is enough background for anything I may post in the future. Thanks for reading.