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.

1 comment:

khmerization said...

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