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An encore for the weakest performer

by Gea Wijers While the European Union is under scrutiny because of the euro-crisis, at the other side of the planet countries are getting ready to intensify their regional cooperation. Next to ASEAN, Cambodia is now involved in the Great Mekong Subregion (GMS) program. As in the case of our European crisis, the resulting greater connectivity here can also be said to have mixed results. Let’s evaluate some opportunities and challenges of cooperation for a developing country.

The GMS cooperation is characterized as based on the increase of connectivity, competitiveness and community. Please note, not necessarily on the cooperation  or even integration that our European Union is based on. Cooperation or integration would rather be the aim of ASEAN. The challenge, on the other hand, for a small open economy like Cambodia is to maximize its opportunities within the GMS by building its infrastructure and trade facilitation yet also increase its competitiveness through investments in skills and human resources.

Regional competitiveness may hold promising results for a developing nation. It’s all about creating opportunities, which is hard. But when successful  it generates short-term results in terms of growth of private investment and employment. The number of foreign banks mushrooming in the streets of Phnom Penh over the last years is telling. So far the economic growth in the sub-region has averaged 6 per cent while Cambodian economic growth has averaged around 10 percent during the last years. Not a bad performance.

On the down side, health concerns such as the spread of HIV/AIDS and the increase of, for instance, illegal logging have been clear side-effects of this greater connectivity in the region.  Inequality within this regional community makes Cambodia vulnerable to these negative effects while there’s little capacity to counter them.  Moreover, the abuses of power and grand corruption so abundant in Cambodian society seem to act as barriers to growth and slow down the progress made.  Sounds familiar?

Of course, finally, an anti-corruption law has now been passed by the government.  It is received with very mixed reactions. As George Boden of Global Witness states: “Corruption tends to permeate through societies. Unless corruption is tackled at the very top, it seems very unlikely that it will ever be stamped out.” The central government is in full control of the anti-corruption bodies and this will severely undermine the law’s implementation. It seems Cambodian society itself could do with increased connectivity between its institutions and social groups as well as a building of an anti-corrupt community if it is to make the most of regional cooperation. An easy parallel is drawn with the Greek situation. There too, there are marked differences between the hard-working citizens paying the bill of the upcoming bankruptcy, and the responsible governmental officials that seem to escape unharmed.

In conclusion: if you want to go anywhere as a regional program or project, you better find a way to deal with institutional weaknesses in your most vulnerable members. Their open economies will be the first to profit from success, but the vulnerability of their societies will suffer most from the negative side effects and impede progress. If there’s any lessons to be learned from Cambodia it’s that economic and social transformation need to go hand in hand.  That would suggest that Greece cannot be left to its own devices, it’s too easy to boo and throw tomatoes at the weakest performer on the European stage.  Now is the time for European solidarity.

Gea Wijers is a PhD candidate at the Department of Organizational Science, specializing in Cambodian returnee migration, transnationalism and institutional entrepreneurship

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