I learn a lot more than I knew before… about Cambodia and about life

This was a great morning.  I learned a great deal from the course presentations.  The programme involved two people talking about “working in Cambodia”, giving us their direct experience.  We were then whisked in a tuk tuk to the British Embassy, which is a good way away in the North of the city, where the UK Ambassador, a fresh faced young man of about 37/8 and the Acting Head of the Dept for International Development (DfID) in Cambodia (also very young!) met us and answered questions for an hour and a half.  I am back at VSO and keen to write some of this down while it is fresh.

First to speak in the morning was a very capable woman (in her 30s?) from Uganda, who was working as a management adviser in the North West of the country, there to help local organisations to improve how they can bring more consistency and predictability to their work.  She is clearly very well educated with good previous experience and wanted to work in Asia, rather than Africa, in order to experience a different cultural environment.  The first thing she said was that she had thought the pace of work in Asia would be much faster… but her experience had been quite the reverse.   After being here for more than a year, she has decided that his place goes much slower than Africa.  She was quite frank in admitting that at the start she got nowhere.   When she first read about her project while still at home, there were 10 people in the organisation, when she arrived there, there were only two and they left their work on the first Friday.  So she had to rearrange her expectations completely.  It seems that she was quite insensitive to local cultural expectations initially, and as a result she alienated a few of the local people, while they were fascinated by her, as the first black African woman they had ever seen.   She found all of this very hard.  As her language skills improved, however, so she also has begun to find that she slows down and tries to work with the people rather than pushing them on.  She told a story of how she had been taking a training session on women’s rights with staff from the Ministry for Women.  They were all women.  At the end, no-one had any questions.  However, when she asked if they had understood, one of the women said to her, ‘yes we understand, but we don’t agree with your ideology and we don’t want you to say these things here!’   Anyway, she has learned and is taking things a lot easier now, and as a result of that actually making a bit of progress in her new job (she shifted to work with other organisations in the same place)as she has made friends with some of the people and they keep her right.

The second talk was from an older man (probably as ancient as me!) who has been here since 1997, when he arrived to work in the Ministry of Health to help them develop their policy and practice on TB.   Since then he has worked in a variety of health projects and is currently working in Preah Vihear province, on a maternal health project called Healthy Mother Healthy Baby (relative statistics on maternal and infant mortality in Cambodia are particularly bad).   He had a fund of really good stories, but also a capacity to generalise about the difficulties of working in Cambodian culture. He centred his talk around three words:  hierarchy, language and permission.  His thesis was that any exchange / interaction in Cambodia is determined by the relative hierarchical positions of the two participants.  Hierarchical position is conferred through a complex combination of political power and family status (often to do with connections to political power), age, experience and qualifications, gender ….. These combine in complex ways which people from outside don’t really understand, as the rules can change in different settings.  Cambodians quickly establish where they are in the hierarchy relative to a new acquaintance.   Westerners such as me are allowed some leeway, and outside ‘experts’ are often accorded high status, but it tends to be an honorific position.

To illustrate, he told us of a Cambodian (woman) colleague, whom he had worked with a few years back.  They had together spent some time (several days) going over together the submission she was going to make to her Director about an important project she was keen to move forward.   The meeting with the Director went very well.  He listened carefully and took on board all her points and was very pleased with the work.  However, when she attended the next big interdepartmental committee meeting, not a word was said about the project, it was not on the agenda, and when he asked her about it, she looked at him as if she had never heard what he was talking about it.  The reason he discovered later.  When the three of them had met first, and she had greeted the Director with the traditional ‘hands together in prayer in front of the face’ greeting, he had greeted her back at the same level, indicating to her that for the purposes of that meeting, they could be seen as equals and therefore he would be quite happy to discuss the paper openly with her.  However when they had gone to the big, more public meeting, when she greeted him, his return greeting had made clear to her that in this meeting she was lower ranking than him and she immediately understood that she should say nothing.  Not a word was spoken, but everyone except the ‘foreigner’ would understand what had been decided.  He believes, realistically I think, that we are all playing a long game – sowing seeds but we may not see the fruit.   He illustrated this with reference to TB.  When he was first working on TB he wanted the HIV\Aids team in the same office to be part of the discussions, and never managed to make that happen.  However several years later, this is now happening.  It was also very clear that he loves the country, loves the people and believes that what volunteers can do makes a real difference.

This caused a lot of conversation among the group, some of whom were depressed by the negativity of the first volunteer to speak.  Before we could reach any conclusions we were whisked off by tuk tuk to the North of the City.  Going round a 90 degree bend in a tuk tuk is a bit scarey.. apart from the traffic, you just hope the pin which holds the trailer to the bike will hold. When you go round faster than about 10mph, you have the feeling the back trailer might keep going  straight and so everyone would end up in a spin.  The British embassy itself, with concrete blocs at each end of the street and mega security to get through the gate of the compound, and then the door of the embassy itself, was a pleasant modern building, with a very nice ambient temperature of around 18 or 19, compared to the oppressive humid 35 outside.

We were shown into the small conference room, where a bottle of water with the UK flag awaited us.  After a couple of minutes a small man in white open necked shirt came in and sat down and chatted amicably about the weather.   When the second man arrived, the first guy introduced himself as the ambassador.   Changed days in the diplomatic service..  he had the effortless good manners of a public school education and was obviously very sharp.  His colleague from DfID gave us a quick run down on Cambodian development.  In DfID shorthand, the country is a ‘low income (ave. per capita income < $1000pa), post-conflict (still suffering from the impact of war) low governance (institutions neither transparent nor accountable) fragile (unwilling or unable to provide core functions for its people) state.  It doesn’t get much worse than that!!  On the plus side, double digit growth for the 10 years since the peace began for real around 1997 has delivered a significant reduction in poverty, even if there was a knock back consequent on world recession.  Most Human Development Indicators show improvement (bar child/maternal mortality).   There is a big number of donors making a variety of contributions to helping Cambodia to get on its feet.  The projects which DfID is particularly supporting are HSSP2 –which is a 5 year health improvement led by the government, public financial management initiatives (to improve transparency and effectiveness of public spending) and a governance programme aimed at reducing centralisation.   Of continuing concern to DfID is that there is increasing inequality, with some ‘super rich’, that the corruption is allowing unsustainable exploitation of some natural resources (e.g. forests) while the patron-client social system, which is the real way the country is run, will never deliver poverty reduction.  What it does do is deliver peace and stability, something that Cambodia’s recent history has encouraged people to value above everything else.  It operates a bit like the feudal system – people lower down the hierarchy pay people further up the hierarchy for protection / connection in return for which the more powerful people provide a job/a stable position etc.

Because of recently announced budget cuts and ongoing attempts to save costs, DfID Is leaving Cambodia,  Programmes it is committed to longer term will be run by a partner country. We were reassured that UK is still committed to the UN target of 0.7% of GNP going to the development/aid budget and that therefore whereas DfID’s admin budget is to be cut, the actual aid budget will continue to be ring fenced.

In the question session, there was quite a frank exchange.  My summary is:

  • politically, Cambodia retains the character of a Soviet style one party state, but people have legitimised that through the reasonably well run UN supported elections, since the administration is efficient and competent, since they control the media and since there are many signs that the country is moving forward (improvements in roads, growing incomes, bigger school attendance etc);
  • power, and the system, will not change hands until the present government steps down – effectively Hun Sen and those at the top have been in power for 30+ years, since they were installed by the Vietnamese. They are not going to change now;
  • current capacity building work with the younger generation will make a difference in the future;
  • the trials of the former Khmer Rouge (see Sunday’s post!) have been politically very significant for Cambodia.  It was quite courageous for the regime to arrest them (as part of the original peace deal was that they would not be arrested); the govt has been very clear that it wants no more trials, to settle down any worries on the part of the many KR who are living and working in positions of power, not least in the army;  the senior Cambodian judges involved have been implementing reforms in the Cambodian legal system based on things learned from the trials.  But above all this is because so many Cambodian people took a huge interest in the trial of Duch, and history which the younger generation knew nothing about was opened up.  30,000 attended his trial.  3 million watched coverage of it on tv.

I also discovered that the UK Cambodian Embassy has a website – www.ukincambodia.fco.gov.uk – I’ve not been able to check it out yet!

In the afternoon, another volunteer from PP, an older man who is giving advice in relation to ‘liveiliehoods’ but who reads a lot of history, gave us a session on Cambodia’s history.  It was quite a good little ‘what would you do if…?’ session, to put us in the place of a Cambodian during the KR times and consider the choices they could have made, and their likely consequences.   We talked through the issues.  I learned a bit (I always try!) but the most important thing was when he said something I had said before (so I was naturally predisposed to agree with him!).  He said (not a 100% accurate quote) that

Cambodia was a poor, rather naive, but culturally rich little country, much of which was still as it had been in the middle ages, that got caught up in the Cold War mincing machine and was ripped to bits, physically, emotionally, socially and economically for 30 years. Now they are trying to rebuild their country from a very low starting point.  If anyone deserves our help, it’s Cambodia.

I have prepared another post, entitled “Where is Cambodia now – a political, social, economic and historical summary”, for those of you who are interested in why I believe this.

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