There is no doubt that poor, developing countries are at a disadvantage on the global stage. Whether they suffer from internal difficulties or from suppression by external forces, there is a definite imbalance of power within the global community. Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University, argues that poor countries get stuck in international relationships that he calls “traps.” These traps come in a variety of different disguises, and must be addressed; however, Collier suggests a number of different methods to “spring” the traps, so to speak, and to spur development in countries whose development is lagging behind. One country that is caught in many of these traps is Cambodia. Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia that is still recovering from a communist revolution-turned-genocide that was committed by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s; with this civil war came a variety of different problems that can be addressed using Collier’s framework.
II. A Brief Contextual History of Cambodia
Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia, sharing a border with Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. During the age of colonization, from the late 1850s onward, Cambodia was colonized by the French; the country remained a French colony until 1906, when the French returned Cambodian control of the territories to the Khmer King, King Sihanouk (Blunt and Turner). The Khmer regained full control of their territories from the French much later, however, in the early 1950s (Blunt and Turner). Soon after attaining independence from the French, Cambodia was sucked into the American conflict with Vietnam; history often overlooks the part that the American conflict with Vietnam played insofar as the rise of the Khmer Rouge is concerned. However, it was the American conflict in Vietnam that allowed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the beginning of the revolution, government overthrow, and eventual genocide in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge genocide is unique in that the people targeted by the Khmer Rouge are not ethnically-other in the same way that other genocides have been. Instead, the Khmer Rouge targeted the Khmer intellectual class and the Chinese-Khmer minority, all but eliminating the educated strata of society (Blunt and Turner). The Khmer Rouge was responsible for anywhere between one and three million deaths, but the long-term effects of the genocide were much more significant; it is these effects that will be explored throughout the text. The reign of the Khmer Rouge ended when Vietnam invaded from the east in 1978, removing Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot from power, and eventually restoring power to a new government and the King (Blunt and Turner). Today, Cambodia’s government is democratic in name only, with a single party system and a King who holds minimal real power (Blunt and Turner).
III. The Conflict Trap
Although it has been nearly a half-century since the coup that tore down Cambodia’s government, Cambodia is still reeling from the conflict. According to Blunt and Turner, Cambodia has extremely good economic prospects-- indeed, economic growth has been at 6% for nearly two decades-- but the country is still lacking in a number of ways, perhaps most notably from the lack of academics and intellectuals in the country. Without an intellectual class, it is very difficult for the country to rebuild any semblance of a long-term, sustainable economy, especially because the current Cambodian economy is so reliant upon tourism and foreign involvement in the economy (Blunt and Turner).
The most common response to conflict is for other, wealthier countries to flood the affected country with aid. However, as de Souza writes:
[Collier] finds evidence that aid can provide an incentive to coups, and suggests this is because coups are often over quickly allowing coup leaders to access aid resources when in government. In contrast, rebellions tend to be fuelled by natural resources – as these can be exploited at any time by rebel movements. Collier notes that the key risk factors to rebellions and coups are slow growth and low income and shows that in post-conflict situations, the security benefits alone are more than enough to justify a large aid program. Collier cautions that the mistake in recent times is that aid to post conflict situations has been too little too soon. Aid floods in early and then dries up. He argues that large aid flows need to be sustained during the first post-conflict decade. (de Souza).
In Cambodia’s case, aid must address the problem of education in Cambodia, particularly the education of young Cambodian women. Research has suggested again and again that the education of women is one of the fundamental ways to circumvent the poverty trap; educational programs for women in a country like Cambodia-- a patriarchal country, but one that is open to the education of young women-- could be aid programs that could help turn the country in a new direction in an economic sense (Stiglitz and Greenwald). Committing to programs that educate young women can boost the economic prospects of countries like Cambodia, particularly because the country is small in size. Because of the genocide that occurred, the population is relatively young as well, offering nearly unlimited potential if the full force of the underprivileged youth in the country is mobilized (Blunt and Turner).
There are options for aid programs to places like Cambodia, but these aid programs must be utilized in a much more effective manner to make long-term change in countries like Cambodia. Educational programs, and programs that are designed to help the people who were left destitute and poverty-stricken by the revolution and its aftermath are excellent ways to begin providing aid to Cambodia. Collier writes, “The aid agencies are not run by fools. they are full of intelligent people severely constrained by what public opinion permitsPressure works, but it needs to be organized. This is the domain of the NGOs and the rock stars” (Collier). In short, Collier suggests that aid programs must be well-designed, but also specially-designed for the country that they are destined for. What works in Africa may not work in Cambodia; what works as a solution in Cambodia may be largely ineffective for a multitude of reasons in Zimbabwe or Zambia. The geographical and population size of Cambodia when compared to larger countries is one of the main reasons that different types of aid programs must be considered here.
IV. The Bad Governance Trap
The problem of revolutions and coups, Collier says, is that they beget further revolutions and coups. This is not to say that every coup is followed by another coup; however, every coup is followed by a period of economic and governmental instability, during which time it is much more likely that another coup will occur (Collier). Collier suggests that this governmental instability is locked irrevocably in with the idea of revolutions, civil wars, and coups; he also notes that the sheer cost of a civil war is enough to topple an economy (Collier). Collier writes, “suppose a country starts its independence with the three economic characteristics that globally make a country prone to civil war: low income, slow growth, and dependence upon primary commodity exports. It is playing Russian roulette. That is not just an idle metaphor: the risk that a country in the bottom billion falls into civil war in any five-year period is nearly one in six, the same risk facing a player of Russian roulette” (Collier). This is an apt metaphor, and one that truly illustrates the problem facing countries like Cambodia today; the fact that Cambodia has not fallen into another coup or civil war is a positive step for the country, but the political rigidity, corruption, and extreme poverty in the countryside means that Cambodia certainly has the potential for another military revolt if tensions run too high.
Another issue facing Cambodia is the issue of corruption. Corruption levels in Cambodian government are high; for this reason, traditional aid to the country often has difficulty reaching the poorest members of the Khmer working class (Blunt and Turner). This is why aid programs must be so carefully designed to reach the working classes. The Cambodian government is small, but a small government is not necessarily protection against corruption within the country.
Cambodia suffers from another problem that plagues many of the bottom billion countries-- it is a country that has an economy that is made up of primarily labor-intensive, manufacturing-based work. This work is poorly paid, and does not provide upward mobility for those trapped in the manufacturing industry (Collier). Indeed, the longer an individual works in the manufacturing industry, the more likely he or she is to become injured, sick, or unable to work for some other reason (Collier). Carter and Barrett suggest that to assist in pulling “bottom billion” countries out of the economic trap, trade and export preference must be given to those nations who possess large amounts of the most poverty-stricken individuals; this will help relieve the pressure within the country and on the global community as a whole (Carter and Barrett).
V. The Natural Resources Trap
Fortunately, Cambodia’s natural resources trap is not locked as tightly as some other nations. Cambodia has access to some old-growth forests, and there is petroleum in her waters off the coast in the Gulf of Thailand, but as far as natural resource plundering is concerned, Cambodia has fallen far short of other nations, like those in Africa and the Middle East (Collier). However, the country has suffered deforestation in some locations, and is working with neighboring Vietnam to restore the natural resources of the country to its previous state, in the hopes of maintaining tourist traffic (Collier).
VI. Analysis and Potential Solutions
Collier has provided an extremely convincing metric for analyzing the state of developing nations. He has given rise to a series of theoretical approaches to the issue of evening the global playing field that were, before his synthesis, a variety of poorly-connected schools of thought. Collier’s suggestion of the integration of aid programs with appropriate military intervention, changes in international trade policies, and the creation of international charters that provide good structural stability for developing nations provide an excellent framework for addressing the problems that continue to plague the developing world. While not foolproof, Collier’s suggestions present a consistent, integrated approach that may reduce some of the guesswork in the process of helping the most poverty-stricken places around the world.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the text and the various talks that Collier has given is that there is no way to help everyone; aid efforts should focus solely on those who are facing the most extreme types of poverty. Once levels of extreme poverty have been eased, focus can be shifted to raising the living standards of everyone across the globe. In short, Collier’s system is an integrated triage system for the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. This may seem to be cold or harsh, but it may help break down the problem into smaller, more solvable pieces.
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