Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Fair Reviewing on Cambodia

If one were to "review" Cambodia like Cnet reviews high-tech products, or The Chronicle reviews restaurants, mine might go something like this:

The good:

-- Strong presence in the international garment business, thanks in good measure to investments made early on by San Francisco-based Levi Strauss and the Gap, and a binding agreement to observe international labor standards.

-- Explosive growth in tourism, powered by foreign investment in resort developments around Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the sandy beaches of Sihanoukville, in the south.

-- The distinct possibility of significant future wealth generated by bauxite and gold (the Australians are already drilling); oil and gas off its own coast (where San Ramon-based Chevron has major exploration rights) and, even more significantly, in offshore fields straddling the Thai-Cambodian border.

-- An increasingly powerful Asian economy that is pulling Cambodia along in its wake. As one government minister put it hopefully, "Cambodia is at the center of gravity" of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is taking steps to greater political and economic integration.

-- A strong, commonly shared desire to "get things right."

The bad:

-- 3.5 million Cambodians, one-third of the population, in dire poverty. Even more do not have regular access to electricity, clean water or roads. Such inadequacies of infrastructure aren't the most attractive lures for outside investors.

-- An enormous dropout rate in schools that mars a reasonably high literacy rate (74 percent) and solid primary school enrollment. A low level of skills (increasingly critical to participate in a rapidly modernizing global economy), and some cracks in labor practices that include the far-too-frequent bumping off of union leaders. According to a recent survey by the International Trade Union Confederation, attacks on workers by "police and thugs" have been occurring on a monthly basis.

-- Overdependence on the garment business - estimated to support 3 million Cambodians, through direct employment and family remittances - which this year started to show indications of decline amid growing competition from elsewhere in Asia. "The only people with real U.S. influence here," said U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, "are Levi Strauss and the Gap. If they pulled out, it would be a disaster for the country."

-- Endemic corruption, ranging from government officials - who control access to construction contracts and to what Cambodia may have underground and under the sea - to low-level teachers who demand payments (bribes, actually) from their students.

-- Patronage and greed, a specialty of Cambodia's plutocratic, so-called "50 families."

-- Thuggery. Blatant land grabs involving the expulsion and dumping of poor communities, often into makeshift camps surrounded by barbed wire. The next time you're lying on the beach at Sihanoukville, it may have come at the expense of what one Asian magazine last month called the brutality of evictions of local residents that have reached "alarming levels.

"Bottom line:

The downsides, and the challenges they pose, are no secret. Prime Minister Hun Sen, at an investor conference last month, said as much. It's the implementation of needed reforms that is more problematic. Apart from vested interests, traditions and the universal instinct to take short cuts, illegal and otherwise, Cambodian society has the added burden that its most fundamental structures - governance, law, administration, education - were utterly destroyed in Year Zero, along with trust. All of which have to be painfully rebuilt. So long as the Asian economic tide continues to rise, Cambodia will probably be lifted along with it. But what if the tide ebbs, and integration gives way to more fierce competition?

As I look at my notes from the trip, peruse various economic and other reports, and pace around thinking about what I saw, heard and read, I can only come up with the vague, unsatisfactory cliche - that the country's future hangs in the balance.

But if there's any justice at all, Cambodia deserves to make it.

BY: Cambodia slowly rising again from Khmer Rouge killing fieldsCountry on steady but uncertain path to future success
Sunday, December 9, 2007
San Francisco Chronicle (Calif., USA)

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