Corruption? In Cambodia?

A recent article in the Cambodia Daily, our local English newspaper, reported a drop in Cambodia’s rating in the Corruption Perceptions Index put out by a group called Transparency International. In fact, it stands at 162 out of 180 countries surveyed.

The same issue reported on another survey which measured the ease of doing business in various countries. This one, put out by the World Bank, rated our favorite little country at 145 out of 178. Cambo was sandwiched in between the African countries of Gabon and Djibouti, and behind Iraq, which, obviously, calls the entire process into question. Easier to do business in Iraq than Cambodia?

In the corruption index, Cambodia’s rank puts it in the company of Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Turkmenistan and Venezuela. Venezuela? Got to be kidding, or extremely prejudiced to put Hugo Chavez’s country down at the bottom. Possibly, the framers of the survey, or the (most likely upper class) responders in Venezuela, or both, consider literacy drives and health care for all as indicators of corruption. While I personally have no experience with Venezuela, those corruption numbers seem highly implausible.

All of these types of surveys have their full-of-shit aspects. They also have their measure of validity, but clearly, they don’t always mean that much taken out of context and never tell the whole story.

A couple years back I had my own little scrape with running a business here. I found it to be very easy, indeed. A substantial bribe to the license guys and the process was smooth as can be. Good thing I had an employee with bargaining skills, otherwise I would have paid $200, their first offer, rather than the $80 I wound up shelling out. It’s only because the guy before me had paid $80 that I understood the necessity of sticking to my guns.

In fact, I understand that the standard fee is $5, but that requires going down to the license bureau, filling out the paperwork, lots of waiting, etc. So, what could be easier than a little baksheesh to grease the wheels. Another 20 bucks to the local cops, which I was assured was a one-off, or at least once-a-year payment and they would be at my service should I ever have needed them.

Anyway, Cambodia’s public servants earn a pittance, nowhere near enough to live on, so what the hell, I don’t mind throwing a little money their way to make sure the job gets done in a timely manner.

That isn’t to say that corruption doesn’t have its costs. The garment industry, for instance, complains that 20% of their expenses go to corruption, a surcharge which almost makes them non-competitive in the world market. And while a little dishonesty can help to keep the wheels of government turning smoothly, it’s the nature of the beast for recipients of bribery to become greedy and the whole process to get way out of hand.

We had a Hollywood style shoot-out in my neighborhood a couple weeks back. One fellow, a 24-year-old military police official, was driving an S-class Mercedes, the other, also in his mid-twenties and some type of police official, was driving one of those massive luxury SUV’s.

Now, one occasionally sees an RCAF (Royal Cambodia Armed Forces) license plate on a motorbike or lowly used Camry, so it must be inferred that, with the exception of vehicles that obviously look like military issue, those vehicles are privately owned. Ok, so one thing we can know for certain is that that young fellow didn’t buy his Mercedes on his meager monthly salary, which would barely cover fuel for one of those guzzlers. He also probably isn’t independently wealthy, otherwise why bother being in the military.

That leaves two options: either he has access to fantastically lucrative corruption, or his luxury wheels, as well as all those other classy rides we see around town sporting RCAF plates, are perks of the job. It’s good to know that Cambodia is doing its part in keeping the luxury car market healthy, but I imagine that one of the world’s poorest countries – Cambodia’s per capita income is around $500 a year, barely more than a dollar a day – could find better ways to use its resources.

According to a friend, each of eleven district leaders in a neighboring province (a province here would be the size of a county in America) drives a Lexus SUV. Considering a rural classroom can be built for about 25 grand – about one-third the cost of a big Lexus - and that many rural areas are short of classrooms, it’s clear that corruption has seriously skewed the country’s priorities.

What baffles me sometimes is how Prime Minister Hun Sen can come across as such a swaggering tough guy and also seem to be so earnest in wanting Cambodia to prosper and yet be so powerless on the corruption front.

Maybe it’s a matter of not wanting to rock the boat, burn any toes. The country does seem to be working well; the infrastructure is steadily improving; construction, tourism, the garment industry and property values are all spiking. The economy rose something like 14% last year.

Still, think of all the millions spent on luxury vehicles that could’ve been put to better use, improving the plight of the desperately poor who make up the vast majority of Cambodians. Living in Phnom Penh, with its fleets of decaled show wagons, it’s almost easy to lose sight of that poverty, or at least brush what is visible aside.

It’s also important to look at the wider picture: You can’t bribe your way out of a traffic fine in most of America, neither do you see minor officials receiving $80,000 Lexus’s as job perks. However, you do often see multibillion dollar fraud, the whole congress bought by corporations, the return of torture as standard operating procedure, stolen elections - the acme of political corruption - and much much more. At least Cambodia has plausible, albeit lame, excuses for its excesses.