Q&A TED Fellows

Paying it forward: Fellows Friday with Sophal Ear

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Political economist, author and educator Sophal Ear’s family escaped from the Killing Fields, a story he related in a moving 2009 TEDTalk. Now, driven to give back to Cambodia, he examines the detrimental effects of foreign aid dependence in his new book, Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

Tell us about how your extraordinary life journey began — your family’s escape from genocide in Cambodia.

I was born in Phnom Penh just months before the Khmer Rouge took over on April 17, 1975. My family — father, mother, four siblings — and I were forcibly relocated to a village named Tuol Prik in Pursat Province, where my family was made to work the land by growing rice. One day in late 1975, the Khmer Rouge told residents of Tuol Prik that the Vietnamese government wanted its citizens back. Seeing an opening for escape from the Khmer Rouge, my mother and father put our family down as Vietnamese, even though we were ethnically Chinese. Both my parents were born in Cambodia, but mom was Cantonese-Hokkien while dad was Teochow. My mom spoke some street Vietnamese, having learned it from friends as a child and from Vietnamese nannies. My dad did not speak a word of Vietnamese.

My father passed away from malnutrition and dysentery on the third day of our journey. Ironically, his death saved us, because he spoke no Vietnamese and would have given us away. The morning after his burial, trucks took us to a locomotive that carried us to the train station in Phnom Penh, where Chinese four-wheel-drive vehicles took us to Kandal province.

Mom passed her first interview easily. The second interview was conducted by a Vietnamese official, but not before mom met a Vietnamese lady named Co Teuv, whom she befriended and who pointed out to her that all five children’s names were wrong. The boys had been given girls’ names, and girls had been given boys names. Co Teuv spent the next couple of days playing drill sergeant with language practice. On the day of the second exam, my mother wrapped us in blankets and told us to act sick so we would not be questioned. When the cadre asked, “Sister, what is your name?” she answered in her best Saigon accent, “My name is Nguyen Thi Lan.” After a rigorous interrogation, she and her five surviving children received permission to leave Cambodia for Vietnam.

From Vietnam we went onwards to France in 1978, and the United States in 1985.

Sophal’s family: Sophal in the center, his mother behind him. Vietnam c. 1978. Click to view larger size.

Given your childhood experiences, how did you decide to embark on a course of study about economics and development?

I’ve always felt a responsibility to do whatever I could for Cambodia. It was as if you could take the boy out of Cambodia, but you couldn’t take Cambodia out of the boy. As Kennedy once said, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” I have been given so much, and therefore giving back is not only expected, but absolutely the right thing to do. I wanted to study economics and development to use those skills to help rebuild the country.

The dirty little secret was that I was always a closet political scientist, and while as an undergrad, I could fantasize about political science — I could never respectfully be just a political scientist. We were, after all, Asian, and success meant being a medical doctor or an engineer, not a political scientist.

But one day, I decided I could enjoy political science if I also studied economics (which might even give me the veneer of respectability!) without feeling guilty — I could, perhaps, do something affirming and positive for Cambodia by somehow effecting change there. At the time, the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia had just been signed on October 23, 1991, and things looked hopeful for the country.

So I quit my premed track, got my BA in economics and political science in 1995 and an MPA in economics and public policy from Princeton in 1997. I remember being asked in 1994 what I wanted to do later in life. Somehow, I blurted out World Bank Governor. Little did I know it meant that I’d have to be a Finance Minister! But somehow, on graduation day from Princeton, I got a job as a consultant for the World Bank, one that lasted three years. I then got my PhD in political science in 2006, though not before going through a memorable year of doing the envelope theorem and Lagrangians in agricultural and resource economics.

I wanted to help alleviate Cambodia’s most pressing problems: poverty and what Paul Collier calls “development in reverse”: war. The economics would let me understand how development could work, while the political science would help me get at the governance aspect — the real reason why development too frequently doesn’t work — and perhaps how to find ways to make it work despite the reality of corruption, patronage and bad institutions.

What prompted you to write Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy? Why is the subject particularly important during this time in history?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012, is the 21st anniversary of those Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia. and this past Monday Cambodia’s 89-year-old King Father, His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, passed away. He fought for Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, cut off diplomatic relations with America in 1965, and was deposed in a coup d’etat in 1970. He then became bedfellows with the Khmer Rouge, returning as head of state in 1975 and 1976, surviving through the 1970s and leading a royalist resistance in the 1980s, before becoming King again in 1993. As a refugee, I’ve been taking stock of the situation since 1991. In May of that year, I published an article — “Are We Ready for Democracy?” — in which I questioned the wisdom of throwing a pinch of democracy into a just cooled-down war. I was 16. Now, at the ripe old age of 37, with two kids, it’s time to look again at what more than two decades of “peace” and “democracy” have brought to Cambodia.

The more a country depends on aid, the more distorted are its incentives to manage its own development in sustainable ways. Cambodia is a post-conflict state that cannot refuse aid. It is rife with trial-and-error donor experiments and their unintended results, including bad governance — a major impediment to balanced, equitable growth.

Massive intervention by the UN in the early 1990s did help to end the Cambodian civil war and to prepare for more representative rule. Yet the country’s social indicators, the integrity of its political institutions and its ability to manage its own development soon deteriorated. My book highlights the complicity of foreign assistance in helping to degrade Cambodia’s political economy. The book infuses the trajectory of 1990s and 2000s Cambodia with the story of my own family’s life and death under the Khmer Rouge, our escape to Vietnam and subsequent journey to France and the United States.

You know how Chris Anderson always begins TED Conferences with “It’s time for TED”? Well, it’s time for Cambodia. And not just that, but it’s time for Cambodia to clean up its act.

Here, Sophal’s book. Click to see larger size.

To what degree are you against foreign aid, and why?

I’m against aid dependence. There are many ways of measuring aid and aid dependence: aid per capita, aid as percentage of GDP. I use all these figures in my book, but the one indicator I point to repeatedly is that between 2002 and 2010, for each dollar the Cambodian government spent, it received — on average — more than 94 cents on the dollar in net foreign aid. That’s like me saying to you that for every dollar you spend, I will give you almost one dollar. Would you be motivated to work in that case? Would you want to earn your own income? I argue that you’d be pretty much okay with bumming around. And that’s what has happened in Cambodia. Why try hard to collect taxes or raise domestic revenues and foreign exchange when you’ve got a Sugar Daddy in foreign donors?

You assert in your book that rule of law deteriorates in the presence of foreign aid. Why is this?

In Cambodia, justice goes to the highest bidder; this is always true except when power is involved, then justice goes to the most powerful. Look at how land titling was done by the World Bank with respect to a part of the capital city, Phnom Penh, called Boeung Kak Lake. The idea was establishing property rights: who could object to that? But how did it get twisted or captured? Well, how about using property rights to get rid of people? That is what happened. The lake was bought. And then it got filled in. Now people don’t live on the lake, but imagine what happened to the 20,000 people who lived around the lake? Their houses were buried in mud. They were offered something like $7,500 (if they were offered anything at all) and told to scram. Same thing at another place called Dey Krahorm, and the list goes on. The process gets captured, and instead of helping the rule of law, donors have facilitated land grabbing.

Same thing with judicial institutions: if all you want are courts, judges, and lawyers, you can have that. Sure. But will you have judicial independence? Will you have judicial integrity? Those things are easier said than done. What I showed is that, in cross-sectional time series analysis, there was a statistically significant (albeit not super-strong) negative relationship between aid dependence and rule of law in the more than 100 countries I analyzed. After that, I looked at just Cambodia and how this might work in real life.

What do you propose as an alternative to foreign aid?

Here’s one alternative I argue makes sense: how about collecting enough domestic revenues (mostly taxes) to do your own development? As I mentioned earlier, using data from the World Bank, my book shows that from 2002 to 2010, for every dollar spent by the central government, more than 94 cents of net foreign aid was received. This is not a good formula for owning your own development. This is a prescription for extremely serious aid dependence. If you add both current domestic revenues and estimates of corruption, Cambodia could develop on its own. If anything, foreign aid disrupts the link between the people and their government. The people don’t pay enough taxes (but plenty is stolen from them via corruption), the government doesn’t listen to them (but ends up ranking as one of the most corrupt countries in the world on the Corruption Perception Index ever since the mid-2000s when Cambodia started being ranked), and what do you have? Pretend democracy.

Here’s another alternative: Exports. Yes, exports. What I mean here is how does a country develop? How did South Korea do it? How did Taiwan do it? They exported. Park Chung-Hee, who ruled South Korea with an iron grip from 1962 to 1979, when he was assassinated, had a billboard on the road to the airport that said, roughly, Export or Die. Cambodia needs foreign exchange. It can’t just live by its credo of Aid or Die. I’m not, by the way, condoning Park Chung-Hee’s rule, I’m just saying that if you are going to have some sort of leader for life arrangement, you might as well have the kind of growth that got South Korea to where it is today.

Young Sophal

Young Sophal in France. Click to see larger size.

Can you talk about your views on Western acceptance of Khmer Rouge propaganda? Why do you think it happened, and has there yet been reconciliation between perspectives?

I still get emails to this day about my political science undergraduate honors thesis (one of two I wrote at UC Berkeley, the other on Cambodia’s economic development and history up until 1995) exploring Western academic support of the Khmer Rouge, particularly from supporters of the infallible Noam Chomsky. They are always beating around the bush and asking me for a smoking gun.

And when it comes to Chomsky, it’s complicated. His thrust was to cast doubt on refugees (like my family) who were running away from the Khmer Rouge (so, he argues, they will lie and are therefore untrustworthy). Instead, he pinned his hopes on an objective observer of what was then going on in Cambodia. But of course, the Khmer Rouge never allowed an objective observer into Cambodia, so then he could go back to square one and claim, “Well, we really can’t tell what is going on under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.”

It’s basically to give himself just enough cover for plausible deniability. Did Chomsky actually say, “I love the Khmer Rouge?” No, his arguments are never that linear. You have to basically follow his circuitous logic and come up with the conclusion that, if all these people (x) saying mass murder is happening made all these errors that he vigorously points out, and those who defend the regime (y) are cited as solid examples of scholarly work by Chomsky, the obvious conclusion must be that y is better than x.

But y is not and was not better than x. Personally, I have never understood why Chomsky couldn’t just say, “Look, in my zeal to punish America after Vietnam, I was blinded by those who supported the Khmer Rouge. I’m sorry, I made a mistake. I never meant to cast aspersions on refugees fleeing genocide.” He’d be a better man for it.

I think there has been a reconciling in that it became so obvious that genocide took place in Cambodia that all the fanatics have shut up. It’s just a few who deny ever having made errors of judgment, because they have rewritten their own history, or history itself has been forgotten.

How does your work now address your own life experiences?

I used to think that talking about my own experience would undermine my work, but actually, there is no way of denying the personal. There is no way saying that where we come from doesn’t matter. A fellow Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum told me recently about another survivor and refugee (not from Cambodia) who won’t talk about his experience because he feels he might lose respect in his colleagues’ and classmates’ eyes.

I told my friend to tell him that embracing his past will be liberating. I, too, felt strange about doing it at first, when I spoke at TED2009 about my family’s story, but honestly, it’s been nothing but positive. It’s about accepting who you are. It’s about saying “I haven’t forgotten where I come from.” It’s about showing others that there is hope. And it doesn’t trap you, unless you make it trap you.

And most of all, it’s about giving back because you really have been so fortunate.

Taking a bow

Sophal’s mother takes a bow just before receiving a standing ovation at TED2009. Click to see larger size. Photo: TED/Asa Mathat

Does what you do help you make sense of your family’s story?

Absolutely. It’s the rent I pay for being alive. I believe that everything happens for a reason. Even when my mom passed away at 73 — the most traumatic experience of my life to date — losing the woman who gave me life not just once but many time, by getting me to Vietnam, and then to France, and finally the US, land of the free, home of the brave, her passing was an opportunity to propagate her legacy, to review some of the lessons learned from her life, and to share them with her 15 grandchildren. The Talmud says “Whoever saves a single life is as if one saves the entire world.” The Chinese have a different proverb: “Whoever saves a life is responsible for that life.” I believe that my late mother is responsible, in the original sense of the word, for all her children and grandchildren’s lives. Today, I am grateful that some people have seen the award-winning 47-minute documentary I wrote and narrated (commissioned and broadcast throughout Asia by Channel New Asia out of Singapore) — based on the eulogy I read at her funeral (a letter to her grandchildren), and I believe it has made the world a better place. It’s certainly made my writing on Cambodia more urgent and passionate.

How has being a TED Fellow had an impact on your life and work?

Well, being a TED Fellow enabled me to get coaching, to network with other TED Fellows, to attend a couple of TED Actives and deliver a TEDYou Talk at my last one in 2011, to get unimaginable inspirational speaking opportunities, to write and narrate the aforementioned documentary through, of course, my TED Talk (which would never have been possible had I not been a TED Fellow in the first place), and the impact of that talk on my life has been nothing short of amazing. As I told June Cohen on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of TED Talks: “I can’t count the ways in which my TED Talk about escaping the Khmer Rouge has had an impact. I get messages and meet people who constantly tell me what it means to them on a deep, personal level. It’s simply been transformative.”

For me, the talk itself was an incredible opportunity to honor my mother in person, while she was still alive, for saving my four siblings and me from the Killing Fields. As you may know, my mom passed away eight months after I gave my talk (four months after my TED Talk went online), very unexpectedly. I know that when she was alive, she was terribly proud of having had the opportunity to stand up in that auditorium in Long Beach to take a bow and receive a standing ovation. She watched the TED Talk with me, and it was really our TED Talk.

And while my son, Steven, got six months with his grandmother before she passed away, and my daughter, Caitlyn was born well afterwards, it’s thanks to my mom that I was able to bring new hope into the world, which will continue with the arrival of my third child come April 2013. Being a TED Fellow is something that continues to pay dividends — dividends which I need to turn around and pay forward, in perpetuity.