Pouring money into a broken pot

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Pouring money into a broken pot

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I was sitting at a cafe on the bank of the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. The dry season has started, but it is still sizzling hot in Cambodia. I ordered a glass of beer and was watching the waves of people and traffic in downtown. Then a young girl with a tanned face approached and spoke to me in English, “Where do you come from?”

She must have been barely 10 years old. She was wearing a display on her narrow shoulders, trying to sell cheap accessories. She was pointing to a bracelet and repeated, “Three dollars.” I waved my hand to let her know I did not need the bracelet and gave her a $1 bill. She snatched the money and disappeared. In no time, I was surrounded by several boys and girls selling similar products.

Visitors to Cambodia do not need to exchange currency. The U.S. dollar is used commonly. The basic fee on an auto rickshaw taxi called a tuk-tuk is a dollar. If you go a distance, you pay about $3. But if you ride on the backseat of a motorcycle driven by young Cambodians, you can travel far cheaper. The streets are chaotic with cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and pedestrians. The 19th century, the 20th century and the 21st century coexist in Cambodia.

Cambodia is the “test bed of international assistance.” Various organizations under the United Nations and assistance providers, including Korea, and nongovernmental organizations, have given billions of dollars to Cambodia. Nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign assistance. However, I cannot help but think that we are pouring money into a broken pot. Whenever I visit Cambodia, I feel frustrated and hopeless. No one knows where to start to fix the problem.

Koreans remember the days when young boys sold ice cream on the street in summer. That was four decades ago. I flew out of Cambodia and arrived at Incheon International Airport and disembarked into a completely different world. Over a generation, Korea has accomplished astonishing economic growth, even though it led to various problems and political democratization, and Korea’s case is nothing short of a miracle.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen came into power after driving out the Khmer Rouge, but 27 years later he is still leading Cambodia. With the general election slated for July 2013, the international community is pressuring the Cambodian government to conduct a fair election. But not many people expect regime change.

Few Cambodians are free from the extensive food chain of corruption centered on the Hun Sen family. The food chain is hidden behind the boys and girls selling accessories on the street. Stagnant water is bound to rot. No matter how much money is invested, nothing will change fundamentally unless politics change. It is the dilemma of international assistance.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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