Thursday, October 19, 2006

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?

2 comments:

Maytel said...

Well I definitely think you should open these questions up to some private sector workers as well as solicit the opinions of a representative bunch of Khmers of various poltical hues. I know why not have a participatory workshop at the Phnom Penh hotel and make a day of it...free lunch included of course...but only for those in the know. Hmmm interesting questions though and worthy perhaps of more group styled contemplation.

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.)?

I think it all depends a great deal on, as you say...sector, employment status and sector. But I do know of a damned fine Cambodian pastry chef, if that's what you mean....

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

Moi? No, I don't think it is inevitable but you do need to begin with a highly tuned sense of the absurd and ridiculous, plus a willingness to perservere.

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

No comment

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

This question really depends on whether you're European or Japanese doesn't it?

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

I would say the aid sector, rather than the NGO sector as the NGOs really don't have much money. I also think it depends on whether you live in Phnom Penh or not. Given that the biggests sectors of the private sector are garnments, followed I think by construction and then tourism then the answer is no, it is not having a large impact on the private sector by creating false economies. If you want to look solely in the private sector areas where aid tends to concentrate such as agriculture, health, infrastructure it is debateable whether there would have been a great deal of investment in these areas without the aid industry and it is also debateable as to whether these areas can truly be considered as part of "the private sector"

Surely that answer is worth a free lunch?

Erik D said...

I finally got to it. In brief, here are the answers. But wait, there's more (before!): I worry that you yourself are confusing the system in which you (or others) find themselves (a completely corrupt and morally impoverished NGO system) with your own self (a wonderful and morally reflective person). There are lots and lots of decent folks in the NGO sector attempting to do good work. Lots fail, for reasons ranging from personal incapacity, lack of dedication, to the simple fact that the NGOs are rarely set up to really make a significant difference. So yeah, cynicism, jadedness, etc., probably are a inevitable part of any NGO worker who thinks about their situation for more than two minutes. That's a different cynicism, hopefully, than the cynicism of the NGO worker who's only there for the cheap beer and the 14 year old girls. The difference you have made in Cambodia is in no wise limited to the work you have done for your NGO - in fact, I'd say that's the least of it. You also made real human connections, helped real people, boosted self-esteem and aspirations for autonomy, etc. All of that, probably FAR outside the scope of your work, and in the course of your 'everyday' quotidian life.

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.)? But, you asked specific questions, so here's my honest answers, which (as I try to say above, are not a judgment of any person, but of the system in which we find ourselves. Or, you find yourself - I don't have a job).

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

See above discussion on varieties of cynicism.

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

Absolutely not.

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

Only to the extent that they absolutely must.

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

Absolutely, and yes, but not necessarily in the way you'd initially think. My impression is that some local (read: Khmer, since what we are really referring to are race-based salary differentials) salaries rise artificially as a result of the expat salary glut. But, of course, Khmer salaries in NGOs are, even when much higher than those of ex-pats, normally much much lower than ex-pats. Even when they do similar work (and granted, they often don't).

The real impact seems to be the generalized *sense* of inequity and the creation of a social 'boss' class to which Khmers feel they must defer in all things in order to achieve any limited success. "Yes, Lok"

I'm reminded of what they say nowadays in Russia: "They pretend to pay us. We pretend to work."

Love,

Erik