Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cambodia versus Bangladesh

I have just returned from two weeks on holiday in Cambodia, and whilst I could regal with tales of that small country caught between Thailand and Vietnam, but as this is a Bangladesh journal, it maybe more interesting to look at how the two compare. I did find myself looking at the development projects and policies, to see what Cambodian were doing differently. And some of it is almost amusing: in Siem Reap, the town from which one can see the temples of Angkor, JICA (the Japanese DFID) had installed rubbish bins along the river, resplendent with the JICA logo and the claim of technical assistance from the Japanese people – quite why Cambodians needed Japanese assistance to come up with the idea of rubbish bins is not explained, and it certainly cannot be priority for Cambodia, which ‘boasts’ the largest per capita amputee population in the world due to its millions of landmines.

But what is interesting is how much better Cambodia is than Bangladesh. Its major cities are smart, French like centres with proper paving, flowers, ornamental lighting, clean rivers, and subterranean drainage. There is poverty, but the rural houses are larger, the cattle look healthier, children manage to go to school much more often and gender equality and equity is in a better state. However, what is most striking is that whilst Bangladesh seems to be stagnating, and has ever since its conception, Cambodia really has a future. Possessing possibly the greatest temple complex that humankind has ever created is of enormous benefit and is a major global tourist attraction, but in addition the country has invested in upgrading its roads and cities, has discovered a major oil field of its coast and has a relaxed and welcoming attitude towards difference.

Tourism is a major part of the Cambodian economy, and it already received 1 million visitors a year, only 9 years after the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated and stability returned to the country. Given that Egypt received 8 million tourists a year and that Angkor is on a par with the pyramids of Giza, Cambodian tourism is surely going to rocket in the future. It is true that much of this business is foreigned owned – in Siem Reap it is big foreign hotel chains like Sofitel and Meridian, and bars and clubs owned by expats from Europe and Australia litter the major towns, but these are bringing jobs and development with them, as they require good quality electricity and water supplies, and many, many staff. Around the temples, the kids that sell books and postcards attend school in the morning and language classes in the evenings – many that I talked to already spoke English and German or Italian as well as their native Khmer, at only 7 or 8 years of age, and all wanted to be tour guides in the future. With visitor numbers increasing and groups from China, Korea, the US, Spain, and the Middle East, all of these children seem to have real opportunities: tour guides are well paid and their skills are sought after.

With this education – it can be hoped – comes further development as educated people are better placed to demand their rights and force their governments to be accountable. Corruption is a problem in Cambodia but it is being tackled heavily by the development partners, and with DFID and USAID putting lots into HIV/AIDS, this issue seems to be, at the surface, under control. Cambodia is full of adverts for HIV testing centres, billboards advertising condoms and giving information of HIV/AIDS, all of which are unthinkable in Bangladesh, which is still in denial about the realities of the disease within its borders.

Cambodia felt lighter, more optimistic, more hopeful. It certainly helps to have Angkor as a golden ticket to foreign income, but there is a more diversified economy than just tourism, and more people seemed to be getting a slice of the cake. Bangladesh, on the other hand, looks like it has nowhere to go. Its only real resource is its cheap labour (4-5 times cheaper than Cambodia), and manufactures only tolerate the traffic congestion, lack of infrastructure and poor export facilities because labour costs are so low. But, with tarrifs on textiles about to come down in the US, and Africa being opened up to investment (where labour is even more cheap and new infrastructure can be purpose built), it seems that rather than lift off, Bangladesh is about to face decline. There is no tourist industry, there is visible, widespread poverty (there are more Dhakaians than Cambodians), the cities are shabby and dilapidated, and the urban middle and upper classes engage with the public realm only when they can extract something from it. Cambodia and Cambodians are being exploited by textile manufactures, tourist industries, oil companies, development agencies, human traffickers, logging companies and many others. But Bangladesh is not: in a globalised world it remains the case that the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist, is not being exploited by a capitalist. This seems to be Bangladesh’s fate.


Katie said...


I too just got back to Dhaka from Cambodia. During my travels there I had many of the same thoughts as these and of course felt compelled to make comparisons between the two.

Is your exhibition still on display?



Tom said...


I'm afraid the exhibition has finished now - there has been a write up in the New Age (June 5th) and Daily Star (June 19th) which you can access online. We hope to publish a book in the next few months on the same issue which will cover the same material.

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shuwaib said...

hi tom

thats a nice piece you have written. i wish i could have seen what you have. i am not going to disagree with you on many of the valid points you have made. to be honest when i left dhaka, the issues you raised were exactly some of my fears.

anyways, im starting work in chelmsford in just over a month's time.. cant wait..


MPSINFO said...

Rationalized write up! Great points of comparison. I am from Cambodia. Now I am having a meeting in Dhaka. Nice to have learned that you like my country.