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.