Global Issues

Q&A with Sophal Ear: From refugee stories to international policies

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In yesterday’s TEDTalk, development economist and political scientist Sophal Ear shared the deeply personal story of his family’s escape from the Khmer Rouge. In today’s interview with the TED Blog, he continues that story and gives us details on his current path in international aid policy.

Your mother cleverly pretended to be Vietnamese to escape the Khmer Rouge, but how did your family continue to survive after reaching Vietnam?

Yes, you see, just getting to Vietnam we weren’t off the hook. The Vietnamese required that people who had returned from Cambodia be picked up by their relatives, or they would be sent to “kinh tế mới” (New Economic Life) — which was essentially hard-labor, working in agriculture.

My aunt, my mother’s sister, was married to a Vietnamese man and living in Vietnam. Somehow, my mother got to the market and managed to meet a friend who then got word to her sister that we had arrived in Vietnam. It was a completely random occurrence. Her sister’s husband managed — I think he must have bribed his way through — to get us in the middle of the night from where we were detained. Then we went to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, where we spent one and a half years before we got out.

There was no way to get to the US, where my mother had another sister living in California. We redeclared ourselves as Cambodian, and as we were not Vietnamese there was suddenly no problem with letting us leave. They wanted us out! My mother had a nephew in France who was a university student. He was really poor, just a starving student. And, he had to somehow figure out a way to get us all there. My aunt in the US sent him some money. Then, he happened to meet a French gentleman who, for some unknown reason, decided that he wanted to help. This gentleman went to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out what could be done. He then found a lady whose last name was the same as my mother’s, and convinced her to sign paperwork claiming familial ties.

Now, keep in my mind that through all of this my mother has five kids with her, and two of them she hadn’t given birth to. One was my half-sibling and another is an adopted daughter. When this opportunity came about, people offered her money left and right to switch their children with hers. She could have compromised her principles, she needed the money. But, she didn’t.

We all managed to make it to France by ’78. We were only supposed to be staying there temporarily. But, for some reason, my mother just decides that she’s had enough and we’re going to stay put indefinitely. It ended up being seven years before we moved to the US, to California. That’s when I started seventh grade as an American kid.

My mother struggled so much, sacrificed so much, and by doing so she allowed all the kids to pursue their dreams. And our story, it’s about the kindness of strangers, about people taking critical actions at critical points. It’s not Schindler’s List, but just five siblings who were able to succeed despite difficult circumstances.

Can you speak a little more to the value of civil complaints like the one you filed about your father?

I feel that the tribunal as it’s currently set up at least allows for civil complaints, which I think is important, but I’ve been a skeptic. It’s deeply troubled. I’m not trying to be an advocate for the tribunal itself. I don’t want to lend credibility to a process by sanctifying the tribunal in some way. I have to accept that it’s deeply troubled — with corruption and such. In 2002, I wrote to The New York Times and praised the UN for pulling out of discussions with the authorities, as the UN was clearly being manipulated.

For me, the complaint is really about justice for the past accountability for the future. If you have a situation where nearly two million people die and no-one is held to account, then it can happen again. Impunity is a problem in Cambodia. If you’ve got power and money, then nothing can happen to you. As a victim — and I hate to call myself that — but, this could be a step towards holding those who are responsible to account.

Also, although some in the international community consider the state of affairs in Cambodia to be disagreeable, they don’t see what’s happening now as unacceptable because if you’re better than the Khmer Rouge, then you’re OK. Many current political leaders are, let’s face it, former Khmer Rouge lower-ranking cadres. Obviously, there are issues of reconciliation and governance when some of your own people caused this.

But, at least, I can put it on record that my father passed away and that it was as a result of the conditions he was subjected to.

Today you work on post-conflict reconstruction and development. How much of what you do today has been influenced by the events of your childhood and your experiences? Did you always want to do this?

I grew up as a refugee. My experience has been very different from that of people who haven’t. I’ve traveled and lived around the world. It’s shaped my view of my responsibility to others. I feel like I have a responsibility to help other people in conflict situations.

I went back to Cambodia in 1996. I was riding around in a cyclo, which is essentially a rickshaw, and being led by this young boy who was about my age at the time. I couldn’t help thinking, “If I had stayed here, if my family hadn’t been able to escape, I would have been him.” I’ve been very lucky.

And, because I was a refugee in France, I speak fluent French. People think that I’ve had a privileged childhood because of my languages and my traveling. But, no, I haven’t. And as a result of all this, I was able to work for The World Bank as my first job coming out of Princeton. There, because of my French, I ended-up working on Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

You’ve spoken to your family’s achievements, but you’ve achieved quite a lot in your own right. Could you tell us about your personal journey as a young man?

I think I was very lucky. Just as we talked about those refugee stories and how random those things can be, that’s how my life continued. As a kid, I was going to school in the Bay Area and so I knew, of the universities around, I needed to go to Berkeley. Now, when I came to the US, I was placed in seventh grade at 10, so that I was at Berkeley at 16. And the opportunities were all very rich.

I got to Princeton because I saw a flyer on the Berkeley campus for a public policy program at Princeton. I decided to apply because, naively, I wanted to see New York. I had this idea that Princeton was much nearer the city than it is! Anyway, I was accepted and I went.

Then, I ended up at Princeton doing my Masters, and while I was there I remember being asked what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to be a governor at the World Bank, and I didn’t realize then that I would first have to be the Finance Minister of a country in order to be a governor. And then, my first day out of Princeton, I did a phone interview for a job with the World Bank and I became a consultant for something called social protection — I didn’t even know what that was at the time. I do now!

On July 1, 1997, I was in DC and started work at the World Bank. Social protection turned out to be, essentially, international welfare policy. I had grown up on welfare, so now to be working on these policies was simply amazing.

But then, what do I do next? I was 25, I had all this experience, but I really looked like I was still a kid. I decided to do a PhD. I ended up working on a dissertation that explored aid dependence and governance. You see, I discovered at the World Bank that things were not working quite the way they were supposed to. It was at the point where religious organizations were promoting debt forgiveness because countries simply could not repay their debts.

I’ve really been lucky. It’s been a series of random occurrences. I could not have imagined all that has happened to me. To work at the World Bank, to get to work on Cambodia, to think that my country of origin could benefit from what I’m doing is amazing. Now, I feel that I’ve had some impact on the issues around Cambodian development. I’m glad that at a critical point I could make a difference.

READ MORE: Sophal discusses what he learned in his time at the World Bank, a new perspective on the global recession, academic apologists for the Khmer Rouge and the effects of foreign aid on developing countries. You’ve worked on projects in a few different countries, including Algeria, and West Bank and Gaza, etc. Can you give highlights of the most important to you or the most interesting?

I think, speaking of Algeria, that was where I began to realize the power of The World Bank, as an institution, in making countries do completely insane things. In this situation, The World Bank’s economists had concluded — probably through some sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations — that a certain amount of human labor should be used in a labor intensive public works project in the country. And so, the poor Algerians had to achieve this number, even though it was impossible, even though it would have meant that people would have broken rocks with rocks. But that number was what a previous World Banker had decided on. So, the Algerians faked all those numbers in their database so that they would reflect the dictated figures.

This happens all the time. We used to say that if you couldn’t find the statistic in half an hour, you make it up. That experience opened my eyes to the vulnerability of countries. The World Bank doesn’t even follow its own fiscal advice, with a headquarters building that went $100 million overbudget. I really doubt that if The World Bank was a real country it would be sustainable.

When we look at the world today, what’s an issue that we should be paying attention to right now?

I think that because of the great recession the focus on foreign aid has been moved to the back burner. Perhaps this is a time when we should be thinking more carefully about how to reform the aid system. We’ve got an opportunity to change the way the aid system works.

Oftentimes, countries that receive a lot of aid have very poor tax revenues. As a country, a lack of taxes means that there’s less incentive to do things. In order to promote accountability, you have to reform the aid-tax relationship that’s expected in developing countries. No taxation means no representation.

So, an advantage of this recession might be that national ownership for development would increase. We need countries to have more national ownership, instead of saying, “Let’s do this because of the World Bank and their crazy papers or the visiting missions of aid agencies.” Developing countries have got to govern better by taking ownership of their own development.

You mentioned that you’re working on two different books at the moment. Would you like to talk about one or both of those?

I’m trying to do something I’ve never done. I’ve published several journal articles, but never a book. Currently, I’m working on a book about Western academic supporters of the Khmer Rouge. I was surprised, during my undergrad, to read of academics that supported the Khmer Rouge. So I wrote a historical study of what academics had written during that time and exposed some relatively unknown documents.

For example, Noam Chomsky questioned reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities and was skeptical of refugees. His evidence included a book that republished Khmer Rouge propaganda pictures of immaculate hospital rooms and wonderful facilities, which were not the conditions that my father experienced. He argued that as refugees were running away they had an incentive to misrepresent the situation. Chomsky argued that an objective observer was needed, but obviously that was impossible as no-one was allowed in, so nothing definitive could be said about what was happening in Cambodia. It sounds like an academic debate, but it infuriates fans of Chomsky that anyone would dare to question him. Unfortunately, he did write these things in 1978. And he’s never done a mea culpa.

The other book is on the pernicious effects of foreign aid. I examined a dataset of 200 countries and looked for patterns of how the more aid they received, the worse they were governed. Rule of Law in particular worsened, and laws can certainly be twisted by elites with the help of unwitting development consultants. I also looked particularly at Cambodia to see if there were effects of aid that were unexpected or unintended. The lack of donor coordination and the hundreds of donor missions to Cambodia per year detract from the value of foreign aid. In Cambodia, one NGO found that aid spent by donors on 700 international consultants was estimated to total between $50-70 million, approximately equal to the wage bill for the country’s entire 160,000 civil servants in 2002. Even the government acknowledged in 2004 that 12 percent of aid has gone to pay 450 consultants while six percent of aid is given to more than 6,000 local staff. We need to do better.