Many roads to Cambodia’s development – an interview with Dr Wayne McCallum

WAYNE McCALLUM

Dr Wayne McCallum (far right) has immersed himself in both the social and natural environment of Cambodia since 2003. He sees challenges ahead for the nation’s development and the need to adopt the best from several pathways to development.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the book I found at the Monument bookstore at Siem Reap airport called ROADS TO DEVELOPMENT – a very insightful discussion that weighs up different pathways to the development of Cambodia.  Published by the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) the book  focuses on the experience in the Sre Ambel District of Southwest Cambodia, and while the main topic involves development of the local economy through agriculture for example; the lessons are applicable in a wider sense to NGOs in every sector including ours, in Education.

The book discusses whether the economic development road, for example is the best path (creating jobs through investment and new methods of agriculture,) or whether it leads to compromises (farmers losing their land, worker rights abuses, environmental degradation).

So the title, “Roads” is a good summation because it looks at a diversity of approaches tracing strengths and weaknesses and common pitfalls including one that struck me as particularly important: to deliver on promises. It appears that when NGOs or investment organisations promise to “consult and listen” few do this effectively or honourably.

The book is jointly authored by a Cambodian, Meas Nee, and by a New Zealander Wayne McCallum, and their Cambodian/Western perspectives generate rich insight.

Recently I contacted Wayne to ask him a few questions about what he has learned in Cambodia and whether he is optimistic for the nation’s future given the developmental problems he has witnessed first-hand and through interviewing locals.

Wayne – how did you first get involved in Cambodia? Was there a personal connection?

I came to Cambodia in December 2003 as a VSA volunteer. I had first developed a desire to travel to the region in the mid-1990s and although I really wanted an assignment in Laos, the Cambodia project that VSA advertised was just too perfect to pass up on. So I applied and got accepted.

You had an academic interest in Cambodia via your main academic subject of Environmental Sociology. What is the main emphasis of this study?

I was a ‘born again’ student. I went back to university to complete my PhD after several years of work. My study involved a ‘post-modern exploration of community environmental management’ through the frame of several place-based case studies (Phew!).

I ended up going down the pathway of how the way we give meaning to the environment and environmental matters (social construction) shapes our actions.   This includes how we respond to ‘environmental issues’. In the end I really got into political ecology and how this shapes the way the groups I studied interacted with each other, other people, the authorities and the world around them.

It is a short step to apply these ideas to ‘development’ thinking, something that we sought to capture in ‘Roads’.

How did you meet Meas Nee? How did the Sre Ambel study come about?

I had come across Nee’s work and was impressed by it. I really wanted to work with him as we shared a common approach to development. I was asked to work on the book and suggested Nee as a counterpart. The AFSC had been thinking the same thing and were keen to have him on board as well. We both aligned well, with different strengths and abilities. Add to this the fact that my VSA placement had been in the Sre Ambel area, which meant that I knew the place and people well.

You two arrived at an interesting and I feel balanced view about the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of community and nation development – whether development through Economic Growth, Human Rights development or community or environmentally based development.  Different emphases, different strengths and different weaknesses.

a.       What are some of the worst pitfalls of development have you witnessed since 2003?

In Cambodia I am definitely concerned at the way economic land concessions have been enacted and the way that social and environmental considerations have not been factored into this process. The lack of any rigorous environment and social impact process is a continuing cause of concern and adds to the issues raised by both concession developments and other projects.

b.      What’s your recipe for the successful, sustainable development of Cambodia?

I guess the point we come to in ‘Roads’ is that there is no magic recipe. What you should look at, instead, is a process that ensures all voices, including those of the environment, are brought into the planning and decision-making process, that adverse impacts are recognized and managed for, that risk is accommodated and that ecological, social and economic resilience is maintained and improved.  It sounds easy.

I guess having some agreement on what ‘sustainable development’ means and the goals and aspirations that underline this are a good starting point. That sort of dialogue has not happened here in Cambodia though, that said, I do not think it has happened in NZ either!

For me development needs to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘sensitive’.

In the book you and Nee discuss the cultural collisions between NGOs and communities. Nee twice refers to the “Logical Frameworks” used by foreign-based NGOs and how this kind of western business thinking runs counter to local ways of thinking. What advice would you give to an NGO if they want to work successfully in Cambodia?

Oh that’s a BIG question.  In short, read ‘Roads’ and think about how its ideas could apply to you and your work.

What do NGOs frequently get wrong? I suspect you’re going to mention their lack of community input…

‘Wrong’ is a subjective term, while NGOs do not operate in isolation. The reality is that development is a challenging and complex process. Recognising and managing this process is probably the first thing that you need to do. That this does not always happen is probably one of the leading errors.

From there things get more complex. Funding cycles, output focus, conflict, are all challenges that lead to NGO ‘failure’. The list is a long one and I wonder about the ability of some organisations to step back and reflect. There are a few that are good at this. I was impressed by AFSC while I worked for them, both as a volunteer and as a consultant.

Finally, you’ve remarked that Cambodia gets more complex the more you work here. We see a nation undergoing rapid change – what are the main issues that you feel the nation will face in the next few years?

There are many issues and Cambodia does not always have control over its own destiny. Issues over the damming of the Mekong in Laos and China illustrate this.

From a societal perspective the coming ‘youth quake’, whereby the majority of the population will soon be less than 30 years of age is going to put enormous pressure on the country, as rising aspirations are confronted by limitations in the ability of the state and the Kingdom to accommodate these.

Environmentally, a recent climate change report identified Cambodia as in the top-10 of nations vulnerable to climate change. This really is the ‘elephant in the room’ for the Kingdom and is not being factored into decision-making.

There are a host of others but these are a good starting point.

Are you optimistic for Cambodia?

I love Cambodia and I am a pragmatic optimist. The country and its people invigorate and infuriate me in equal measure, at times, but they remind me that I am alive and keep me honest.

Thank you Wayne. 

 For a 30 minute interview on SEATV Cambodia’s Global Dialogue, Dr Wayne McCallum discusses the environment and how it’s protection in Cambodia can generate positive tourism.

In fact after his experience in the Sre Ambel District, Wayne has taken up the role of environmental director of the Song Saa Private Island’s Conservation and Community programme.

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The electric village. Cambodia.

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From buffalo power to hydro. Rapid change is occurring in Bakong, Cambodia. But have all the options been explored? What are the real costs of huge hydro schemes?

The photo above was taken just 400 metres from our school gates. The Duon Teav village in Bakong is 14kms east of Siem Reap, the main tourist city of Cambodia and the gateway to Angkor Wat. The village is situated on historic land governed by the Apsara Authority which generally restricts development and seeks to maintain the heritage quality of the district: after all it is home (just a few hundred meters away from Savong’s School) to the first temples, the Rolous Group, of the Angkor Empire. Locals hold their weddings there: imagine that – having a thousand year old temple on your doorstep.

But this year I noticed a change each evening as I rode back from the school. Sun sets very quickly in tropical Cambodia so in the evening instead of a long lingering twilight, the countryside is pitch dark within 30 minutes of the sun falling. The soundscape is very much alive however, with insects, frogs, the murmur of small motorbikes navigating the dirt roads slowly, and the sound of families preparing dinner. Not far from the school these families may be lit by firelight from their charcoal burning cooking fires. There may be low wattage lights driven by 12v car batteries.

Along the road, suddenly, these families are lit up with the brilliant white of eco-bulbs: insects swarming in a boisterous living halo. Electric mains power is coming to Bakong. Step by step, new power poles are marching into this rural landscape.

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Sign of progress. A new power pole. These days Bakong villages are eagerly awaiting the arrival of electric power. For one thing – cooking may save the use of scant charcoal/timber resources.

Locals welcome the arrival of power, just as surely as my grandparents welcomed electricity to their rural homes in New Zealand. In particular electricity may help obviate the need for charcoal and the use of precious timber in Cambodia. But I can’t help but think that Cambodia might have taken a different route. With mains power, it is doubtful if in this community that solar energy will now be adopted, for example.

When I flew into Siem Reap I sat next to a man from Myanmar, and he and a few others on the flight were attending a big regional solar energy conference that pointed, I felt, to an interesting alternative to the big centralised mindset that accompanies hydro power.  Cambodia needs electricity for sure, but if the nation puts all of its eggs in the hydro-basket, then it buys into a risk. To finance hydro schemes the Government probably needs to trade away certain rights – for example in flooding valleys and displacing locals.  I fear that Cambodia’s leadership is buying into a 1960s viewpoint and possibly missing the opportunity to take an ultimately less risky path of diversifying the power model – being reliant on hydro to some extent, but also fostering a network of solar villages and thereby reducing national debt while employing the ample solar energy of Cambodia.

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