Monday, August 29, 2011

From the Khmer Rouge to the Khmer Riche

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Ravaged by the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil war the country's infrastructure is in shambles.  The violence also wildly shifted Cambodia's demographics: over 50% of the Cambodia population is under 22 years old.  These young people lack the education and productive skills necessary to develop the Cambodian economy.  Per capita Cambodia ranks 188th (of 227) on a purchasing power parity basis - the average Cambodian income is about $2,100 US dollars per year, the average American's $47,200.

But the world stands ready to help Cambodia face it challenges.  Year after year Cambodia is flooded with international aid that flows directly to the Cambodian government and to aid organizations.  Estimates vary, but Cambodia has received some $6-10 billion dollars in aid over the past ten years.  And while the goal of the aid is to develop better governance, infrastructure, education, and health-services the effect appears to be primarily the enrichment of the organizations that receive the aid.  This is because the corruption in Cambodia is rampant.  The money flows in and gets skimmed.  And it gets skimmed again, and again.  In the excellent book Cambodia's Curse, Joel Brinkley argued that each year roughly half of the donated international aid - hundreds of millions of dollars - was stolen by corrupt leaders.  Indeed, it is reported that Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is one of the richest men in Asia, and the wealthiest government official in the entire world.

And how did this effect us?  We were shocked in our visit to Phnom Penh by the display of wealth of the capital city.  Despite the average income of $2,100 I'd never seen so many Lexus, Land Rover, and Mercedes SUVs.  It seems that it is the official car of the government bureaucrat.  And why shouldn't it be?  Here are just a few of the cars we saw one afternoon.  If you can't tell what type of car it is just look on the side, the owners proudly display the make and model across the front and back doors...

Our wheels during our visit to Phonm Phen were more modest.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I remember reading this article a couple of years ago but it really stayed with me. There are Khmer riche kids here in the states sent by their affluent families to study at colleges and universities along side with Cambodian youths who came to the U.S under very different circumstances. The mentality of the Khmer riche kids are exactly as described in the article. They feel entitled (even here) and are not ashamed by the exploits made by their family. It is unfortunate because they are the future of Cambodia...

  2. Let's hope trickle down works in Cambodia.


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