Contemporary Development: Eyes on Local Challenges (Part 1)

Note that this article was written based on the author’s own experience and perception after having been, (though I dare not say “extensively”) somewhat involved in two main development areas in Cambodia: Climate Change and Gender. To be specific, what I am going to tell you will be based on my observation from direct and indirect contacts (lots of structured interviews and conversations) with ministries, development partners, NGOs and private sectors. Enjoy.

Seeing that the 2015 ASEAN Economic Integration is imminent, I can see (with my 6th sense) that all eyes are cast over the agenda, the proposed changes, and the pros and cons of the more intimate regional cooperation. With great outcomes anticipated, we all can feel the excitement and the impatience of people all across the ASEAN community. While this spirit is vital in bringing forth success of the regional effort, I strongly believe that we should also place an equal level of attention on local challenges and opportunities because only when we understand ourselves can we understand and achieve the broader and more ambitious goals of ASEAN. Thus, I would like to lead your attention toward the development challenges in Cambodia, and wherever appropriate, I will introduce my version of solutions. I hope that comprehending such challenges will offer valuable lessons learnt to be further applied in future development efforts, locally and regionally.

Please note that, I do not and cannot generalize the points I made here due to the simple fact that heterogeneity exists, meaning all countries, even ones in close proximity to each other as Thailand, Vietname, Lao and Cambodia, are inherently different. At best, what we can do now is regarding Cambodia as a case study and take into account the possibility that some similarities actually exist. Anyway, let’s get down to business.

Development comes in all colors, but what is your vision?

You see, following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations back in the year 2000, 8 primary global development goals were established:

– Eradicate poverty

– Achieve universal primary education

– Promote gender equality and empower women

– Reduce child mortality

– Improve maternal health

– Combat HIV, Malaria and other diseases

– Ensure environmental sustainability

– Global partnership for development

These 8 goals are officially known as the “Millennium Development Goals”, or in short, MDGs. These goals are, in one way or another, correlated, and their correlations involve complex causality. The existence of the bidirectional relationships implies that an isolate promotion of a goal without prior comprehensive study of all MDGs can potentially be detrimental to the likelihood of accomplishing other goals. It is not a myth, nor is it an intimidation or discouragement. It is an accepted truth that, I believe, those in the realm of development are well-aware of.

So, what account for this unneeded complexity? Why can’t life be easier?

The answer to this question might vary based on whom you ask and from what angle you approach the idea. From my corner, I have witnessed the presence of several constraints which I perceive as explicit problems that demand attention from all stakeholders involved. I will go through the list one by one and explain to you why development could have been much more effective based on my work experience in Cambodia. I, personally, see all the barriers wrapped up in two big packages: Resource constraint and Human factors. Now, you might think that these two are overlapping, and well, you are not completely wrong. But, please note that, in this article, resource constraint is more about the money and the physical capital such as table, computer, printer, etc. Human resource will be a separate category that is tied to the Human Factors, while the human factors will also include many other facets. Let’s not wait any longer and dive into it.

1. Resource Constraint

1.1. Internal Constraint

It goes without saying that everything cannot begin with nothing, and that is to say development need inputs ranging from paper clips to vehicles, from various forms of foreign aids to local human resources, and anything in-between. Resources are, as we all know, scarce. Currently, we are mobilizing resources from two primary sources, national budget and foreign aids (grants, donations, etc). Needless to say, the latter accounts for a much larger amount of resources utilized in the development efforts for developing countires like Cambodia.

The problem is that the national budget is tight. Though priorities are to be made (and have been made), the sheer size of areas that simultaneously demand improvement make decision regarding items (what, where, when) to be prioritized a daunting task. Certain areas require parallel attention to their complements, while some others manifest conflicts with each other. For instance, education and physical infrastructure are two closely tied sectors. To say that children can go to school without the school itself physically and without roads that connect them to their schools are utterly absurd. Hence, if one want to improve education quality, one must first make schools available and also “accessible”. Otherwise, it is no different from giving children laptops without providing them electricity.

As if that is not enough of a challenge, we are slapped in the face by the issue of conflicting development areas. An instance of this can be seen in the attempt to provide more jobs to the population, through which the government might end up having to solve long-term costly health problem. How? First… before we start, if you are a girl, hold my hand, and let me lead you down the road step by step. If you are a guy, well, stay close, but don’t touch me…

You see, developing nations are normally labour intensive by nature, meaning they have a large number of cheap labour force. In such labour intensive industries, like in the garment industry, workers (mostly women) are being afflicted with malnutrition that can deteriorate their health and impose long-term cost on their physical well-being, especially during maternity (i.e. it also affects their children). This exploitation, in addition to the weak regulation by the government, can spell long-term deterioration for the public health. Thus, increasing employment rate is good, in economic sense, but if we talk economics + development, employment raising needs to be coupled with strong attention towards health and food sectors to ensure that each worker receives, at least for the first small step, the bare minimum nourishment and medical care.

So, with this much room for improvement, you can see how the already minimal national budget has to be divided, leaving each sector only a small amount that might or might not be enough to yield much outcome.

In fact, when it comes to resource constraint, it is a problem for us all. While the budget seems to be the only main concern, there are less visible problems lurking around, and failing to identify them can incur much undesirable future cost. For instance, in addition to the health issue, an attempt to create jobs, especially via the growing labour-intensive garment industry, will eventually lead to the issue of urban-bound migration or labour-drain from all other sectors that offer lower incentive (money, freedom, friends…) than the garment sector. Ultimately, it will lead to labour shortage in important domains like agriculture and service. This is not just my naive imagination. I did witness the sad truth that the young is moving out of their village in pursuit of greater opportunity in the city, leaving only the parents to do farming. Regardless, this is no negative per se. Such a thing as smooth trasition does exist. If the government carefully regulates the movement of labour and provide them enough training and guidance about the broader picture of the job market, they can later return or move to new sectors. I also think that, in our case, more investment in food crop production needs to be made to satisfy human consumption and keep food price at reasonable and stable level. Thus, there needs to be balance between food cash crop (corn, wheat, rice, etc) and non-food cash crop (like cotton, tobacco, etc), and the government needs to turn their eyes to this issue if they have yet to do so.

Of course, there is a natural mechanism that governs labour movement. As other industries suffer from labour shortage, wages will increase in those sectors which act as incentive for new entrants. However, for that to happen, the government needs to ensure a free-market environment that allows wage to adjust in response to the supply of workforce. One way to achieve that is by providing information regarding employment opportunities and proper wage level to both employers and employees. What I mean is that everyone should have a better hawk-eye view on the economy. That is why both public and private employment agencies should be established and vigorously promoted. I believe it can greatly ease the labour flow and make growth more widespread across the country. Only when information is widespread, only when transparency exists, can free market function properly.

1.2. External Constraint

So far, we have only discussed about the local constraints. But, we cannot deny the fact that we are living in an open economy, which basically implies our connection to the world. Because development initiatives, for the most part, stemmed from the west, from countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the European Union as a whole, etc., the giver/lender and receiver/borrower relationships cannot be ignored.

The listed countries above are the sources of funding for many development projects, big and small in Asia, Africa, and countries in other regions. They play a very important role in ensuring success and far-reaching favorable outcomes.

so many hands, so limited resources

But… we, developing nations, are the victims of the large numbers. This means that even aids from developed nations like members of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) are not limitless. WIth their own national priorities needed to be taken care of, with many pressing global issues like climate change and civil war, and with nearly half the global population in poverty (while more than a billion in poverty), donors have no option but to divide up their financial supports into tiny pieces so that everyone can have a bit of the juice. This means that a country might not get much from the external source to begin with. Not to mention, as a developing nation begins to grow and get back up on its feet, the source of easy external funding will dry up quick as more resources are reallocated to where they are in more urgent need like in poorer countries. Thus, nations that are not well-equipped with efficacious financial management capability and proper economic, social and legal frameworks that enable them to be more self-dependent will begin to feel the stress as foreign aids withdrawn.

So, to cushion such impact at the later stage of development, it is within our best interest to begin the establishment of a more robust and reliable economic, social and legal frameworks as well as financial system that are adapted to our own local contents.

2. Human Factors

While human or human resource is definitely within the broader category “resource”, I want to place special attention on this so-called human resource alone, not just on the physical labour but also the knowledge that governs all other factors. Why special attention, you ask? Because we are the ones who govern it all. We are the common resource for all productions of goods and services. We are the ones who decide what to do, where and when to do, and how to do. Thereby, the long-term growth really depends on how much efforts we exert and to where such efforts are channeled. The bottomline is that development is the process of improving the living standard of humans by humans. Every drop of our effort will eventually end up as decisive factors for our success, and how much efforts we can put will be decided by how developed we are in our abilities to further develop. With the existence of this positive feedback loop (i.e. A starts by producing B, and in turn, B will produce more of A, and more of A will produce even more of B, and this repeats), human factors are the ones that need most attention, and sadly, also the ones that pose the most challenges.

2.1. Knowledge

Giving computers and teaching computer are equally essential in development

It goes without saying that knowledge plays a crucial role in development. Suffice to say, any attempts to attain the fruit of development would be futile in the absence of knowledge. Developing countries are confronting with this barrier, and not that people are absolutely clueless, but in a sense that there is a mismatch between the demanded knowledge and what is available for supply.

Most least-developed economies started out as primary sector-centric (agriculture-based, suppliers of raw materials, etc), and as the countries grow, they eventually enter into the transition phase towards a more manufacturing-based economy, an economy that is capable of converting inputs into some forms of higher-valued outputs.

According to Solow Growth Model (see Econ Bite-size for info on Rober Solow and his growth theory), the vast amount of labour available due to the presence of more younger population will substantially increase the return to capital. This means that once capital such as sewing machines, computers, fishing boats, trucks, and so forth are injected into the country of readily available and accessible labour, we can expect a high return from such investment. For instance, the introduction of agricultural machinery will bring growth spurt to a country that used to solely rely on traditional means of rice farming. Think of it this way – whereas before a person could only produce 1 sack of rice, with agricultural modernization, a person now with the assistance of machine will be able to produce 100 sacks of rice, all while riding like a boss on his/her tractor.

However, the flaw of such claim is the outright assumption that the person inherently knows how to operate the agricultural machinery, which is absurd. Now, this is where the challenges lie.

The first human factor that is a concern in every development battlefield is the insufficient human capital, i.e. those with suitable skills and knowledge. Sometimes, it is not a mere shortage of skilled labour, but also a mismatch between skills in demand and skills supplied as mentioned earlier.

In public institutions, this particular problem is so glaring that I almost got blind looking. It can be regarded as a classic economic problem at the structural level, and under normal circumstance, especially that of private sector, the result would be structural unemployment. Structural unemployment is the by-product of structural changes like changes in technology. As public sector has little flexibility and is more centrally governed (unlike the private organizational model), its response to changes is sluggish. Many public servants are challenged by the rapid technological advancement, which sometimes goes beyond their current capacity. That, in additional to language barrier (English, mostly), resistance to change, and adaptation constraints (like limited time and money), many civil servants, especially those that are close to the grassroots (local communities), are not well-furnished with relevant knowledge of new methodology and technology that can help improve their performance and create synergy in their workplace. If this was a private sector operating in free market economy, like I said earlier, it would result in structural unemployment. However, due to the rigidity of the public institutions, this problem results in institutional inefficacy instead. Why? First, because public sectors do not lay off staff and recruit new workers who are more suitable and adaptable, and thus, can effectively employ modern capitals. Second, staff members with technical background are tasked with, mostly, administrative work. Third, public servants are not well-remunerated, which introduces two problems: “lack of incentive to improve and engage/initiate” and “lower appeal to the more capable workers” (because they could earn a lot more in NGOs and private sectors). My point is that I see much more benefit to plan and implement a drastic transform, and not just a mere reform. If we can closely immitate private sectors in areas that matter, like in administration, I believe that would improve the public institutional performance by a whole lot.

This means that financial and material supports can only scratch the surface. What is the use of providing hundreds of computers if people are not able to use them? What is the purpose of imparting ideologies like democracy and freedom if people do not possess the basic understanding of democracy and freedom in the first place? That being said, foreign aids, do come in various other forms (besides funding) such as local capacity assessment and capacity building, scholarships for practitioners, assistance in the process of policy development, and the likes. These are specifically aimed to resolve the aforementioned issues, to help raise the quality of human resource, so that new captial (computers, new development mechanisms, modern agricultural equipments, financial instruments, you name it) can be effectively utilized by the local users. Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, despite having capable trainers from various developed countries, especially from international organizations like the UN, it does not automatically translate into quality trainings. The duration of the training, the livelihood of trainees (esp, local farmers), the imbalance in terms of gender of the participants, the lack of understanding of local family economy, the level of language and contents used during the training, the incentive and relevance of the training to the trainees’ real-life practice, and such, all are important aspects that decide how successful the training is and how far-reaching its effects can be. These are easily overlooked elements that have been (either intentionally or unintentionally) omitted from consideration.

What I mean to say is that knowledge barriers come in different forms. First, the lack of knowledge itself. Second, the lack of knowledge building materials and means. Third, the unfavorable conditions or settings in which the training takes place. Fouth, the lack of effective means and incentive to convey the knowledge. Fifth, the lack of pre-requisite knowledge/understanding from the intended targets. Sixth, the inefficient public institutional structure. There are more. Such challeges need to be addressed, not because the current practice is completely ineffective, but because it could have been more effective had more attention and care been put on the right places.

2.2. Experience

We have discussed a lot of how this or that needs improvement. However, do keep in mind that, development is not a hard science where the same formula can be re-applied a thousand times without producing variation in the outcomes. This is exactly why development experience in one particular country does not necessarily carry over to another country’s development work. Of course, some aspects do share similarities, but there are those that pose striking differences. Such happens due to the fact that each country is composed of intricate system of various elements, be it social, economic, cultural or political. These distinct qualities ultimately contribute to the constitution of peculiar characteristics that distinguish a country from the rest. I guess you are well-aware that even for countries that are in close proximity and share close resemblance in tradition and culture like Cambodia, Lao and Thailand, each still possesses its own unique features.

In development, all the afore-mentioned lead to an inevitable processes of trials and errors. The lack of precedents (prior practices and experiences) coupled with the distinct characteristics and challenges of a developing country turn development work into a trial and error work, resulting in time-consuming pilot projects being implemented and development projects overly clustered in a single physical area.

I will go into detail for a bit. You see, developing countries lack official information that can be used to do situational analysis, to identify short-term and long-term challenges and opportunities, and to estimate beneficial outcomes that might arise from improvements made in certain domains. As a result, pilot projects are needed to determine cost-efficiency, effectiveness and feasibility of a project prior to the full-scale operation. The problem is that pilot project, based on my experience, is sometimes too small to matter. What do I mean? You see, becuase each pilot project is treated as a test-run, they are not closely attended, and resources are not generously allocated to its implementation. Sometimes, this can create a situation in which the outcome of the pilot project is perceived to be below standard and thus not implemented, encouraged, or strongly funded. Sometimes, it is not the project itself that fails, it is the too little amount of inputs that cause such failure.

Some other time, the deficiency in experience leads to overly cautious pratitioners who became too risk-averse and only fear the worst-possible outcome. Due to this reason, it can create a bias, an overestimation or underestimation of certain development projects/programs due to the fact that some projects are concentrated in a single area. It renders much less effective the ability to distinguish the beneficial impacts between each project. For example, try to think of it like this; project A produces 100 points outcome while project B produces 0 point outcome. But, as A and B are implemented on the same target, the implementer of each project sees only the 100 points outcome and will work their best to try taking the credit. After all, a success in work is an incentive for every person. Coupled with the lack of communication which we will soon discuss, it is no wonder that the implementer of project B might claim the win as well and it is hard to tell whose is whose.

A solution to this is to enforce policies and regulations on the implementation of the projects by establishing a body of coordinators and regulators who are empowered and authorised to oversee the overall development projects and programs. This group of people will play a crucial role in ensuring smooth progress. In addition to acting as regulators, as an entity at higher level, they will be able to gather and provide information at broader scope of view, and enable cross-sectional information exchange that will help reduce uncertainty, quicly identify weaknesses and strength, and allow more efficient allocations of resources.

This all boils down to one single factor that rules them all: “Information”. With so much constraint, with lack of experience and knowledge, availability and accessibility of accurate information will enable self-restoration and improvement to happen faster and more effective. With aids flowing in from foreign donors, our responsibility is to transfer them to areas that need development the most, the so-called “keystones”. Remember, we did say that all challenges, all barriers, all sectors exist within a larger network/system with complex relations between them. What we should know is that there are certain development variables which exist at the central of the network, meaning they are the ones with most connections to everything else. If we can find the one with most positive connections, we can then identify our priorities. This gives us the endge in the development playing field. There are certain countries where political stability and security are in that sweet spot; thus, they demand the most attention. Others can only grow faster with the elimination of cultural/racial barriers. In Cambodia, we have already found one of the keystones, and thanks to this discovery and on-time response to the problem, we are able to take off, though not beautifully, but off the ground at least. What is it? It is the peace treaty signed by the 4 warring factions back in 1991. This peace treaty paved the way for many other development efforts, including the successful introduction of free-market into the once centrally planned economy. Of course, I did say this is just one of the keystones.

There are more, but I will take about them in part 2 of this article. In the second part, I will focus on mostly (and again) human factors such as bureaucracy, overlapping functions, etc.

Least but definitely not last, note that the entire article is written based on my own personal experience in development areas, with careful attention paid to the main theme of the website and all articles so-far written to make sure that this article is not too out-of-place. I do expect you, my readers, to find some incongruity between my book knowledge and perception of reality and your own. However, do keep in mind that learning from each other is one way that we can improve ourselves.

Anyway, I will see you in part 2 of the article.

Until then,