Friday, 14 August 2009

Coping with global connections

Anne-Laure Porée

Even after growth returns, Cambodia will still have to figure out how to hitch its industry to the global economy profitably rather than be a supplier of garments produced by cheap labour

Defying the gloom descending on the tourism sector brought about by the global crisis, the Cambodian capital’s airport recently launched a hopeful initiative: a new airline. Cambodia Angkor Air was launched to boost tourism between the capital and Siem Reap near the famed ruins of Angkor Wat. With tourist arrivals falling sharply since late last year, this may signal a triumph of hope over reality. If anything, the hopes and fears surrounding Cambodia’s tourist revenue and garment trade underline how the fortune of the country has become intertwined with the larger world.

Since peace came to Cambodia in the last years of the last century, the country has emerged as a poster child of globalisation in Southeast Asia. In the middle of this decade, Cambodia enjoyed double digit growth and even hoisted itself up to 6th place in the rank of the fastest growing economies for the 1998-2007 period.

And now the country is experiencing the downside of dependence on the world. The sectors most affected by the crisis — tourism and garment export — are the ones that have seen the most development thanks to the integration of Cambodia into the global economy a decade ago, after peace was restored in the country. At this time, the economy was opened to foreign investors, who poured money into the garment industry, taking advantage of supports granted to Cambodia such as the Most Favoured Nation and the Generalised System of Preferences. This status provided access to the American market and it enabled other Asian investors — Chinese in particular — to get round their own quotas or the Least Developed Country status conferred upon them by the UN.

But the happy days are now threatened by the shrinking world market. Of the four major pillars of Cambodian economy — the garment industry, tourism, construction and agriculture — three are seriously impaired by the global crisis. With 70 percent of Cambodia’s garment production going to the US, the declining American economy, choosey shoppers and stay-at-home tourists have led to job losses in Cambodia.

The figures released in late July by the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) showed a worse than anticipated loss: exports dropped almost 30 percent and one garment worker in 6 lost her job in the first six months of 2009. Most of these workers are women who transfer a substantial part of their earnings to their family living in rural areas in order to supplement farming-based incomes. In some villages, every family has one or several members working in the garment factories based in the Phnom Penh suburbs. Some go for unpaid leaves or part time jobs, some enter prostitution, but most decide to go back to their village in order to work in the rice fields.

According to Van Sou Ieng, GMAC president, Cambodia is much more severely affected by the crisis than other Asian countries because the industry sector in Cambodia is less competitive.

Tourism has suffered from the economic crisis, and the fallout from the swine flu. In Siem Reap, located next to the famed Angkor temples, a spot visited by more than 1 million tourists in 2008, the situation is described as “catastrophic” by hotel managers. The drop in Western tourists’ arrivals has a direct impact on tourism generated incomes — foreigners spent 1.6 billion dollars in 2008. The Ministry of Economy and Finance expects a drop in tourism growth of 7 to 8 percent this year.

The construction sector is also affected: many foreign investors have delayed, reduced or slowed their projects. The capital Phnom Penh started to change face in 2008 with the building of huge towers, business centres and shopping malls but activity slid in the second half of 2008, leaving workers without employment. Such trends have had significant consequences, particularly among the banking sector. Cambodians, who speculated on land as investment, are now facing difficulties because the prices of land and real estate have plunged and they can’t sell and get cash.

The hardest hit, of course, are the poorest of the poor who count each riel. For them, any drop in income, as well as any unexpected crisis, immediately results in cutting down the number of meals per day.

Agriculture, the fourth pillar of the Cambodian economy and the least exposed to global currents, could bolster the country’s 2009 growth, which is forecast at 2.1 percent. The agricultural sector (with 4.3 percent growth expected in 2009 depending on weather conditions) is essentially based on rice farming and fishing. But the part of agriculture that has drawn foreign interest proves to be a mixed blessing.

In northeastern Mondolkiri province, plans by a French company to set up a rubber plantation have created a conflict that symbolises the double edged sword of globalisation. For several months, Bunong, a Montagnards ethnic group, has been fighting against the project — as their farmland gets swallowed up by the rubber company that has an agreement with the Cambodian government. The company is expected to make huge profits, a part of which could return to the community via the salaries of the plantation workers and the development of a new city.

The crisis has forced the government to pay attention to those left behind by globalisation. “We thought that the private sector could solve every problem but we have to reconsider the role to be played by the State in order to palliate the deficiencies of the market,” says Hang Chuon Naron, Secretary General of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The crisis has also led to calls for injecting government funds into the economy and for pushing reforms, in particular against endemic corruption. But the government would rather let the storm blow over, waiting for growth to come back in developed countries, hopefully pulling the country out of its recession in the process.

In the meantime, some hopes turn to the mineral, oil and gas resources development. But the revenues from these productions will be mainly derived from exports of raw materials with no local added value, whereas imports of manufactured goods will increase. Even after growth returns, Cambodia will still have to figure out how to hitch its industry to the global economy profitably rather than be a supplier of garments produced by cheap labour. Cambodia is beginning to learn the challenge of being part of an integrated world. —YaleGlobal

Anne-Laure Porée is a journalist based in Phnom Penh

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