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On the ground in Cambodia: Was my antibribery fight just dust in the wind?

Cambodian child in the classroom (Image by Anna Issakova via iStock)I led an anti-corruption program in Cambodia a few years ago funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The corruption situation in the country was and remains terrible.

It was a common sight to see truck drivers crossing the main bridge into the capital, Phnom Penh, throwing the equivalent of a dollar or two out their windows to police so they wouldn’t be stopped and asked for a larger bribe.

Perhaps the most distressing slice of life to witness was parents giving money to their children to bribe teachers to let them into classrooms each day.

Neither teachers nor police were paid a living wage, so the system more or less was constructed on the necessity of bribes. But what did this teach kids? That bribery is normal and expected, and that everything is for sale. This includes grades, college degrees, driving licenses, and just about everything that needs an official government stamp — and most everything needs such a stamp.

The anti-corruption program I ran countered this with education and outreach. We worked with local NGOs to hold village by village meetings to show that teachers should not be bribed but actually paid more by the government. We created a nation-wide “clean hands” campaign complete with a well recognized advertising, bumper stickers and educational leaflets. We collected more than a million signatures from citizens demanding an international standard anti-corruption law. We enlisted local and international companies to sign up to “clean business” principles.

Was it all dust in the wind? Not exactly, as there were several great examples of citizens demanding that corrupt practices stop, and local companies resisting calls from officials for bribes.

But is Cambodia less corrupt today than it was in 2007?

On balance, probably not yet. The dictator in power, Hun Sen, has his power based on corruption. And my Cambodian experience proves once again that until there is the political will from the top to reduce corruption (as we are beginning to see in China and Brazil), normal citizens will have to do what Andy Spalding said in his call to nature post for many years to come.


Aaron Bornstein was the Executive Director of BOTA Foundation, employed by a Washington, D.C. based NGO called IREX, from 2011 until its close in 2014. BOTA was the first (but hopefully not the last) foundation in the world established from an FCPA settlement. Aaron’s series on BOTA for the FCPA Blog, co-written with Andy Spalding, is here. Aaron is interested in receiving institutional support for the more extensive documentation of the BOTA experience he’s now working on. He can be contacted here.

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