What drives me? And why Economics?
I have been asked why I am so enthusiastic in my pursuit of Economics, and one of the prime reasons is from an early period of life that I vividly remember. When I was young, little did I know that my parents were struggling to earn enough to support the family. My father would do some painstaking translation work for only $1/page just to have enough to afford all the necessities for me. Of course, I was very lucky. There were thousands who did not have parents, thousands who did not have enough to eat, thousands who did not know what it was like to have a shelter, and thousands who were questioning whether life has anything good to offer at all. My story is not unique, let alone inspiring or interesting, but the reason why the whole country fell into this predicament is indeed an intriguing one.
Cambodia, to the international eyes, has always been a least-developed country. Most people are oblivious to its period of prosperity prior to its internal clash. Moving back through time to several decades ago, the Chinese used to utter a phrase: “As rich as Cambodia”. Lee Kwan Yew, the first Singaporean prime minister, the father of Singapore, once visited Cambodia to learn from the Country, and he famously turned to the then Cambodian Prime Minister, King Norodom Sihanouk, and said: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.”
Not long after that, Cambodia was sunk into a prolonged civil war. The country could not withstand the incessant conflicts, and it fell apart shred by shred. After that, a new era was born in 1975 marking the beginning of nothing, a dark era dubbed Year Zero. A once flourishing nation in the 60s then became a least-developed poverty-stricken nation. Nowadays, Cambodia is nowhere close to Singapore in term of development and prosperity. I grew up learning about these stories, and they deeply sadden me whenever I look at the current state of this weary nation. That is why not knowing how to explain, let alone being able to find the answer/solution to the nation’s severe downturn, was indeed frustrating. Was war the only cause of this plight? I often asked myself this question. However, after having been educated in the field of economics during my undergraduate years, I now understand that the country’s decline was not just caused by political turmoil and war, but also economic fallacies embedded in the ideology people upheld. For instance, in 1975, new regime leaders embraced a centrally planned and closed economy, abolished currency, and divested people of private ownership of factors of production and resources, which stripped away the incentive to produce, innovate, and thrive. The whole economy was reduced down to nothing but a completely agricultural-based and virtually closed economy, forcing labor out of its own people. Worse came to worst, central planning failed to properly channel resources to where they were most needed, which resulted in mass starvation. The regime ended up killing over 1/3 of the entire population, for not being able to conform to their senseless doctrines, and thanks to their ingenuity, they did manage to plunge the whole economy into abyss. The ruthless slaughtering aside, many died from starvation during the period claimed by the Khmer rouge to be the golden age. Regardless, it has been 4 decades since hell, and nowadays, Cambodia, despite the abundant natural resources and economic liberalization, almost half of its population, according to a UNDP’s report, is still living under multi-dimensional poverty.
Still, everyone seems to dwell in the past and blame it all on civil war, which killed many intellectuals.
But, how about the USSR? The Soviet Union’s economic fiasco, was it caused by the same factors? The Soviet Union was one of the most, if not the most richly endowed nation on Earth. Unlike Cambodia, neither did she lack skilled, educated, intelligent and competent people to take care of her affairs, nor did she lack natural resources. Japan, on the contrary, is not so fortunate with its smaller size, much less raw materials in store and more frequent and intense natural disaster striking its land every now and then. Still, the country is unbelievably growing and flourishing to become one of the world largest economies. China also has its own structural problems, notably its population size that accounts for 1/6 of the world population. Its greatest burden is, without doubt, feeding its people as the arable land per capita is diminishing bit by bit. That is why its rapid growth and expansion of economic power was unexpected by the rest. All these nations have suffered greatly from wars. So what did they do differently? What factors determined the growth of each country? How could the most naturally endowed lag behind those with much less resources?
I believe the answer lies in the type of economic system a nation adopted to govern its available and accessible resources. My work experience in two development areas, climate change and gender, has further strengthened this belief and expanded my horizons, especially my understanding of the economic barriers and growth potentials. Field visits to development sites and structured interviews with more than 90 mid- and high- level civil servants have given me invaluable understanding of the importance of practicing economics in conjunction with other disciplines, which substantially adds to the existing knowledge I have obtained from the academic world. For instance, without first firmly establishing an enabling economic environment which includes, inter alia, economic stability, functional micro-finance system and accessible market for agricultural products, economic challenges can significantly undermine climate change adaptation project outcomes. For this reason, some adaptation approaches, like income diversification, is economic in nature. I have learnt that the opposite holds truth as well, that economic development is also reliant on other fields of development like gender. Though seemingly unrelated at first sight, gender equality, if embraced, can make a significant difference in terms of economic prosperity, especially for countries like Cambodia where more than half of its entire population are women.
Thus, I am convinced that countries in the global south, like Cambodia, are in dire need of a more holistic development approach as a complement to to the effort to better traditional economic indicators. At the same time, the knowledge gained through both academic endeavor and work experience have also made apparent to me the unprecedented economic challenges confronted by the third world and how greatly influenced the south is by its rapid demographic changes and the ideological and technological spillovers from the west via globalization and localization of international practices which sometimes are unmatched with human characteristics or are way ahead of human capacity and understanding of the third-world nations. This has led to my current and more specific interest in development economics and macroeconomics, which is to understand if there is a need for structural economic changes, particularly in economies of the global south, beyond precedents and targets set by the international standards.
Hence, I thirst for evidence-based economic answers grounded in rigorous research to allow for sustainable and equitable economic development, not just for Cambodia but for the rest of the world. I have come to understand that development and economic decisions based on common sense alone can be flawed; therefore, economic study and research at both micro and macro levels will significantly minimize such risks and elevate positive outcomes. I believe economics is the right door to a world of knowledge necessary to answer myriad of questions about the rise and fall of a nation, to forecast future and to enable proactive measures to boost inclusive growth.
The problem is that knowledge kept within oneself will never bloom or evolve. For this reason, the culture of sharing should work wonder, allowing for a more well-rounded society that can support higher-order development agenda. I strongly believe that EconoMind will serve as a bridge that can help link people to basic economic concepts that will not only be interesting but also useful for this long-term personal and collective growth. Why?
Because I believe that we are all parts of the economy, and thus, knowing the basics of economics will serve us well in life by allowing us to make better decisions and to understand the vibrant economic world around us, which is conducive to individual growth. Individual growth will adds up and result in collective growth for the whole economy.
So, whether or not, you, my dear readers, are acquainted with economics, I do hope that from reading articles posted in Economind, you will come to share the same understanding or maybe, a different one, which will nonetheless serve you well in life and feed your hunger for knowledge. I also hope that it will open up a new world, a new perspective for you and the people influenced by you in a positive way.
Still, one cannot hope to fully grasp the vast economic concepts by merely spending several years in School or just reading articles from people who have done so. It will require you to do more research, read more, think more, see more, and act more to be able to come close to being a true economist or a true citizen of earth. I, myself, will give my best effort to become one, and hopefully, I will be able to spread the knowledge around and to bring favorable changes to this world, to our world.
With sincerest regards,