Archive for the 'Free market' Category

25
Jul
14

Blind Consumption, by Florencia Gennaro

IMG_0736

As we approach the end of our time in Cambodia, I realize that I will leave here with more questions that answers. I will leave questioning my place in the world and what I want my contribution to the world to be. I will also leave questioning my social responsibility as a consumer. Our recent discussion with guest speaker David Welsh, the country representative of the Solidarity Center, sparked me to think about how consumerism in North America is impacting the rest of the world. I had thought about this in a different respect prior to coming here, and my experiences in Cambodia have allowed me to question things even further.

Let me move back a few steps so it is clear where I am coming from. Towards the end of my eight year career as a fashion model, I started to feel a discomfort with the superficiality and the materialistic lifestyle that I was promoting with my work. In fact, this discomfort was one of the reasons why I chose to disengage with the industry—apart from the fact that I wanted to pursue a college education and wanted to do it while I was still young. What I could not see at the time was that it was not only a matter of the shallowness of living a life in which your entire identity is marked by what you consume, but that it is also a matter of the harm we inflict on others through our consumer practices.

I am speaking here of the act of consuming clothing and other material possessions, but also of the act of consuming culture, space, and food—any number of things that have been turned into commodities. In countries like the USA, many of us have become compulsive consumers. Our lives are marked by what we have, where we travel and what we do in our free time. This rampant consumerism is both detrimental to the environment because of the carbon footprint caused by shipping AND because it creates structures of massive labor exploitation.

As a case in point, let’s consider the garment industry in Cambodia. Even though there is a growing movement to improve the labor conditions in the factories that manufacture products for North American consumer markets (and almost every brand you can think of is here), there is little questioning of what those companies are doing here in the first place. It seems, for the most part, that we have bought into the argument that these factories provide employment to people who live in extreme poverty and it is their “choice” to work in these conditions. This is where the issue gets tricky. What kind of agency do the workers really have when they are faced with such levels of deprivation? Is this really a matter of choice?

Most of the workers in the garment sector in Cambodia are young women below the age of 25. Even though the idea of working in a factory might seem attractive because of the opportunity to move to a city and to avoid the arduous labor required in rice production, most of these women find themselves worse off. They can barely survive on the meager salary, they cannot easily protest because they would likely be fired, and they work in very poor conditions (unacceptable heat levels, unpaid overtime, unavailable access to water and breaks). On top of that, they have no educational opportunities. As David Welsh argues, they are robbed of their best years and left with nothing—no savings, no education, and no job prospects. I wonder: what is the industry doing for them or for “developing” countries in general?

The rationale behind the trade agreements signed between Cambodia and the United States is built around the idea that industrial development is promoting “growth” in developing countries. Yet, even though the garment sector represents 80% of the country’s overall exports, around 95% of them are foreign-owned and many have tax holidays for years. Even the managers are foreign. This means the industry pours no revenue into the Cambodian economy—apart from the scarce minimum wage that the workers earn. And the fact that the garment industry represents the majority of the exports makes the government dependent on and subservient to the companies who have chosen to “invest” in Cambodia. Where, then, is this “growth” that the industry is bringing to the country? I have come to the conclusion that this industry is not bringing growth but extracting labor from people who are living in extreme levels of deprivation.

I am left, once again, wondering what I am to do with this knowledge because I know there is no simple solution. I believe there are many different approaches we, as consumers, can take—from buying locally made or ethically made, to boycotting big corporations to reducing consumption. Yet, I am not advocating for any one of these in particular but rather that we spend some time thinking about what forms our actions might take. My hope, on a personal level, is to be more conscious of how my consumption impacts people with whom I have no direct contact on a daily basis and to encourage others to do the same. I want to instill a sense of social responsibility and humanity in the communities in which I live. I want to raise awareness about how we have come to understand who we are as people based on our consumption (and how the media and marketing strategies play a role in this). It is time we started pushing back.

Consume differently.

Consume consciously.

18
Jul
14

Democracy in Cambodia, by Florencia Gennaro

Twenty years after the UNTAC mission brought democracy to Cambodia, the authoritarian Cambodia People’s Party continues to run the country with little accountability. What is it that is keeping Cambodia from becoming a ‘real’ democracy? And what do people mean when they refer to “democracy” given its varied history and practice as a form of governance?

One of the guest speakers for Lang in Cambodia was from a USAID funded organization that promotes democratic participation among the country’s youth. The premise of the organization is based on the idea that young people have to understand what democracy is in order for them to demand change. They teach them the basics of this governance structure (formal participation in voting, the concept of majority rules, the right to free and fair elections), encourage them to become active in council meetings and write petitions about social issues in their community, and train them in journalism. The staff members are met with resistance, and sometimes threats from the government, as well as many communities in which they operate, but they continue engaging in this work despite the risks.

Just before this guest speaker had arrived, however, all of us had been discussing in academic seminar geographer Simon Springer’s article, on the contestation of public space in Cambodia. Through our discussion, it became clear to me that there was something else that was preventing democracy from taking hold in Cambodia. Springer argues neoliberalization (the process and promotion of free market economics) and democracy are incompatible. He states, “neoliberalization effectively acts to suffocate an indigenous burgeoning of democratic politics. Such asphyxiation is brought to bear under the neoliberal rhetoric of order and stability, which can be read through the (re)production of public space.”

What seemed to be missing from the work of the organization I describe above, based on Springer’s claims, was an analysis of how the collapse of public spaces through processes of neoliberalization might also be contributing to Hun Sen’s hold on power. Educating youth about democratic principles and practices, while important, is not the only factor.

Public spaces are supposed to facilitate democratic realization. But what happens when a government does not want to encourage democratic participation, when they want to retain control? Springer would argue that these states reinvent public spaces in a way that stifles possibilities for collective resistance. For example, the state may position more police officers in parks and squares to promote “safety and stability,” which may not necessarily be done to the benefit of the population, but to control how segments of the population make use of public spaces. Public spaces can also be reimagined as sites of entertainment, a place where you go to have fun and relax instead of engage in politics.

So what can everyday people do when one of the most concrete avenues of democratic participation is compromised? It seems there are two choices: (1) people either become complacent and forget that public spaces are supposed to be a locus for self-representation, or (2) they rebel against their government through violent action because they believe they are left with no other option.

Unfortunately, the latter of these two could result in even more violence from above. This is what is currently happening in Cambodia. In a recent statement, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) called for a halt in the use of violence by state agencies and for an investigation of the events of July 15th, 2014. What was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration against the barricade of the Freedom Square in Phnom Penh and the ban on public assembly, turned repressive when protestors were attacked for voicing their concerns. This event is one among many that have culminated in state violence because of the repressive politics of the government, and one among the many that has not been addressed by the international community providing ongoing aid to Cambodia.

So I ask: if Cambodian elites need the country to appear stable and orderly to continue receiving foreign aid and participate in a “free market,” and the international community does not step in when basic human rights are violated, then how can democracy in Cambodia become real?




%d bloggers like this: