Fighting Corruption in Cambodia: a ‘battle of ideas and perceptions’

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Originally posted on Nefia

When Niklas Kossow came to Cambodia from Germany to work as a Bribespot Promotion Advisor, he knew very little about the country. In this blog he reflects on his experience and frustrations and tells us what it was like to try and fight corruption in one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

During my time in Cambodia I wanted to write about my experiences many times. Yet, I never really managed to sit down and find out what exactly I wanted to write about. Working with Transparency International (TI) Cambodia was not only my first time working in Asia, it was also my first ever visit to the South East Asia region. To be honest, I felt utterly unqualified when I embarked on my flight to Phnom Penh – I knew little–to-nothing about the place where I was about to travel to. However, this was about to change rapidly in the four months I spent in Cambodia. I learnt a great deal about the country itself and about what it means to work in the anti-corruption field in one of the most corrupt societies in the world.

I went to Cambodia in order to promote Bribespot, a website and smartphone app used to anonymously report bribery. It was launched in Cambodia in May 2014, but user numbers had been consistently low – reason enough for me to go to Phnom Penh and work on promoting the app. Fortunately I knew more about anti-corruption than I knew about Cambodia, so at least for this part of my mission I felt equipped. In the first weeks in South-East Asia I learned, however, the specifics about corruption in Cambodia.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, arguably the most well-known measurement of corruption, lists Cambodia as 156th out of 175 countries, thus putting it among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world. As the border authorities, however, have been reformed, most tourists rarely see the problem of widespread corruption. In fact, for most tourists to the country, the novelty of being able to rent scooters without licences, safe in the knowledge that the traffic police can be bought off with a few dollars, is part of Cambodia’s appeal. Once you start living in Cambodia and are looking for the impact of corruption, however, you begin to notice the impact of corruption there and understand why TI’s assessment places Cambodia so far down the global ranks.

In a country where traffic police are quick to ask for a bribe, regardless of whether or not you have committed an offence, few people abide by the traffic laws (which are actually rather robust). Formal education levels are low, as students struggle to pass university exams without side-payments, revision be damned. State hospitals are in a dire state, as those who work there have to prop up their merger salaries with bribes. Needless to say that few people, let alone companies (or many NGOs!) pay tax. Once you dig deeper into the problems of Cambodian society, you’ll hit upon the issue of land grabbing – of how many corrupt officials are helping companies to illegally acquire land, taking away the livelihoods of those who lived on the land before. You will hear of courts rejecting the appeals of those who weren’t able to pay bribes. You will see pictures of entire forests disappearing, as the authorities that should stop the illegal logging are bought off while the port authority is turning a blind eye to ships carrying timber leaving the port of Sihanoukville.

If I learned one thing in Cambodia it is that the effects of corruption are tangible and widespread and that fighting it can often feel like howling at the moon.

In a context in which corruption touches upon so many parts of public life, it has become an accepted part of peoples’ lives. Hence, you start to understand that many call ordinary bribes tea money and see it as a necessary bonus to the incredibly small incomes of many public officials (often only $60 per month). An increasing number of Cambodians describe corruption as one of the most pressing issues facing the country. Most, however, are talking about the grand, political corruption – the scandals which are covered in newspapers and radio shows and sometimes even call for a resignation or two.

While uncovering such scandals will always be part of the fight against corruption, the real fight is one that is much harder to win. This fight is a battle of ideas and perceptions; it aims to change the mentality of an entire society. To move to a point where people realise that it should neither be normal to accept bribes, nor to pay them is the aim of this fight. Those laws, even traffic laws, are in place for a reason, even if it means waiting ten seconds longer at a traffic light. After a few weeks in Cambodia I realised how big that task is, how much I had to learn and what an incredibly small part and unimportant part I (and Bribespot) would be able to play in this context.

Watch the video in Khmer here.

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