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Cambodia Not Alone in Resource Mismanagement

Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in developing countries and learned that Cambodia is not alone in struggling to use natural resources to benefit its citizens. The resource curse, where natural riches fail to help the poor, is a worldwide scourge, the global experts told VOA Khmer in numerous interviews. Below is Part Five of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.

Similar to other poor countries rich in resources, Cambodia faces problems in management of its timber and minerals, experts say. Common problems include inequity in distribution of revenues, bureaucratic politics, corruption, non-transparency and the absence of system of checks and balances.

Glen Matlack, an environmental and plant biology professor at Ohio University, said the situation in Cambodia was not surprising.

“I think that’s very similar to many cases in the world,” Matlack said. “I am sorry to say it. It is normal for the government to sell concessions of resources. It happens all the time in every tropical continent. It’s not a mystery. It’s a process. It’s a form of crime that is well understood. We have many examples. So, we cannot plead surprise or ignorance when it happens.”

Similarly, William Ascher, a professor of government and economics at Claremont Mckenna College, in California, and author of “Why Governments Waste Natural Resources: Policy Failures in Developing Countries,” was struck by how similar the challenges are facing Cambodia and the rest of the developing countries.

“Regardless of the region of the countries, regardless of what the resources were, whether they were timber, or oil, or mineral, or water, or anything else,” Ascher said. “I think the same kind of situation would hold in Cambodia, the same kind of discipline in managing the natural resources should hold, and the same principle. So, I really don’t see that Cambodia would be an exceptional case in any significant way.”

The London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness in February published a report about Cambodia’s extractive industries, including evidence-based allegations against the country’s political and economic elites, asserting that a ruling clique is at least partly mismanaging Cambodia’s natural resources.

The Global Witness report focused on the government’s management of gem mining, oil and natural gas extraction plans. In a report in June 2007, Global Witness looked at the logging industry in Cambodia, alleging that top officials and their family members benefited from the business of timber export.

Eleanor Nichol, a Global Witness campaigner, called Cambodia an extreme example of natural resource corruption.

In many countries, Global Witness looks at only one natural resource economy, either mining or oil, for example, but in Cambodia, the group looks at the exploitation of the entire sector of natural resources, from forestry, fisheries, land, mining and oil concessions.

“The fundamental underlying factor which binds all of these together is impunity, under which a small group of individuals are able to operate, which allows them to go into, say, the forest or the land or the mine or the oil concessions, and to claim them for their own,” Nichol said.

“The only thing that will hope to address this is the application of the rule of law in Cambodia, and that must start at the top, with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An carrying out thorough investigations when there appears to be wrongdoing being carried out by members of the inner circle of political and military elites,” she said.

Global Witness’s reports are banned in Cambodia, but Ascher, who acknowledged the group as well established, said such reporting should be taken seriously.

“The government of Cambodia has to decide on how to deal with this in interaction with civil society groups in Cambodia,” he said. “That’s not at all surprising. I’ve seen a number of countries where government officials will sometimes take a negative view of a highly critical report. Sometimes they correctly hold the view that outsiders cannot fully appreciate the kind of challenges they face.”

Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist and author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” told VOA Khmer by phone that Cambodia does not have a good history in managing natural resources effectively or efficiently.

“There needs to be a fresh start on working with the private sector and taxing the private sector effectively,” Collier said. “The key step is [a] transparent arrangement with the private sector. Global Witness I think is a very well respected organization. Those criticisms need to be taken seriously.”

Cambodia is blessed with natural resources. Beneath its soil run veins of gems, gold and iron, and under its sea, oil. On its land are natural forests that offer timber wealth, and in its fresh and salt water are fish, the main source of protein for citizens.

However, few Cambodians benefit, despite this abundance, experts say, as the revenues go into the hands of political and economic elites.