Friday, January 16, 2009

Why It Is So Hard to Break the Poverty Cycle (II)

We have poor and prosperous countries. Unfortunately, Cambodia belongs to the former for reasons meanwhile known to all but the more ignorant followers of Cambodian history. I am always amazed at people in Cambodia, and that includes many opposition members, but also at many Khmer abroad for displaying the same ignorance when it comes to the economic and social development of this country.

Many of them point to the inadequacy of the current government’s policies and first and foremost to the rampant corruption hampering the development. While it is true that corruption is a very large factor contributing to the slow pace of development, it is in no way true that the often cited $500 million estimated to be lost to corruption would move the country forward faster. I have pointed out in the past that this figure is grossly misleading as it includes all that petty money flowing into civil servants pockets for lack of better pay, e. g. the $5 bribe to the policeman for closing his eyes to a wrong turn, or the $10 to speed things up at the Sangkat.

The cycle of poverty is a vicious cycle, from which to break out is oftentimes very hard, if not entirely impossible. The example of my experience does not presume that it is exclusively each individual’s own responsibility to pull him- or herself out of poverty. This tenet is the dominating philosophy in the U. S. and in arch-capitalist circles in Europe. This school of thought has been proven to contribute to diminishing the middle class, and to enrich the upper class. It is not a model to emulate.

I don’t want to go into the mechanisms that cause poverty. That has been written about by more scholarly people. However, it is undisputed that the government’s job is to provide the social infrastructure, in which it is possible for the individual utilize and take advantage of options that would help him- or herself to break that cycle. Simply put that infrastructure comprises a functioning health system for all, an adequate free educational system available to everyone, and a fair tax system that levies taxes on people who have been more fortunate and make enough. After all, everybody has a social responsibility. All these things are not yet present in Cambodia today. There are many more, but I would think these are the most important ones in the social sector.

When it comes to the economy, however, there are many differing opinions on what is best for a country. I tend to go with the European model, in which the public sector contributes about 40%, in some countries like France, for instance, up to or even over 60%, to the gross domestic product. But nonetheless, people have to take responsibility for their own lives. That is to say, they must grab the opportunities offered to them, be it in education, or in the workplace. Missed chances often end in stagnant or even declining individual progress.

Sadly in our example and for most of the poor population in Cambodia, however, that cycle most likely cannot be broken for lack of social infrastructure, lack of opportunities, and widespread lack of individual capabilities due to the lack of the former two. In that sense, the poverty cycle is a classical catch-22 situation. This is where outside expertise and help comes in; not only help from foreign governments and NGOs, but from individuals who would be in a position to help, like the overseas Khmer. So, one would wish that rather than continuing to condemn the current government for its inefficiency and corruption, all those people would just see the reality as it is and take matters in their own hands and help in a meaningful way. Come here and help re-build the country. This will, in the end, also change the system currently entrenched in Cambodia. Anything else is just bluster and rather meaningless.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why It Is so Hard to Break the Poverty Cycle

I mainly used to comment on economic and political events in Cambodia. To illustrate life in Cambodia to the outsider, however, nothing shows this better than personal experiences.

This outwardly honest young man, Ohm Hen’s grandson from the previous post, had moved with his young wife into Ohm Hen’s little house, mainly to take care of her – a very laudable effort on his part. Another reason was that he wanted to find a job in Phnom Penh. His wife, 3 months pregnant, was working in a garment factory. So, at least they had some money. Things seemed to work out for them.

Of course, as he used to live there with his grandma before he knows most of the neighbors already and consequently went to hang out with them. Obviously he did this so much that his wife felt neglected and became outright jealous about this. He is 21, and she is 20. There were no other women or even alcohol involved. This all took place over a period of maybe one month. To make a long story short, the young wife got so distraught that she tried to commit suicide by swallowing 25 iron supplement tablets her doctor had given her to help her and her unborn baby during her pregnancy.

When the young man came home that one night he found his wife on her bed clearly not feeling well. On pressuring her it all came out. They live about 20 km from the center of Phnom Penh. He hired a tuk-tuk and rushed her to the Calamette hospital. As I mentioned in the other post they won’t treat anybody until they have paid. Sroik, the young man, didn’t have any money so he sped to his young aunt, herself a recent mother, and borrowed $40 from her so he could pay the hospital. They pumped the wife’s stomach and gave her IV infusions. She needed to stay hospitalized overnight. The next day the doctors said she was ready to go home. She should just take it easy and rest for a few days. No food for the first day. So far so good.

His aunt Pisey and her husband were very sympathetic and said Chanda, the wife, ought to see another doctor to check on her. One of their acquaintances was a doctor; so they took her to his office. That doctor kept her for 2 more days and then released her.

Needless to say, that Chanda didn’t go to work during that time, and it is not sure whether she will still have that job when she goes back to work. We know that business is very slow these days in all sectors in Cambodia.

Sroik hadn’t found a steady job either. He helps out painting the new school in the district. But it’s no long-term job. Both are in debt to their aunt and uncle for $40 and to the doctor for another $45. This is not a whole lot in the West, but for these people who don’t have any money at all it seems like an insurmountable debt. Normally, they would make about $100 together, but without job, what could they do, and how are they going to pay it back?

Do these young people have any prospect of a better life? They are completely uneducated, barely able to read and write. They are poor. But they are young. One can’t forget that even poor people have a sexual drive. They started dating, to use the Western term, and obviously finally had sex together. After a while, the girl got pregnant. So they got married, whether voluntarily or because Sroik was threatened with whatever Chanda would think up, we don’t know. Rumors fly in these cases. They profess love for each other, but who really knows. I doubt that in their confusion they know it themselves. It goes without saying that they had no money for a wedding ceremony or party. So his mother borrowed $500 at her village for the wedding.

And now this. If this story takes its almost predictable course, as in millions of other cases, they would just subsist on whatever they could scrounge together. But they would most likely have more babies, which would grow up malnourished and also without access to a better education, making them day laborers, or in the worst case, even beggars - all because the young parents didn’t think things through. Why didn’t they use contraceptives? They are readily available. The government runs clinics dispensing free IUDs for women and condom use is propagated throughout, including TV commercials. If worst comes to worst, the young man will be fed up with this dire life after a few years, and just take a hike, like so many other young and older man are wont to do.

Footnote: This is not to slap myself on the back, but just to forestall many a thought in this direction a reader might have. Yes, my wife and I will intervene and see what we can do for these people and how we can help them. One thing is for sure, right after the baby is born we will take them to a family planning center.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Old Age in Cambodia

We heard about the 189 deportees from the U. S. back to Cambodia (see story below). The problems these people pose to the country as a whole pale compared to the problems prevalent in Cambodia today due to a complete lack of even the most basic social assistance programs. We are appalled when we read about Western countries having a poverty rate of about 15%, e. g. industrialized countries like the U. S., France, or Germany. And those countries do have a system in place to assist people in need, some better, some worse, as in the U. S.

But it is outright distressing when one comes to realize what old people face in this country. Of course, it has to do with poverty, and I am sure a lot of pundits will point to the inequality of the system, in which the officials line their own pockets, the rich drive around in Lexuses and Landrovers, while the poor don’t know where to find their next meal.

The social fabric of Khmer society the way I have come to know it is still the cohesion of the family. The family is the nucleus of every society, both Western and Asian. But whereas in the West the state has taken over some of the traditional roles and functions formerly performed by the family, the family-based system of support is still very much the norm in Cambodia, and in all of Asia for that matter. We don’t need to dwell on why most Asian countries haven’t followed the industrialized world’s example in the social sector. I just want to highlight one old person’s life from my personal experience to show how much needs to be done in Cambodia in that field. There is so much griping going on about the various shortcomings and weaknesses of this country, e. g. human rights, workers’ rights, sexual exploitation because they make for so much better headlines that the lives of the elderly seemingly are largely forgotten.

Ohm Hen, let’s use the traditional Khmer form, is over 70 years old. As is often the case she doesn’t know her exact age. She was born in a village in Kratie province. Basically the entire village population is related to one another on account of the traditional form of arranged marriages. Oftentimes, families don’t look very far to find spouses for their children. Cousins, direct or once removed, are considered prime candidates. People are sure of their bloodlines and everything sort of stays in the family.

This is why Ohm Hen is also a distant aunt of my wife’s. Ohm Hen married young, had one child, which she lost because of a childhood disease. Unfortunately, in her thirties she also broke her back in a fall leaving her with a hunchback as doctors then did not set the broken bones. She couldn’t afford treatment in a hospital. She and her husband made it through the Pol Pot years, and even adopted a girl so they would have someone to take care of them in old age. As in almost all Asian countries this is still the main reason for people having numerous children. That doesn’t mean they don’t love them any less than their Western counterparts. The more children you have the higher the likelihood that they can afford a normal life in old age.
Ohm Hen was not blessed this way. Her husband died some twenty years ago, leaving Ohm Hen with a young adopted girl to fend for herself. Times were hard and it was mostly an uphill battle. Sadly enough, the girl’s life didn’t turn out so well either. She also had a baby boy at a very young age and did not get married to the father. The Pol Pot and subsequent Communist years had markedly affected traditional family values in such a way that taking responsibility was not an option for many a young father. So this young man also took the easy way out and left his wife, his baby, and his responsibility behind. He up and left them.

Soon after the daughter thought she might make a better living elsewhere and left her mother, leaving her baby there. Ohm Hen was back to square one, as we like to say. But she took care of the boy and raised him to be a poor but honest young man. Though the mother occasionally came back to live with them when she had again fallen on hard times, she always felt the urge to leave for greener (?) pastures. Who knows what she was doing during those times. The last time she left was to escape from her creditors. She had borrowed heavily from neighbors. When the pressure became too strong she skedaddled.

In her later years Ohm Hen had developed severe hip joint pain due to wear of the cartilage, which in the last year or so had rendered her practically immobile. She was spending her days by herself. She was still able to move around a little, cook her food, but she could no longer go to the market. For the longest time her grandson took care of her. But once he was 18 he found a job as a driver of one of those minibuses that serve as the main means of transportation for the poor people. The problem was he did not have a driver’s license and whenever he saw police he took a detour to avoid being stopped and hassled for some bribe. He made about $70 a month but with his living expenses, like rent and food, there wasn’t anything left over to support his grandma.

Ohm Hen scraped together what she could mostly from relatives. She has 4 sisters, but all of them with families of their own, and none of them in a position to either provide shelter or support for Ohm Hen. She practically lived on handouts. Before last year she hadn’t seen her daughter in 3 years. Her living conditions are outright depressing. They had built a ram-shackle wooden hut on a river-bank on the outskirts of Phnom Penh very close to one of the new ring roads that have been built. The city government might come any day to tell them they had to move as it needed the land for further development. Needless to say, Ohm Hen does not have any right to the place. She is a squatter.

When the situation with her hip got so bad she couldn’t move any more she sought help from her sisters. But none of them could offer any. At one point late last year her son had made contact with his mother again. It turned out she had remarried. Her husband, an amputee, was doing some business as a middleman in some real estate deals in the province. They finally took her in. Her grandson moved with her and continued working as a driver of a minibus running a daily service from the village to Phnom Penh. After a couple of months the pain got so bad again she needed to see a doctor. So she moved back to her ram-shackle hut. Apparently she also had a falling out with her daughter again, since times had gotten tough with the real estate business melting down like snow in sunshine. Her daughter was facing her own problems again.

So here she was. Her grandson, although only 21, had gotten married too. Both his wife and he moved into the hut with Ohm Hen. The wife managed to get a job in a garment factory. So they had at least some income. But the grandson had lost his job. The wages of a factory worker isn’t normally enough for one person, let alone three. And there is certainly no budget for doctor’s expenses. To make matters even worse, the wife is already pregnant.

Nobody was able to help her with her hip pain. Anyone who has ever been to the Calamette hospital in Phnom Penh knows how it works. An obviously poor person in pain comes in. That person is just left on a stretcher for hours. The doctors know that person probably can’t pay the fees so they just leave them there. After something like 6 to 8 hours they look at them, write a prescription, and that’s that. Poor people don’t have the money to pay for the medication anyway. So where is the help? This happened to Ohm Hen. And this happens to thousands after thousands of people.

Water storage

The Kitchen

'Prime Location'
The Living and Bedroom

One of Ohm Hen’s sisters is in similar situation. They are in their late sixties. Although the husband had worked all his life he doesn’t have any reserves for his retirement. They have one son whom they gave up for adoption to a Canadian couple before the Pol Pot years, thinking this will give him a good education and job in Canada so he could support them in old age. They also adopted a girl. Once the son had grown up he did his duty and sent money every month. He even started his own business in Canada, which afforded him a good life style.

Meanwhile the daughter of that sister, let’s call her Ohm Sim, had gotten married but they just lived an average life, which in Cambodia means you may make enough to barely live on. The economy in Canada suffered just like the rest of the world in 2008. So the son wasn’t able to support his parents any more. He used to send them $100 every month – good money for poor people. Now that wasn’t coming any more. Ohm Sim has a heart condition. This can’t be treated either for lack of money.

What are these people supposed to do? The family can’t help; they are poor themselves. The government doesn’t help; they neither have the money, nor any program, nor apparently not even the will to bring about any change for the millions of poor people in the country. Roughly 70 % live in rural areas and the majority of those exist on subsistence farming. At least they have enough to eat. But when it comes to health care they turn to traditional medicine with questionable results, or just leave illnesses untreated, dying an early death. City dwellers are a different matter altogether as the recent dramas involving city squatters has shown. They used to scrounge together enough money so they could even afford a moped.

China even has it written in their constitution that the family must support their old parents. The Cambodian constitution is rather hazy on the subject.

Article 47,2 says: Children shall have the right to take good care of their elderly mother and father according to Khmer traditions.

A right is inherently passive in nature so the word is ill-chosen in this context. But the Khmer word in the original text is more inclusive. Nonetheless, this is easier said than done in Cambodia. If the children don’t have the means, how can they take good care of their elderly parents? It may run against their deep-rooted convictions and Buddhist traditions, but the government has a social responsibility towards their poor and elderly.

But tragically, news headlines rarely touch on this very important social aspect. It deserves much more attention than what this deep-running problem is getting now. The public conscience seemingly doesn’t want to deal with it. But it doesn’t go away by simply ignoring it; it only gets worse.

Footnote: When this came to my attention we started to help Ohm Hen by paying for her doctor’s visits, medication, and food. We are at this time looking for a new place to stay. We also occasionally give some money to Ohm Sim.