Friday, December 26, 2008

Cambodian Cash

Dear Ryan,

Cambodian paper notes are called riel, and like a lot of countries’ money, they come in all the colors of the rainbow—an indigo shade for the smallest 100 riel bills, pink and burgundy for the 500, blue for the 1000, and so on. But it doesn’t take very long to realize that the national currency is really just for show. I rarely buy anything larger than a snack on the street with riel. For all intents and purposes, Cambodia runs on the pure green of U.S. dollars.

On a personal level, this is very convenient. I haven’t had to spend any time thinking about exchange rates. ATMs will spit crisp prints of Jackson and Grant at you with the push of a button. One needs only to be careful that the bills don’t get carelessly left in a pocket or the bottom of a purse. I was confused by the way cashiers fastidiously examine every millimeter of a bill for tears and imperfections, until I realized that trading in a currency not really your own means that you have no easy way of taking money out of circulation or putting more in. Why it is U.S. dollars rather than euros or yen, I really have no idea. I suppose it is because (at least until recently) it was the most stable currency around. But I am just guessing, as I do about most financial matters in Cambodia.

One thing is certain—Cambodia has embraced capitalism with wild fervor and, with it, an almost manic striving for wealth. To step outside the front gate is to be immediately bombarded with people trying to sell me something—a tuk-tuk ride, a massage, a piece of fruit. And that same desire for money is on every rung of the economic ladder. A Western friend asked a Khmer friend who the Cambodian people considered heroes, and the Khmer couldn’t come up with a good answer. All he could say is that most Khmer would consider anyone with money to be a hero.

I am not trying to bash the Cambodian people. They have been pillaged and picked apart for centuries longer than the U.S. has existed, and the fact that they have scraped together even a semblance of stability and normalcy just one generation after a mass genocide is nothing short of miraculous. But it exhausts me, sometimes, noticing how much further they have to go, in matters both large (a mess of an education system, poor health care) and small (the postal service seems more inclined to hold packages hostage rather than actually deliver them). It’s like America in the early nineteenth century, except with more cell phones. And for them to move from the third world to the first one is going to take a lot more time and money. Which begs the question, where does the money come from?

I’m no expert on the Cambodian economy, but it doesn’t seem like they’re thriving in terms of manufacturing or exporting goods. There’s no way they can compete in that department with surrounding countries. There’s tourism, I guess, but Angkor Wat is the one big attraction, and everyone here in Siem Reap who owns a business is expecting a dry spell due to the economic crisis the world over. So a lot of Cambodia’s money is still coming from foreign aid. And while I’m not begrudging them that and feel like it’s worth it if it keeps things from crumbling into chaos again (Cambodia has not yet turned me into a Republican), it’s frustrating to see signs that the money is being misused or mismanaged.

A lot of foreign money gets poured into NGOs, some of which seem to be little more than scam operations. There are plenty of reputable, upstanding NGOs, too, but even they seem sometimes misguided. For example, I went with a newly-founded organization as it was making its first delivery of school supplies to a poor rural district. The kids were excited about the books and pencils, but word had spread through the village and there wasn’t nearly enough to go around. The NGO staff were also handing out candy, and as I watched I couldn’t help thinking, "These kids’ teeth are rotting out of their heads and we’re giving them candy? How about toothbrushes?" A feeling of utter hopelessness took root in my stomach when the NGO leaders started to ask the villagers about how to expand the school and their basic response was, "Why? Whether you finish first grade or sixth grade, you’re going to be working in a rice paddy." A part of me kept thinking that maybe they should spare everyone the trouble and just divide up the Western staff’s salaries among the villagers so they could all go buy a house someplace else—instead of teaching them to fish, just give them the damn fish, already. All I’m saying is that even with the very purest intentions behind an enterprise, it often seems like the blind leading the blind.

But any trespasses of the NGOs pale in comparison to that of the corrupt government. It’s taken as a given here that everyone and his brother is skimming a little (or a lot) off the top. And if government officials are getting rich that way, what incentive do they have to make their country a more pleasant place for the masses? Giant billboards of the prime minister, Hun Sen, and his top two lackeys are everywhere, and Jason and I have come to refer to them as the three stooges. Nonetheless, Hun Sen seems to be remarkably popular, even though he’s a former member of the Khmer Rouge, a fact that everyone seems to conveniently overlook. That’s like if, in the post-Civil War U.S., Robert E. Lee took over the presidency after Lincoln got shot. Or maybe like if Osama Bin Laden renounced radical Islam tomorrow and we thanked him with a prompt appointment to the Supreme Court.

But what’s the alternative? I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except that I think Cambodia needs some sort of uber-financial consultant—some big mythic version of you who will come along and tell not just individuals but the whole country what to do with its money. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could take this mess and with some deft computations tidy it into a nice secure investment portfolio? Because even I, the member of the family with the least financial acumen, can see that when it comes to Cambodian cash, something always smells fishy, and it’s not the Tonle Sap lake.

With love,

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