Monday, June 09, 2008

Singapore and Cambodian governments, jobs and aid

I got a called from the Al Jazeera TV station last week. It was their office in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and they wanted to do a story on foreign aid and its impact on Cambodia. The researcher came across the blog and thought I'd be perfect for a contrarian view on foreign donations. This is because I state categorically that Bloom is NOT an NGO and why we refuse to register as one. Anyway, the TV station's panel discussion will take place in Phnom Penh on Wednesday (I have no idea when the show will be broadcast) and I have to miss it because Alan is away and I need to look after my dogs, which always come first.

I did reply to their question on why I disagree with the huge amount of donation this country receives (see below). At the end of the day, what is more effective in helping this country is not aid, but jobs. I am optimistic that eventually, Cambodia will make it. Khmers want to learn English and the government is trying to make this place more conducive for business. I am not sure the government bothers too much about improving the average Cambodian standard of living through foreign investment, but whatever--that improvement in the average Khmer life *will* happen. A happy consequence of FDI.

The former developing countries that have succeeded, like Singapore and South Korea, did so not through aid, but through industry. I cannot comment on South Korea but I've always thought that one of the reasons Singapore succeeded is precisely because we lack natural resources.

In resource rich countries like the Gulf states and African nations, there is really no compelling reason for the government to invest in its people. They can get rich simply through the land--oil, forests, plantations etc. You will find that these countries I mention do not bother with educating its people. In fact, in many ways, it makes sense for these governments NOT to educate its people--educated people tend to be troublemakers, challenging the status quo.

Contrast this with the case of Singapore, which has nothing--no land, no rice, not even our own water (we import this from Malaysia). There is no other way for the government to get rich, except through its people. That is why the Singapore government invested in our education and training--to make us a diligent workforce that would attract foreign investors. One of the ways the government can then make money is through taxation. A cynical or pragmatic view of politics? People often tell me how good the Singapore government is, for investing in our education, but I was never convinced that "good" means "altruistic" in this case.

So what do we make of the many, many governments in countries such as the US, Canada, Australia that have both natural resources and a firm belief in education? They're smart enough to recognise the country can only be as powerful as its people are? I don't know. I *do* know it has taken the west hundreds of years to get to where they are, and they had the industrial revolution which empowered many people, economically. Perhaps they had to invest in education because of pressure from their by now economically powerful people? I don't know the answer but the history of education should tell us, which is why I will go investigate.

Anyway, here is the gist of my answer to Al Jazeera:

"I believe regular and constant handouts create a dependency mentality that is ultimately detrimental to people--and not just Cambodians. You can draw comparisons with the welfare system in developed countries, which I think discourages work and independence, replaces pride with poor self-esteem and marginalises instead of integrating people into economic and community life. All over the world, welfare benefits have created people who are dysfunctional--whether the indigenous people in the US, Australia or Canada. These "beneficiaries" are often stuck in a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and despondency.

"I believe there is value and honour in work, and it is work that often makes life interesting and worthwhile. We feel a sense of achievement when we create something of value and we share a sense of belonging when we work alongside other people. With Bloom, we are taking small steps for Cambodians to learn a skill and a trade so they can produce and sell quality products that people all over the world want, thereby, be part of the international trading community."

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