Cambodia and the 2013 Corruption Perception Index


Cambodia is now perceived by investors as Southeast Asia’s most corrupt country, behind Myanmar, the DRC, and Zimbabwe on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index. This, to me, is just crazy, especially when considering how much aid money goes to the Cambodian government each year to promote “good governance,” “democracy,” and provide programming for “technical assistance” to “build capacity” of government officials and agencies.

I collected data from the last several years to see how Cambodia’s rankings have changed in the areas of corruption, human development, and peace, as well as how much U.S. aid money they have received each year. The numbers show something really interesting: the amount of U.S. aid money to Cambodia increases nearly every year. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Global Peace Index (GPI) scores also slightly improve each year. The positive relationship is statistically significant, perhaps showing that U.S. aid is helping Cambodia in these two areas.

The Corruption Perception Index score and rank, however, has an insignificant, nearly negative relationship with aid (i.e., aid goes up, CPI score and rank stay the same or go down). Is this coincidence, or is it more proof for aid dependency theory? What do you think?

Corruption Perception Index (Transparency International)
2005  130  23
2006  151  21
2007  162  20
2008  166  18
2009  158  20
2010  154  21
2011  164  21
2012  157  22
2013  160  20

Global Peace Index (Institute for Economics and Peace)
2007  85  2.2
2008  91  2.18
2009  105  2.18
2010  111  2.25
2011  115  2.3
2012  108  2.21
2013  115  2.26

Human Development Index
2005   0.501
2006   0.511
2007   0.520
2008   0.520
2009   0.526
2010   0.528
2011   0.532
2012   0.538
2013   0.543

USAID money to Cambodia (approximate, data collected from
2006  54.9 million
2007  57.3 million
2008  58.2 million
2009  65.2 million
2010  72.6 million
2011  75.4 million
2012  76.1 million
2013  73.5 million
2014  73.4 million

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Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the new blood sugar


About a year ago we were reminded in a blog by David Pred of IDI, “Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood.” Now, you can officially say the same about Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The blood sugar campaign continued after hundreds of farmers in Cambodia were forcibly evicted to make way for agro-industrial sugar cane plantations, run by key Pepsi and Coke suppliers. Thanks to the ongoing activism of these farmers, supported by Oxfam and other civil society organizations, these corporations were finally called out for the atrocities occurring within their supply chain.

In Cambodia, sugar provides a major industry with exports at around $13 million last year. The product has the potential to bring local people out of poverty, but the opposite has proven true in practice. This is especially true in Cambodia where investments are carried out in a top-down, non-transparent, and even violent manner.

The companies must begin to follow their obligations under international law: exercise due diligence, obtain free, prior, and informed consent, and conduct social, human rights, environmental, and health impact assessments before carrying out investments, so that local people and not just industry can benefit. It’s not a lot to ask when considering the profit companies are making from these land grabs.

Coca-Cola recently pledged a zero-tolerance policy of land-grabbing by suppliers and bottlers. Pepsi should use this opportunity to foster corporate competition of a different kind and take an even bigger step in the direction of corporate social responsibility: for communities that agree to sugar plantations, what if the company directly engaged with community members from the beginning, ensured communities had their own independent attorney during the investment process, and left them plenty of land to farm as well as farming technology and training programmes? If small-holding farmers agree to let investors use their land–which is the basis of their whole livelihood–again, this is not much to ask of a huge corporation.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola need to act now, accept responsibility for their suppliers’ unacceptable conduct toward our world’s smallholding farmers, and come up with new, innovative policies that will benefit all involved parties in the future.


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Ordaining Trees in Koh Kong

One of my favorite environmental protection strategies: ordaining, or blessing, trees.

Forty monks traveled nine hours by bus from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong Province to walk 30 kilometers through the forest and spread out 80 meters of orange cloth through the forest. The goal is to stop a Chinese company from building an exploitative hydropower dam. The monks were followed by armed police as they walked through the forest.

See the article from the Phnom Penh Post here.


New UNHCHR Report on Businesses and Indigenous Peoples

New UNHCHR Report on Businesses and Indigenous Peoples

This week, the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises presented its first thematic report to the UN General Assembly. The report explores the challenges in addressing the adverse effects of business activities on indigenous peoples’ rights. The Working Group’s report highlights how the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can clarify the roles and responsibilities of States, business enterprises, and indigenous peoples in addressing problems involving land use and ownership, and displacement through forced or economic resettlement.

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Oxfam has it wrong about communal land titling in Cambodia.

Oxfam recently stated that communal titling efforts are necessary to protect the natural resources of indigenous communities in Cambodia according to the Phnom Penh Post (see below). This is an assumption that donors have already been operating on for more than a decade, and it hasn’t worked.

Despite the fact that more than ten NGOs have been working with indigenous communities since as early as 1998, only five communal titles have been granted to indigenous communities since the Land Law passed in 2001. Forty-nine villages have completed the communal titling process and are waiting on the last step. The national government has demonstrated it does not intend to provide communal titles to indigenous villages.

Communal titling processes have not enabled people to protect their land against outsiders. A large number of these communities, even the ones who have finished the process set out under the law, have lost their land to investors. Just going through the process of trying to obtain a communal land title takes years.  And the process is not necessarily helpful: some communities who complete all legalities may still not even have a map to show which land is theirs. When an investor comes into their community with a document authorized by the national government, the investor’s official documents will trump their traditional ownership in front of any government or dispute resolution body.

Most recently, communal titling efforts thus far also demonstrably did not protect communities against privatization efforts meant to incorporate them into investments. Hundreds of indigenous families’ private plots of land within Economic Land Concessions were privatized under the government’s Directive 01BB: Measures Reinforcing and Increasing the Efficiency of the Management of Economic Land Concessions*. Companies easily cleared the communal land around those private plots of land, and the indigenous families now live on small plots encompassed by agro-industrial plantations. Now the government has additional justifications for rejecting communities’ communal land title applications. First, most of the communities’ lands are privatized, making their communal title applications invalid since demonstrated communal land use is a prerequisite. Second, because most of the communities’ communal land has been cleared by companies,  obtaining the communal titles to protect their communal land becomes irrelevant.

In focusing on the end results of communal titles, donors have missed a huge opportunity to actually empower people to protect their land. In a country like Cambodia where the national law is rarely enforced at the local level, going through nationally set-up legal processes will not help communities. Donors need to focus on what is actually useful.

One NGO in Ratanakiri Province has taken this approach since 1998. They have conducted the national legal process backwards: one of the first steps is to delineate communities’ borders and mark them. Since the NGO began its efforts, not one of these communities has had issues with investors. When the privatization project Directive 01BB passed through Ratanakiri Province, each of these communities refused to participate out of a desire to protect their communal land. Practical empowering tools, not national bureaucratic steps, helps communities protect their communal land. Provide people with practical tools that enable their communities to interface with powerful national or international actors, and ultimately protect their land and natural resources.

*Btw, why hasn’t anyone recognized how ironic the title of this policy is, considering the fact that the government claimed the policy was meant to formalize peoples’ existing land rights with titles?

oxfam land titling

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Send them to the field!…again

Thank you all for the wonderful discussion and responses on my latest post. I love talking about things like this – this is how we make aid better!  I apologize for the late response…After a year of working in “the field” in Cambodia, I’m now working in an urban center in Sierra Leone. Ironically I just returned from a three-day field visit, where I had to figure out a village’s complex land issues…in three days. I am my own worst enemy! Joking. Anyway…

I hope I can respond to most of your comments. To clarify definitions for the sake of this discussion, I tried to use the term “the field” in the context of my post to define places that are geographically close to the beneficiary – who are usually in rural areas. I should have more clearly defined the urban/rural distinction, but I made an assumption that we would all agree that right now, most development programs are focused on issues in rural areas. Other increasingly popular programs also place a value on rural areas at their foundations – those that focus on “good governance” and “democracy-building” based on a principle of “de-centralization.” Yet, as I argued, most of the international workers that help with these programs are based in the city.

Of course, I would not purport that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. And sure, urbanization is increasing, but I would argue the majority of development will and should stay in rural areas for quite some time. De-agrianization is not even close to becoming absolute and most people, I would argue, will continue to rely on the land for subsistence and small-scale commercial agriculture in the countryside.

Anyway, this is all outside of the scope of the meat of the debate here – no one is trying to argue that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. As for those of you who would argue that people working on projects affecting rural people should work in the cities, here are some of my clarifications.

I do not try to make the absolutist argument that “field experience” inevitably creates competence, or that lack of it indicates incompetence. I do believe that field experience (using my above definition of “the field”) increases the chances of competence – both on the job and afterward. Life in rural areas in developing countries is challenging, requiring self-development. It’s often lonely, requiring introspection. There are language and cultural barriers, requiring a constant realization of country context. Project activities and impacts are in-your-face on a day-to-day basis, requiring constant project re-evaluation. It requires one to ask the questions, “Why am I here?” “What are we doing?” or even, “Who am I?”…opposed to the questions that I often found myself asking when I worked in the city: “Who are the people in these pictures?” “Where can I find this information or data?” “What are the impacts of our project?” And then the existential crisis: “Why am I sitting at this desk all day living the exact same life I could be living at home, but with slower internet?”

I’m being a bit facetious. Sure, maybe the work from city to field isn’t all that different, but the lifestyle necessitates a different approach and perspective to the work. Relevant information is more accessible. It’s easier to conduct activities or make changes that actually affect beneficiaries because they’re right there. And perhaps most importantly, the lifestyle necessitates both professional and personal growth.

We can still do capacity-building and report-writing and all of the things we internationals are meant to be doing in the field. In fact, capacity building in particular is even more needed in rural areas, especially in local government offices. De-centralization, anyone?

Certainly both rural and urban local aid workers are essential to the operation of an organization. Relocating international workers will not replace local workers – it will simply put the two side-by-side instead of having them (sometimes) communicate electronically. And sure, I would never undercut the work of local development workers and their cultural understandings, but we should not depend on them entirely. There is undeniably a class divide between local aid workers and beneficiaries, and this is exacerbated in urban areas. I saw this a lot in Cambodia, for example, where ethnic Khmer people in the city, from the city, were working on rural development of indigenous peoples – as opposed to indigenous peoples I worked with in the rural areas trying to create indigenous networks in their home communities.

I should explain my personal background, where a lot of my beliefs come from. My first development job was working in rural Cambodia as a volunteer for an organization. The field staff spoke such little English that I found my efforts there quite useless. I spent most of the time communicating with international staff via my computer. But I used my location to do something else too: I stuck my nose in a book and learned Khmer. After three months, I was able to do my job. One year later, I returned to that same rural area to work with indigenous people on land rights issues, and I feel as though my work during that year was incredibly effective because of (1) my location and (2) my language abilities. I gained a better understanding on culture and localities from each daily conversation. People – including the beneficiaries – were incredibly open and responsive, and often told me they respected and trusted me more because I lived there and had invested in them and their country. I was able to spot a huge gap between what our local staff were doing in the project and what the project did for the beneficiaries, and re-wrote the project. I had one-on-one meetings with local government officials who became invested in our project and engaged with each other, local organizations, and communities.

I’m not saying these things can’t happen on a short-term field visit, translated or no, but aren’t the chances of success higher? And aren’t the field workers coming out with more knowledge, character, and experiences than they would have from sitting in a clichéd air-conditioned office all day?

Even beyond the amazing things we can do while we’re in the field, it is also what that experience enables us to do later. “Where” I did my work led me to a different “how” I think about my work. (Again, I don’t think field experience automatically does this for everyone, but it did it for me.) I’m now working in Freetown, Sierra Leone on rural land issues. Even by working in the city in a different country, my field experience in Cambodia has given me a fresh outlook on my city to field work. I have noticed that I now approach work and the ex-pat lifestyle with a much more respectful and curious localized focus: learning the Krio language, learning about history and culture, making local friends, cooking local food, etc… and most importantly, I recognize that I cannot know or understand everything about this place, even by doing these things. I cannot place the country, project, or beneficiaries in a text box in Microsoft Word. Locals are complex human beings too, not just pictures on a page, with their own culture, language, and dreams. I know the beneficiary and the real issue is always much more complicated than I think it is.

I do make about one field visit per week, and I recognize maybe it is not enough. I might be more effective if I lived right where the problems were, and maybe someday I will again, but for now, my experience in the field has given me all the perspective I need.

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The Field

Alison Rabe:

A response to my latest blog on sending them to the field..

Originally posted on AidSpeak:

I just have to get this out: “The Field” is overrated.

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy “the field” (whatever that even means–I take it to mean someplace with no metered taxis, where street food is less likely to make you sick than restaurant food, the local beer is marginal, and the internet is slow/non-available. In other words, rural Michigan, Saskatchewan, huge swaths of Australia, and pretty much all of Scotland. But I digress). I do enjoy the field. But I still think it’s overrated.


Well, for starters, no one ever means the same thing when they say “the field.” “The field”, or “worked in the field”, or “when I was in the field”, and a thousand variants thereof all can and do mean vastly different things, depending on who’s doing the talking (or blogging). Working as the chief logistician at the UN facility in Dubai, being senior…

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Happy anniversary to me

Alison Rabe:

Perfect descriptions of Cambodia from my old housemate, Anna.

Originally posted on Anna's triplog:

Two years ago today, I walked across the Cambodian-Thai border into Poipet and, in standard Poipet form, promptly fell victim to my first scam. Not only did I pay almost double the standard fare for a minivan from the border to Kampong Thom ($20 seemed like a reasonable price at the time…), but I paid it twice. Once to the man who arranged my ticket for me in Poipet, and once to the driver who told me he didn’t know the other guy and that he’d been told I would pay on arrival in Kampong Thom. I have since learned how to say “please write a receipt” in Khmer.

Two years…and only two friends and two family members have come to visit! Get on it people, you’re running out of time!

Two years…and the impossible colour of rice fields, the submerged-but-for-the-eyes water buffaloes, the adoring fathers gushing and playing with…

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Send them to the field!

Development workers are living developed lives. Getting out into the romantically portrayed “field” is a rarity, a special opportunity, something to be bragged about over the internet. Although development workers are mostly working on rural development issues (In most developing countries a majority of the population is rural and depends on agriculture for livelihoods.), they are living in the cities, far from those they are supposed to “develop.” The separation between cities and the countryside is not only geographical, but also cultural. How then can development workers in the cities know how to resolve issues affecting their “beneficiaries” in a far away land?

To be most effective, development workers need to go to the field and stay there.

Working in the field would give development workers an opportunity to have a new lifestyle, localize their experiences and knowledge, cut costs, and ultimately give them the ability to do their jobs and deliver aid effectively and efficiently.

There is very little information on this, but I think all of we development workers can agree that most of us live in city centers packed with expats of all shapes and sizes. It is unclear how this happened.

From higher-up academic-y levels that often influence how we do our jobs, some have argued that NGOs need to be close to country power centers in the city. Ironically, decentralization is now widely promoted as a vital component to “good governance” and “democracy-building.” And in developing countries where rule of law is often lacking, the top-down, state-centered approach tends not to work anyway. This point alone has made up many a doctoral thesis.

NGOs continue to perpetuate concentration of power in city centers due to their inability to communicate with local governments. International aid workers’ largely urban presence legitimizes undue power-wielding by national authorities and perpetuates the unequal development progress they are supposedly mitigating.

Theoretical issues aside (this is just a blog entry, after all), development workers’ distance from the field is problematic from the most practical point of view. The field is where the people are and where the culture is. We’ve all bragged about our Western “efforts” to “get down with the people” and “be more local,” which, in the cities, is much more difficult to do. Development workers believe they are making an effort by taking a language course once a week with friends during their two-hour lunch breaks. They claim they love the local cuisine because they have a cheap set meal with English-speaking co-workers a few times a week in an open-air restaurant. They are so close to the local people because they had a five minute conversation with their English-speaking landlady last night. Of course, this is all a cynical exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.



A field. See, it’s not so bad!


Our best resources are the local people affected by the projects we are trying to implement, and most likely these people are not in the city. International development workers’ main cultural and human resources are their local co-workers in their white-walled, air-conditioned offices. When working on issues affecting disadvantaged populations, however, local development workers are not omniscient. They too have a geographical and class distance from the populations that NGO projects tend to target.

From my experiences in Asia, getting at the root of the problem takes time and intimacy with the local people and culture in “the field,”–a field visit or two is not enough. A person can ask as many questions as they possibly can think up over a three-day period and not get a straight answer that touches on the real issue. Situations are most effectively and thoroughly assessed through every-day relationships, through which free-flow, long-term conversations can take place. The result of this would be actual outcomes, realistic approaches, improved partnerships and lines of communication, and generally more effective projects. (Not to mention the theoretical decentralization advantages of giving local governance a voice, see above.) The field gives easy access to our most knowledgeable informant: the beneficiary.


Sure, living in the field is difficult. I’m an extrovert, and the quiet of the countryside has sometimes felt isolating. I’ve been frustrated by cultural working differences. The internet speed leaves something to be desired. I crave a good burger every once in a while. Yeah, life is so hard.

Some might argue that because life in the field lacks pristine living conditions and Western-ish salaries, it might not appeal to the best and brightest. The assumption here, however, is that development workers have the same motivations as those that go into other lines of work, i.e., money.

On the contrary, many fellow aid workers I know came into this line of work wanting to accomplish the cliché but genuine goal of “helping people.” I’ve heard many development workers say how they were surprised, and even felt guilty, at the Western form their foreign lives have taken. They generally eat the same food, hang with similar people, and spend their days typing over their computers without breaking a sweat, much like they did in their home countries.

Many aid workers I know are not satisfied with this lifestyle–they recognize their distance from the “beneficiary,” shamelessly and blatantly noting the ineffectiveness of their own work. Many took on aid jobs expecting them to be more local or exotic, but city life sucks them into an international lifestyle, increasing their distance from the people they came to help. Although it is “difficult” to live and work in the field, at the same time, many aid workers in the city crave the experience.

Development jobs should fulfill their expectations and send them to the field.

The added bonus is that administrative costs would be greatly reduced. Office spaces in the field are exponentially cheaper than in the city. Overhead would further plummet when you cut out field visits and per diem expenses, which spoil us (get real people, we’ve all pocketed per diem money). Due to decreased living expenses, international salaries could also be reduced. Donors, are you drooling yet?

Western people flock to Western things, and some might argue that all of this will only bring Western food, lodging, and entertainment (in its worst forms) into the field. Studies have shown that people prefer to associate with people and places that reaffirm who they already are. This argument assumes that development workers may always prefer distance from local customs and populations, preferring instead to associate with each other over three dollar cappuccinos.

This may be true for some people that work in development, but much like we came into this field to “help people,” we also did it because we love living in a totally different place, we are fascinated by cultural differences, we enjoy ethnic foods, and, again, we have a heart for the disadvantaged. If this fact isn’t enough, development jobs could be re-drawn to attract people who are dedicated and passionate about foreign culture, language, and people, not just wanting an opportunity to be cool living in a city where they can have a fancy Western lifestyle. Job advertisements should promote cultural intimacy from the beginning.

Living in the field is sometimes difficult , but it is not agonizing. It is always possible to fill some of my Western desires (a lady I know at the market always sells peanut butter). At the same time, being deprived of the opportunity to eat a burger over English conversation every night has made my experience much more enriching. It didn’t hurt, either; the countryside life easily drew me in once I let it. As for the rest of us still in the cities, we must make a concerted effort to resist our every Western whim and try to our best to get in touch with the local culture–that is, until the donors buck up and put us where we belong. Send them to the field!

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Comments on the recent article in The Economist re rubber in Cambodia

Here’s my response to The Economist’s most recent article on rubber in Cambodia, which I posted on their site.

I’m glad this article brings to the forefront a crucial issue in Cambodia, but some of the more nuanced information you mentioned about the “youth volunteers” seems a bit uninformed. I worked in rural Cambodia with indigenous people and conducted a study on this policy (you can see the report here: and indigenous people have overwhelmingly reported negative issues and  impacts. Lack of recognition of this point portrays Hun Sen’s policy in a favorable light.

These “youth volunteers” are going to resolve disputes, with little training in conflict resolution, over plots of land where rubber companies and communities intersect. What happens as a result in practice evidences the government’s desire to agro-industrialize much of Cambodia’s arable land, especially in the northeast where indigenous people reside.
The man you mentioned, Kut Mao, is probably not ethnic Khmer. When assistance from the youth volunteers is sought by ethnic Khmer people, they are often denied help. Hun Sen stated numerous times that this policy is not meant to resolve disputes with companies, most likely for fear of undermining existing legal dispute resolution mechanisms.
Kut Mao is instead most likely indigenous, because indigenous people in conflict with companies have been strategically targeted by this policy. These communities have more rarely requested the youth volunteers’ assistance–in part due to lack of information in their isolated districts–but nearly all indigenous villages in conflict with companies have been privatized by this policy. It is a strategic plan of the Cambodian government to break apart indigenous communities through privatization. It is a human rights violation as it deprives indigenous people of their customary communal lands, a right they are guaranteed under international and Cambodian law.
Kut Mao will perhaps get a private land title over a two-hectare land plot from the youth volunteers, even though he needs more than five for food security and will lose his communal lands, spirit forests, and burial forests shared by members of the community. His two-hectare plot will be surrounded by a rubber plantation. The company will close in. He will be threatened and coerced by company and government officials. He will likely be forced to sell the land at an inadequate 100 dollars per hectare. He will then try to relocate to another place to cultivate.
Iem Somean indicates that she too is indigenous due to her use of communal land. She demonstrates the overwhelming desire of indigenous people to secure tenure over the communal lands–with communal land titles, not the private land titles that the youth volunteer policy provides.

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