Friday, April 29, 2011

Where Cordial Meets Crooked--Things aren't quite right here

In the sunny, yawning, late afternoon this Friday I had a meeting with the anti-money laundering folks at the central bank, the Financial Intelligence Unit. The name suggests a high-tech surveillance operation, but in the last few hours of the work-week, I stood in a room of empty cubicles next to a platter of chocolates, a vase of fake roses and a stuffed cat, waiting for the director to open his door. Then I was ushered into a deep leather armchair, sun beating down on me, to have a talk about how things are going. It’s a funny question to ask with a straight face the man accountable for the prevention of fraud, money laundering, and terrorist financing here. Two weeks ago I walked to a meeting on Norodom Boulevard past workers dutifully unscrewing the name plate from the gates of Peng Heng SME Bank—I could see beyond the gate office furniture piled in front of the door. The bank had just appeared in the Phnom Penh Post under investigation by the Government of Canada for a massive money laundering scandal. And oddly enough, the bank’s owner was making a second go of the business, having been previously convicted on similar charges a few years ago. This was just one name plate in a pattern of criminal activity that various Cambodia-watchers have been tracking over the past fifteen years or so.
My counterpart was a warm, friendly guy, and in the afternoon sunshine, it seemed that efforts are well underway, that capacity has been weak but it’s getting stronger, that the unit is new and the learning curve is steep. We discussed areas where technical assistance could be helpful, where training courses and manuals could build up staff skills, and I passed along my business card. It was a cordial meeting. I rode back to the office along Norodom Boulevard past another bank, where an armored truck was pulled into a loading dock. What the hell is going on around here anyway?
There’s a funny feeling in my job of convivial familiarity with government authorities, dinners out together and emails signed-off with nicknames, and on the other hand, an unspoken skepticism about everything that’s said and done. Two years ago, at an event I arranged in Jakarta, I was introduced to Afghanistan’s central bank governor, a look-you-in-the-eyes kind of guy with a strong handshake that says, Hey man, we’re in this together. I was working with a more senior Russian economist, and she took an even chummier approach to him. She called him Fitrat, and they smoked together in the lobby. Now I’m sipping coffee and reading about our buddy, whose IMF support has been frozen while he tries to figure out how 95 percent of Kabul Bank's portfolio disappeared into the pockets of Karzai’s inner circle.
I do a lot of head scratching. You want to be engaged, but you don’t want reputational risk. You shouldn’t be judgmental, but you can’t be na├»ve.
To its credit, this country has opened its doors to many not-for-profit organizations, and many who come here to do good have distanced themselves from official government and state institutions. They work directly with the orphaned and the blind, the homeless and the sexually exploited. They work on the scale of two hands and the capacity of the human heart. So a handmade quilt puts a child through a month of school, and a woven basket feeds a family, a vocational training center teaches a young deaf young man to give haircuts a few blocks from our apartment, and another center teaches a blind woman to do massage therapy. I’m drawn to the idea of a making a one-for-one contribution, holding the hand of the person I’m helping. I’m also a pragmatist and a believer that people can be their own best advocates when markets and systems allow them to be. For instance, it makes a big difference to be able to borrow money, or remit it over a mobile phone, to hold a property title, or to sue for one in court. So the story goes, you’ve got to work on the bigger picture, or the child weaving a basket today in exchange for food will still be weaving with her grandchildren fifty years from now.
For me, working on the ‘bigger picture’ here has meant a Monday through Friday schedule of office visits and coffees, luncheons and hotel receptions. Prioritizations, proposals, milestones, objectives. These are the third-derivatives of human needs, embedded in the email chain and attached files. A few steps outside the office, and I can see how dissimilar is the world of those discussing aid from the world of those struggling to receive it.