Foreigners can help Cambodia by cleaning up their investments

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ.

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ. Photo: Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily

One of the biggest social problems in Cambodia today is the relentless issue of land concessions to foreign (and some local,) owned companies who present the Government with grand plans of turning subsistence farm holdings into consolidated wealth-producing fields of rubber, palm-oil production or similar. It will create jobs, they promise. It will be sustainable. There will be minimal social cost. In fact local villagers will be better off!

Yeah right. A recent study by international watchdog organisation Rights & Resources Initiative found that practically all concessions end up in social failure, with villagers displaced, often with no compensation. Nearly three-quarters of a million Cambodians have been affected in this manner.

For more on the R&RI report, see this piece in the Phnom Penh Post, dated December 8th, 2014.The report says the Cambodia experience matches the global pattern of land grabbing by corporates.

The majority of the disputes evolved at the initial stages when companies set project proposals into action without input from locals.

“Second, risks can be reduced by maintaining strong environmental standards,” the report says, as environmental regulations were the most common source of noncompliance related fines and lawsuits.

Additionally, without strong relations with the community, even well-intentioned relocations or compensation fail.

However, evictees from the Borei Keila community – who had been promised relocation housing in 2003, but found themselves abandoned – said the problem is lack of accountability.

“If the company and the government officials especially had respected and implemented the contracted agreement, our people would have gotten more benefits from this project,” said Chhay Kim Horn, a representative. “It is the authorities and the company together that left us disappointed.

In 2011 the World Bank imposed a freeze on all new lending to Cambodia, reported Cambodia Daily,  in protest at the government’s forced eviction of some 3,000 families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood. Now three years later those residents are still urging the World Bank to keep the freeze in place because they still seek adequate compensation.

Increasingly, investor activists are joining the dots between where their investment dollars are going, and what these dollars are being used for. In Australia the ANZ Bank came under fire this year, back in April, when they were publicly shamed for pouring investor dollars into locally owned Phnom Penh Sugar – without ensuring that displaced villagers would be compensated (they accepted a paper promise but did not undertake further due-diligence) nor that adequate health and safety standards would be implemented. The Oxfam report which uncovered these failed promises was scathing of the ANZ for its hands-off approach on ethical issues – despite glowing mission statements advertised by the bank.

Australia’s ABC report is well worth viewing. Click here.

A year earlier, following intense scrutiny by Oxfam and watchdog Global Witness, Deutsche Bank of Germany divested of itself holdings in Vietnamese owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group a huge corporate in the rubber industry.

Here’s a quote from the German broadcaster DW’s report 03.12.2013:

In the report titled “Rubber Barons,” HAGL was accused of numerous rights abuses in relation to tens of thousands of hectares of land the Cambodian and Laotian governments have granted it.

Global Witness’ report assessed the environmental and social effects of HAGL’s rubber plantations in Cambodia and Laos. It stated that the company was flouting the law when it came to protecting the land rights of indigenous people, was illegally clearing forest, and held tracts of Cambodian land nearly five times greater than the 10,000 hectare legal limit.

“Families affected are impoverished, face food and water shortages, and get little or no compensation,” Global Witness said at the time. “Indigenous minority peoples’ spirit forests and burial grounds have been destroyed. When they resist, communities face violence, arrest and detention, often at the hands of armed security forces that are on the investors’ payroll.”

There are several failures here. On the frontline, the big corporates are acting as rapaciously as untethered giants did, I’m thinking of the United Fruit Company, a century earlier. They are in it for the quick dollar.

Second is the blind-eye being turned by authorities. The Hun Sen government wants growth at any price, and appears unwilling to enforce its own laws. There is a 10,000 ha land limit enshrined in law – but numerous corporates exceed this; even locally owned corporates. Then there are the issues of social justice to which the Government appears oblivious.  In fact, as dispossessed people protest their situation, the police have been called in to jail these protestors.

But third – and just as culpable – are the investors, the big banks or managed funds, and the mom and pop investors, who bankroll these operations.

Deutsche Bank never gave reasons for its divestment in HAGL, but it is pretty obvious they had been shamed by the difference between their ethical promise and their actual actions. First world investors need to connect these dots more often.

Cambodia – opinion poll captures cautious public mood.

I have long been a fan of public opinion polls because they bring an often ignored voice – that of the public – to the attention of those in power. A wise government need not necessarily be a slave to public opinion, the best decisions may be considered to be unpopular at the time, but it should always heed the sentiment of the public.

Having enjoyed a history of tight media controls, (the television broadcasters fundamentally ignore politics in favour of game shows and pop music,) Cambodia’s Hun Sen government is now operating in a much more openly informed environment. The press, namely the Phnom Penh Post, as well is Cambodia daily, have been active champions for journalistic freedom. Add to that, the Voice of America which, perhaps unlike the VOA the 1960s and 70s, which was very much a propaganda mechanism for the United States, is respected these days for bringing fair reportage to the Cambodian public.

As witnessed in the 2013 elections, the voice of the people themselves – using social media such as Facebook – has emerged as a potent voice in the political mix. The swell of support for the opposition clearly rocked the government. It is perhaps little wonder that this government is now actively gathering of intelligence from the Internet: identifying “troublemakers” in an effort to maintain some kind of control public opinion.

But here’s the thing: the public in any nation tends to have a good common sense understanding of whether the nation is heading in the right or wrong direction.

Right now, 59% of Cambodians feel their nation is heading in the wrong direction.

This is the finding of a significant survey, diligently conducted face-to-face, (I don’t envy the fieldwork design that must have gone into this study,) of 1000 citizens aged 18+.

The news is not all bad for the government, not at all. There is a general sentiment that the public considers the growth of the economy and the development of infrastructure to be good things for the nation. But they sound warning bells – highlighting corruption, deforestation and economic inequities as being causes for real concern.

From my perspective, as a researcher, and as an observer of Cambodia, the The Asia Foundation poll seems to be eminently fair. The Asia Foundation is a watchdog organisation, and for sure, they have an agenda –  “to assess attitudes and priorities of the voting public that may contribute to or constrain democratic reforms,’ but this hasn’t hindered the from asking balanced, non-leading questions, and enabling the public to voice their opinions in their own words.

This from Germany’s public news broadcaster DW.

Survey shows Cambodians increasingly concerned about country’s direction

Despite rapid economic growth, more Cambodians than at any time since 2004 feel their country is moving in the wrong direction, a new poll found. Corruption, deforestation, and economic issues top the list of concerns.

The nationwide survey, published by The Asia Foundation on Wednesday, December 10, shows that while 32 percent of respondents feel Cambodia is heading in a positive direction, a majority (59 percent) believes things in the Southeast Asian nation are going the wrong way.

Conducted between May 19 and June 9, and titled Democracy in Cambodia – 2014: A Survey of the Cambodian Electorate, the public opinion poll cites corruption (19 percent), deforestation, and economic issues (26 percent) as the main reasons for the increase in pessimism. The tangible results of infrastructure (27 percent) and economic growth (21 percent) are cited by those who believe the country is going in the right direction.

The representative survey is the organization’s third on democracy in Cambodia, a follow-up to polls conducted in 2000 and 2003 and is based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens aged 18 and older in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and the capital Phnom Penh.

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Lack of transparency, lack of trust, lack of justice – in Cambodia’s justice system

CAMBODIAN ELECTION

Journalist Kevin Doyle based in Phnom Penh has written a blistering piece for the BBC which was published today.

The story revolves around the murder of a young woman, a mother of  are 10-year-old,  who was shot in cold blood by her jealous boyfriend  a policeman.  Witnesses saw him. But he has not been brought to justice.

Earlier this year, karaoke parlour singer, Sam Yin, 29, was shot dead by a police officer.

He escaped – but then resurfaced in August as a free man. He had reached a deal, it was reported, with the court, which closed the case after he paid $1,500 (£960) to Sam Yin’s relatives.

“I heard about the compensation, but I can’t confirm it,” Takeo province’s deputy police chief Suon Phon said in September.

Officers could only be dispatched to apprehend the suspected killer when the court issued an arrest warrant, the deputy police chief said, adding this week that he has yet to receive one.

“I don’t know what happened because everything has been done at the provincial court.”

In Cambodia, a small cash payment is often the most people can hope for when the rich and powerful are involved – and cases such as Sam Yin are far from unique.

The story then springboards onto the wider question of the justice system in Cambodia, and how it is far from transparent. As Doyle notes:

Anti-corruption monitor Transparency International reported in 2013 that Cambodia’s judiciary “was perceived to be the most corrupt institution out of 12 public institutions reviewed”.

Police officers fared no better. Bribery of officers was “widespread across the country,” Transparency reported, noting that 65% of respondents reported paying a police office a bribe in the previous 12 months.

In a 24 September statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi said the list of impunity cases was “long and growing”.

“Little has been done to bring perpetrators to justice,” he said.

Kevin Doyle’s article is well worth a read.  Click here: BBC report on corruption.

Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

Flagging a problem. Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

Flagging a problem. Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

I must admit a personal distaste for “get rich” seminars that seem well designed to excite people into parting with their hard earned cash. There may be merit in the teaching of Mr Rich Dad Poor Dad Robert Kiyosaki, but there was something obscene about the advertising for his course being run in Phnom Penh this year. Kiyosaki wasn’t presenting in person – the seminar would be taken by a multimillionaire who got that way by adopting the methods that had been taught since the Rich Dad Poor Dad franchise began in 1992. The banner is what put me off: How the rich get richer!

This is a problem for Cambodia, because in the years since 1979 while the economy has grown for this little nation, basically starting at ground zero, there is still a significant problem of poverty. A visitor spending a day or two in Siem Reap might not notice; after all the hubbub of traffic and commerce is headache inducing. Or go to the Phnom Penh, and the skyline is dotted with cranes, and new buildings are changing the skyline. The question is, with growing GDP, where is the wealth heading? Is it trickling down? Or trickling up?

First let’s look at the productivity per person in Cambodia. Measured in the international currency of US dollars this has grown. Figures from the International monetary fund – the IMF.

  • 2009 when it was $1,942.74
  • 2010 when it was $2,068.02
  • 2011 when it was $2,239.24
  • 2012 when it was $2,402.33
  • 2013 when it was $2,579.06

That’s a 33% growth in just four years, enough to nudge Cambodia from From being the 38th poorest nation in the world measured in these GDP terms in 2008, to become the 43th poorest nation in the world by 2013.

The income distribution is far from equitable in Cambodia. World Bank figures suggest that the wealthiest 10% in Cambodia earned approximately 30% of the total income – a figure that has slipped slightly between 2004 and 2007.

Meanwhile the bottom 10% of income earners earn around 3% of the total national income. This figure has hardly moved between 2004 and 2009. Put another way, using UN estimates, in 2004 Cambodia’s richest 10% earned 12.2 times more income than Cambodia’s poorest 10%.

This ratio of 12.2 is comparable to many other countries – 12.5 in Australia example, or 15.9 in the USA (estimate in 2007) where the CEOs of large firms seem to routinely earn multimillion dollar salary packages.

But there are some signs that the situation is getting worse in Cambodia. This is due to several factors including:

  • Poor health conditions.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Financial barriers to advanced education.
  • Environmental vulnerability – floods, storms or droughts can cripple farmers incomes. I have noted elsewhere in this blog that Cambodia has been independently rated amongst the world’s most ecologically vulnerable nations on this planet.
  • The commodity nature of rice farming in Cambodia – where farmers are priced takers, and do not have premium product with which to make greater margins.
  • The taking of farmers land by large corporations.
  • Extensive ownership of capital by foreign controlled entities.
  • Corruption at all levels.

This overall situation creates an air of hopelessness for the rural poor. How can they ever succeed if they cannot send their children to school, if they cannot afford your equipment, or if they lose their land.

I was pondering how this hopelessness begins at a very early age, especially amongst children and families so poor that starvation or malnutrition is a serious problem.

Two Hong Kong academics wrote a report in  2009 concerned with early childhood education. They were examining the weak infrastructure around pre-schooling – noting that while the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) is committed to the idea of preschool, to help give young Cambodian infants head start educationally, in practice there is scarce public funding for such a strategy. This has been left up to the communities to provide. A case I suspect, whether rich get richer, and the poor don’t even get a start at all.

Here’s what they said in their report:

Exclusion on the grounds of poverty.

No one is more likely than a child to live in poverty in Cambodia
(UNICEF & RGOC, 2006). The representation of the poor is much greater in the primary than in the secondary or tertiary student population. In Cambodia 20% of primary students but only 2% of upper secondary students are drawn from the poorest 20% of the population. In contrast, 61% of the upper secondary students come from the richest 20% of the population. The representation of the poor in tertiary education is zero whilst the richest 20% account for 57% of tertiary level students.

As has already been discussed, poor children are currently rarely found in preschool provision and the MoEYS has identified them as a target group on which to spend its limited resources for ECCE in order to ensure equity of opportunity. It acknowledges that this is likely to be challenging as the poorest communities lack good models, infrastructure and experienced providers.

Preschool and Preparation for Primary School

It is widely accepted that preschool experiences, by preparing the child academically and socially for school, lowers repetition and drop-out rates. The benefit is felt most by children in the poorest communities. Yet in Cambodia, children with the greatest need of the chance to learn in groups, mix with others, acquire pre-academic and language skills before they begin primary school are the ones that have the least access. Thus ECCE is not only intrinsically important but is needed to provide experiences and preparation that gives a child a much better chance of succeeding in school and completing at least six years of primary school. ECCE is a vital component of a successful Education for All strategy.

Although the initial enrolment in primary school has improved significantly, the drop-out rate remains stubbornly high and one of the main reasons is poverty. Families are often unable to pay the cost of schooling that can amount to 79% of per capita nonfood expenditure of the poorest 20% of families.

Another significant concern regarding children in Cambodia is that at the formal age of enrolment into primary school, many are too immature in their physical, social, linguistic and cognitive development. This is reflected in delayed enrolment and high repetition rates in Grade 1 leading to high dropout rates (RGOC, 2003). They are simply not ready for school as a result of malnutrition and lack of preschool experiences. Only 58% of Grade 1 students are six years old, the prescribed school entry age.

Only 45% of children in Cambodia who start primary school will complete Grade 6, and only 38% will enter lower secondary school. It takes an average of 10.8 years for a child to complete the six-year primary school cycle (UNICEF & RGOC, 2006).

Early Childhood Care and Education in Cambodia by Nirmala Rao Veronica Pearson, The University of Hong Kong

(International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy Copyright 2009 by Korea Institute of Child Care and Education
2009, Vol. 3, No. 1, 13-26) For A PDF of the report CLICK HERE

I accept that many of the figures I have highlighted for emphasis have improved somewhat, since these figures were first collected, but they highlight why free education is so valuable for poor rural areas.

Imagine that – just 2% of those who make it to grade 12 at high school, come from the poorest 20%.

Last week Savong sent me the list of students from his school who have progressed through to  winning University scholarships – a program we instigated four years ago. The first two graduates have already come through, and their two cohorts have both taken up teaching jobs, just a few papers away from completing their degrees.

Meanwhile more recent scholarship winners are attending Angkor University, and studying computer science, tourism (which has a strong management component) as well as English. these students have a lot of pressure on them in some ways. They know their families will depend upon them, and they know there are up against much more privileged students from the city.  When Rao and Pearson wrote their report, at that stage less than half a percent –  statistically 0%- of tertiary students in Cambodia came from the poorest 20%. And at that stage less than 10% of teenagers were progressing through to University education. so if you allow me to roughly play with figures, that makes the chances of producing graduates from Bakong something like 1000:1.

Those are the kinds of odds that families are up against in poor rural areas within Cambodia. Those are the odds that Savong and his supporters, and his staff, are working hard to beat.

For more: Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

Cambodian school system is still failing its students

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Just prior to this month’s water Festival festivities which have made a welcome full-scale return to the Cambodian holiday scene, the Ministry of education, youth and sport released figures showing an extremely poor success rate for those high school students re-sitting their exams.

The Ministry has been making good progress over recent years to ensure that a greater percentage of Cambodian young people have full access to schools, and they have been working hard to lower the student to teacher ratio which is one of the highest in the world. The MOEYS website has impressed me for laying out the facts and figures of the successes, or challenges facing the education sector in Cambodia.

For one of the key performance indicators, the pass rate of students re-sitting their grade 12 exams –  those students who didn’t quite make the grade at the first attempt – is troubling. a lot of attention was being paid to this KPI because the pass rate for the grade 12 exams was down steeply compared to 2013 results. From the Phnom Penh Post:

Just 25.72 per cent of students passed the exam, the Ministry of Education officially announced yesterday, a result lower even than the dismal 30 per cent figure predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the aftermath of the two-day test earlier this month.

The exam – usually rife with corruption and cheating – had been hailed as the cleanest in many years, thanks to a determined crackdown by the ministry, which deployed thousands of monitors from the anti-corruption unit to enforce strict regulations.

By way of comparison, 87 per cent of students passed in 2013.

The crackdown on cheating is a good thing, and so was the opportunity the government gave 90,000 Cambodian students to resit their exams if they missed first time.

Some 30,000 of these did not bother re-sitting however, but presumably the other 60,000 felt they had some chance. Here’s the report from the Phnom Penh Post.

Just 18 per cent of more than 60,000 hopeful students who re-sat the grade 12 national exams earlier this month have passed, according to official results released yesterday.

No students scored A or B grades, while one student scored a C grade. A total of 55 students received a D grade while the vast majority – 10,815 students – passed with the lowest E grade.

The 17.94 per cent pass rate was lower than the first tests in August, when a government blitz on cheating and corruption brought a dramatic drop from an 87 percent pass rate in 2013. Some 25 per cent passed the first round this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened to announce a re-sit for those who had failed the all-important exams, which are essential to pass for most university degree courses.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who is spearheading reforms, said yesterday that despite the lowly scores, the re-test was “worthwhile”.

“Even though we made a big effort to help students, just a few more students passed,” he said yesterday.

“[But] in terms of extra spending and the extra effort, it was still worthwhile because we helped more than 10,000 pass.”

Naron also said the dismal results for the second exam were “logical”, as the country’s top students had already passed during the first round.

“If [the percentage of students who passed] was higher than last time, we’d be very suspicious,” he said.

At Preah Sisowath High School in central Phnom Penh hundreds of students morosely listened to the announcement of results broadcast by loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.

“It’s not an easy year for me,” said an 18-year-old female student that declined to be named after learning she had failed.

“I knew that this would happen because I’m not a good student. Even though I tried to study hard this past month, I still couldn’t do any better than before.”

The crying teenager said she would have to repeat grade 12 again.

But for the few who succeeded, celebrations were ecstatic.

Lok Chanvisal, 18, who passed with an E grade, cheered and jumped around with his friends before quickly calling his father to pass on the good news.

“I was trying so hard in the last month and I never went out with my friends like I used to do,” he said, adding that he was ready to re-ignite his social life, starting last night. “It’s time for Halloween [partying], which coincides with our success.”

Education watchdogs, however, were critical that the government shelled out $2.5 million to organise the re-test, given that hardly any students passed.

“Allowing all the students who failed [to re-sit] was a waste of government budget. There should have been criteria so students who scored too low the first time [just] failed and did not get a retry,” San Chey, country coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP, said.

“The scores indicate we should have great concern for the quality of education in Cambodia.”

CNRP whip Son Chhay, who also serves as deputy head of the parliamentary commission on finance and banking, said the government’s move was “very positive”.

Chhay added that he believed $250 could be reached well before 2018 if reforms were expedited. Getting civil servants back on side was “a question of survival” for the CPP, he said.

But unions representing public workers yesterday had no praise for the government.

“Why do they have to wait until 2018?” said Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association head Kao Poeun said: “Despite the recent raises, their salaries are still low, so they won’t provide citizens with good public services. They will still try to make money through corruption.”

The results of students have clearly become a political battleground, for example between the teachers lobby and the Ministry – a battle over salaries and standards of teacher training.

By my calculations the eventual pass rate works out to be almost 40% – (26% on the first attempt, plus another 13% of the total on the second go.)  In other words 60% of those who enter grade 12 are for some reason not making the distance.

I can think of at least three root causes for this, and they include:

  1. Poor standards of teacher training. It is one thing to supply enough teachers, but as my figures show elsewhere on this blog, around half the teachers in Cambodia have themselves progressed no further than grade 12.
  2.  lack of teaching of study skills, and lack of textbooks or resources for students. It is one thing to attend classes in Cambodia, but many students don’t have the skills or resources to support what they learn in the classroom.
  3. Poverty. The current pass figures, low as they are, would be even lower if poor students – those from poor families – were even to make it through to grade 12. Many of those who do still need to work full time on the family farm or business simply to make ends meet with their family. Grade 12 students in many cases are forced by circumstances to treat school as their side activity; not their main one.

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?

44 years since the Kent State Massacre – how many more?

Image

John Filo’s photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. The protest was over the bombing of Cambodia.

By 1970 public sentiment in the USA toward their war in Vietnam had turned almost decisively. In late 1969 the spotlight had fallen on the My Lai massacre in which a village of innocent people were murdered by out-of-control US soldiers. There was no moral defense for this. The war was increasingly unjustifiable – except to the so-called political Hawks who saw Vietnam as the place where the communist dominoes would be stopped from falling (into Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia.)  Now on April 30th 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to America that, in fact, he was extending military action into Cambodia.

In fact the US had already been actively bombing the eastern parts of Cambodia, adjacent to Vietnam. This was Nixon’s “secret war” urged on by Henry Kissinger (three years later recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.)

The announcement on April 30th spurred a planned demonstration by peace protestors across dozen of university campuses including Kent State University in Ohio. Here on May 4th 1970 the protestors were met by the National Guard who, under specific orders, aimed and fired their rifles at incredulous protestors. (Witnesses thought surely they were using blanks.)

Four students were killed.

The photo (above) was taken by a passer-by and widely published. Of all media images this is the one that took the horror of the Indo-China conflict right onto America’s own doorstep. Days later, fuelled by singer Neil Young’s anger over the event, Crosby Stills Nash & Young released the single Ohio which to me, even 44 years later distils the feelings I have toward wars in general.

Alas, the photo has echoes today, not in the USA so much as in the Freedom Park of Phnom Penh where Hun Sen’s soldiers have killed protestors seeking fair elections and living wages. A common element when I look at the photos of both events is that the soldiers are masked. The Ohio National Guard soldiers were wearing gas masks – their use of teargas was not successful because the breeze dispersed this – while the Cambodian riot police wear motorbike helmets.

I wonder if this is for physical protection or whether it reflects the shamefulness of meeting a peaceful protest with unnecessary brute force.

GARMENT WORKER

Source VoA News. A garment worker protesting low wages meets police force in Phnom Penh.