In Cambodia – social hierarchy is important

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Cambodians have a very strong sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. Even in the way the Khmer language is structured: the various pronouns recognise the relationship between two people in conversation.And, as ever-faithful Wikipedia points out, there are rich traces of hierarchical or social classifications in everyday language.

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages (see Languages, this ch.). This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had—and to a lesser extent still has—partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty.

You can see hierarchical behaviors in everyday scenes. Monks can be seen walking in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.

A feature of social hierarchy in Cambodia is the “patron-client” relationship in which wealth and power trump poverty and dependence. You see this expressed on a grand scale (the Prime Minister’s patronage/power versus the public) but also on an everyday level where a village elder who is both typically older and wealthier than the people under his patronage, may have many people obligated to him in return for this or that favour.  That’s the essence of the hierarchical relationship: it isn’t held together by overt power so much as by nuanced reciprocity. This from Dr Judy Ledgerwood in her paper: Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power.

Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power.

The relationship between the patron and the client is a personal one. The clients are not united as a group; rather they are linked to the patron by personal obligation. This then works in a pyramid fashion, midlevel patrons know someone higher and they in turn know someone higher – up the social ladder. The only way to get something that is beyond your capacity is to attach yourself to a superior.

Where does this social stratification come from? It is thought that it originates more than 1000 years ago in the Hindu caste system, though it has been tempered by the more egalitarian Buddhist philosophy. But herein lies a spiritual dimension to the patron-client relationship. There is an inference that success and power in life reflects one’s spiritual attainment and that you are my patron not simply because you are powerful, but because you are spiritually more blessed having shown great piety in your life.

Again, one can see this linkage, quite overtly in the political theatre – and it’s not unique to Cambodia – where powerful leaders invoke religious devoutness in their various ceremonies. But the charade kind of works! A good patron must do as a good Buddhist – and be generous of spirit, and grant favours to the less fortunate. In a sense there is some social control here to ensure a measure of fairness in an otherwise unequal relationship.

But the social acceptance and institutionalization of hierarchy has a dark side as well. As my patron, you might expect me to show my humility (when asking you for a favour,) by granting you an offering. Fair enough? Though at what point does this constitute simply a bribe?

And in an increasingly complex society who are my Patrons? One hundred years ago it might have been easier to answer this. My village elder perhaps. Or the head monk at my monastery.  But today a villager must also pay respect to the village elder, the local police, quite possibly the local political part organisation, not to mention the bank.

Meanwhile these patrons are bound less by religious values, and more by the desire for more power, or greater wealth. The old rules may apply, but the game has changed.

Foreigners are often greeted with a long list of questions as Khmer try to ascertain your place in the hierarchy. Are you the President of your company? Or a low level employee? Are you a friend of the Government and the Minister in charge?

I recall Savong telling me of an incident that occurred 3 years ago. A policeman was trying to bribe him, and he wanted Savong to meet him at Police HQ, Bakong to “sort out a little matter.” According to the Policeman the District Governor was “most displeased” with Savong’s School because it wasn’t registered. (Actually it was, and Savong had the papers.)

The Policeman phrased his story as a Patron. Look, he had contacts with the Governor’s office, and for a small consideration (of several hundred dollars) he could sort this matter out.

“Why don’t we sort this matter out right now?” replied Savong cheerily. “I have the Governor himself on speed-dial.”

And he did, because he’d had genial dealings with the Governor a few months earlier. He picked up his phone.

As soon as Savong began dialling, the panicky Policeman back-pedalled and said there was no need to call and that there had been a terrible misunderstanding. No money was required, there had simply been a mix-up.

When he first told me the story I saw it as a naked example of corruption and bribery. Clear and simple. But now I see the exchange as a much more nuanced exchange, where a young cop wasn’t simply asking for a bribe – he was trying to create a dependency relationship; he was trying to elevate himself, power-wise, up above my friend.

This is one game that any NGO leader needs to be good at playing. A few years earlier the outcome of that meeting could have been quite different.

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

A school that talks with the parents.

Savong has always loved teaching.  He is a natural.

Savong has always loved teaching. He is a natural. This picture was taken in 2004.

Yesterday I had a nice long talk with Savong about progress  with the primary school and he told me something that was music to my ears. schools in Cambodia can be fairly laissez-faire when it comes to classroom attendance. What with the prevalence of illness, family dramas and seasonal needs – whereby kids are expected to help harvest the rice – classroom attendances can rise and fall quite dramatically during the course of the school year.

Well, Savong’s School has adopted a policy of  keeping a close eye on attendance, and contacting parents of those children who have not turned up. This kind of pro-activeness is virtually unheard of in Cambodia, and over time is bound to win more respect from the community.

During the conversation Savong was complaining about the amount of paperwork he has to handle. Yesterday he had representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs come and conduct a successful audit of his organisation SOC. “But brother,” he said, “I want to spend more days visiting the school and teaching.”

I have seen Savong teaching, and he is a formidable force in the classroom, with young students absolutely riveted and attentive. He employs humour, provides illustrations and stories, and  he makes eye contact with each of the students as if he is teaching only one person at a time. I dug around my computer files and found the shot, taken in 2004, posted above.

There’s a much younger Savong, engaging the students (at least one of these kids now has a University degree,) and showing his passion for the task. Those were good times, who really enjoys paperwork?

The key to education is making contact – firstly with the students, but also with the  parents.

Savong’s School – Primary school classes are open

DSC_0819

Savong’s school now serves primary school-aged children, Grades 1 through 5]

Over the past 12 months in this blog I have called up statistics from the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) which highlights the pressing shortage of primary school resources for the burgeoning young population of the nation. Teacher to student ratios are unwieldy –  1 teacher for every 47 young children, nationally. The need is similar in our community of Bakong. Another issue is that the state system has a tendency to charge families for what ought to be a free service. In some respects this is understandable, given the low levels of government spending toward education: low by global standards. Other critics however refer to school fees fundamentally as a bribe.

Savong’s school has always operated on the basis of providing free education. For the past nine years the school has focused on teaching languages and computer skills to older students grade 6 through to great 12. This year the decision was made to open up the school to serve primary students as well.

It was a practical decision; the senior classes run in the later afternoon and buildings were sitting quiet for a good part of the day. So why not open to classes up to teach the local community of young children who don’t get taught at the regions primary school. Five teachers have been recruited – all females as it turns out – and enrolments of local students took place in September. The local community is always wary of new services, and they want to know that their children are going to receive a quality education. So our starting figures are modest, and we’re going to build from here.

A total of 39 students, 19 girls and 20 boys, have been enrolled at the school and with teacher to student ratio of one to every eight, we can expect some pretty good results!

  • Why not share the joy of participating in this project by helping sponsor the teachers? If you’d like to find out more, please email me duncan@kudos-dynamics

A teenage tragedy – a sad loss of life

This week the children at our school were rocked by the sudden death of one of their fellow students, a teenager who took his own life one evening. Nobody saw it coming. Today as I write this, there is a full-scale funeral for the boy and those attending include fellow students, teachers and other staff who have been involved in the care and teaching of this young man.

The event may have been triggered by another suicide, also involving a teenager from the same village one month earlier: I can’t be certain of this.

The sad news prompted me to research the incidence of suicide in Cambodia, and to examine some of the attitudes surrounding this.

Ten years ago when I first came to Cambodia I asked about attitudes to suicide, thinking that perhaps Buddhist attitudes might be more accepting of this, compared to Western religions. Not so: it appears all major religions in the world are agreed that taking one’s own life is a tragedy best avoided.

But avoiding suicide amongst teenagers is a difficult thing. My own country, New Zealand, holds one of the worst teenage suicide rates in the world, and in 20 years I’ve not seen any convincing program to deal with this problem. More likely, the story is more granular and complex – with many many good interventions effectively saving lives but going unreported while meanwhile a bigger avalanche is still occurring.

In Cambodia psychologists have in recent years turned their attention away from the stress disorders resulting from the Pol Pot years, and started to focus on the issues faced by the burgeoning young generation aged under 30.

Here the figures get murky. According to government reports, for example in 2013, there were some 600 suicides in Cambodia, up by 13% over 2012.

But these figures are hotly disputed by university psychologists who have studied the issue in depth. They say 600 is a mere fraction of the real numbers. One issue is the lack of autopsy and official record-keeping associated with deaths in highly rural Cambodia.

And as a researcher I know how hard it is to otherwise calculate these things. You can’t just conduct a survey and ask people on a scale of 10, how close they have come to taking their own lives. Ms Sek Sisokhom, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s psychology department suggests that the government figures woefully under-report the true state of affairs. Using rigorous research, and representative sampling, her research calculates that among adults the rate is more likely in excess of 40 individuals per hundred thousand (42.35 reported suicides per 100,000 of the population in 2011.)  This puts Cambodia right near the top of the ladder in terms of global figures, unfortunately. See Phnom Penh Post.

The under-reporting, which is clearly happening, reveals something of the attitudes towards suicide – and a lack of concerted effort to do something to prevent young people taking their own lives. If society was committed to solving the problem, then it would begin by measuring it and looking for patterns.

As it stands, the existing research reveals the following:

  • Young people under the age of 25 are the most susceptible to thoughts of suicide.
  • There is a clear gender split – young men much more likely to contemplate suicide compared to young women.
  • There are societal causes implicated including unemployment and poverty.

Psychology studies in Cambodia (see also) conclude that young people are poorly equipped when it comes to discussing the problems, or knowing where to go should they need help. Like young people in many places, the young adults of Cambodia tend to bottle-up their feelings, often hiding their true state of mind.

As social workers worldwide recognise, suicides can occur in contagions – with one event at a high school triggering others. Whereas western schools are, more and more, putting grief counselling processes in place – or having access to these – the same is not true in Cambodia. Yesterday I spoke about this with a friend of mine, Royce, who actually comes from the same village as the boy took his own life. He recommended that we get in contact with an organisation, an NGO, that specialises in social counselling: TPO is the organisation, and while their main focus was historically on postwar stress disorders, their services now include grief counselling.

This week is very sad, but we should use the opportunity to increase our understanding of the issues, and raise the level of grief counselling intervention to help prevent another contagion.

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.