Category Archives: Economy

Workers of the World Faint!



Sarah Mazzetti
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The United States opened its market to Cambodian exports in the 1990s, and the garment industry in Cambodia has since become a $5 billion-a-year business. According to the country’s Garment Manufacturers Association, there are now over 600 garment factories, most owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies. Many were hastily erected on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh and in a few other free-trade zones — on land where people believe neak ta have lived for generations.

Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

Early last year, I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.

We chatted on the dirt floor of the tiny wooden house where she lived; there was nowhere else to sit. She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.

A few months after that event, something similar happened at a sporting-goods factory near the capital that was said to have been haunted ever since it opened in August 2012. Female workers asked their supervisor, a man named Ah Kung, if they could hold a ceremony and offer a chicken to a neak ta angered at being displaced from the site. He refused. Two days later, the spirit entered the body of a young female worker, Sreymom, and claiming, in her voice, to have been “looked down upon,” began shouting in a mixture of Khmer and short, quick syllables her colleagues took to be Chinese. Several dozen other workers lost consciousness and had to be treated at a local clinic.

“When she was possessed, she just pointed around everywhere,” one eyewitness explained afterward. “She said, ‘I want to meet Ah Kung.’ She said, ‘I want to meet him because I lived here a very long time and he never respected me and this is my land.”’ When Ah Kung arrived, the bystander said, “He came out and knelt down in front of her and offered whatever the neak ta asked.”

What the spirit was asking for was respect. He demanded that an altar be built and that ritual offerings be made to him there four times a month. He demanded that the owner roast a pig for him and throw a Khmer New Year party for the workers. The owner complied. The faintings stopped.

In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism. As the manufacture of linen intensified in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, household spirits began to appear in textile workshops in a more malevolent form. There was the story about the demonic imp Rumpelstiltskin, for example, who helped a young woman spin grotesque amounts of thread, but only in exchange for her firstborn. Other fairy tales sublimated the distress caused by the environmental and social costs of intensified flax production. The anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about Colombian peasants who were newly incorporated into wage labor on sugar cane plantations in the 1970s and reportedly sold their souls to the devil to increase their productivity.

Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk. Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.

She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.

In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true. Like Ms. Ong’s subjects, the vast majority of garment workers here are female and young. Many are the first generation in their families to work outside their native rice-farming communities. They often send a large portion of their wages back home, and feel both lucky to be able to do this and desperate. “The conditions are terrible — very, very bad,” Sreyneang told me as she described working six days a week to eke out $120 a month, without being allowed to take days off even when sick. “The factory has always been really strict.”

Despite efforts to diversify, the garment industry in Cambodia still makes up around 80 percent of the country’s total exports. Because the economy is so vulnerable to instability in the sector, the government has often reacted harshly, even violently, to garment workers’ efforts to unionize or take any collective action to ask for higher wages. During recent demonstrations, on Jan. 2 and 3, striking workers at Canadia Industrial Park and another factory near Phnom Penh were set upon by soldiers and military police; at least four were killed and dozens were injured.

Cambodian workers frequently complain that they are forced to work overtime and threatened when they try to join independent unions rather than one of the many government- or factory-backed unions that have sprung up over the past decade. (For an estimated garment workforce of at least 450,000, by the International Labor Organization’s tally, there are now over 400 unions, according to Solidarity Center, an international labor rights group.) Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.

In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.

Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.

Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations: The country’s six independent unions have been fighting hard for wage increases. And working conditions still leave a great deal to be desired; labor rights advocates say that $160 a month is the minimum workers need to adequately feed and house themselves. But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.

And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. The spirits have appeared at demonstrations and sit-ins organized by the political opposition, which has been contesting the results of elections held in July, which kept Hun Sen’s governing party in power. At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.

Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.

“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

Julia Wallace is executive editor of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 19, 2014, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers of the World, Faint!. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Flood Insurance, Already Fragile, Faces New Stress

Source: NY Times

U.S. Coast Guard/Getty Images

Homes in Tuckerton, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy. Estimates indicate the storm could rank as the nation’s second-worst for claims.

By  and 
Published: November 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s flood insurance program, which fell $18 billion into debt after Hurricane Katrina, is once again at risk of running out of money as the daunting reconstruction from Hurricane Sandy gets under way.

GRAPHIC: How Hurricane Katrina Overwhelmed the Federal Flood Insurance Fund


Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Don Horneff, 74, in his yard in Tuckerton, which has not taken federally recommended steps to protect homes from flooding.

Early estimates suggest that Hurricane Sandy will rank as the nation’s second-worst storm for claims paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program. With 115,000 new claims submitted and thousands more being filed each day, the cost could reach $7 billion at a time when the program is allowed, by law, to add only an additional $3 billion to its onerous debt.

Congress, just this summer, overhauled the flawed program by allowing large increases in premiums paid by vacation home owners and those repeatedly hit by floods. But critics say taxpayer money should not be used to bail it out again — essentially subsidizing the rebuilding of homes in risky areas — without Congress’ mandating even more radical changes.

“We are now just throwing money to support something that is going to end up creating more victims and costing more money in the future,” Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, said of the program, which insures 5.7 million homes nationwide near coasts or flood-prone rivers.

Even with the new rules, critics argue, it will be many years, if ever, before many homeowners are required to pay premiums that accurately reflect the market cost of the coverage. Some communities have long resisted imposing more appropriate building codes to prevent damage, putting the program at further risk of devastating losses when storms like Hurricane Sandy hit. And despite some efforts in recent years, many of the flood maps the program relies on are out of date — which can have expensive, and even deadly, consequences in this era of rising sea levels if homeowners are not cognizant of the risks they face.

The program’s giant debt makes matters worse because simply covering the interest owed the Treasury consumes from $90 million to $750 million a year, depending on interest rates. This means it is much harder to build reserves for future catastrophes.

But others on Capitol Hill argue that the changes adopted in July are an important first step, and that Congress must give the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program, a chance to apply them before any additional changes are considered.

Already, 44 members of the House of Representatives have called for Congress to appropriate whatever money is needed to help victims recover from Hurricane Sandy, and aides on Capitol Hill say that under such extreme losses, they expect lawmakers will do what they have to do to keep the program solvent — even amid a federal budget crisis.

“It is a program we require people to participate in, so we have to make sure it is adequately funded to handle claims,” said Representative Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of New York, whose district in Long Island has more than 100 miles of coastline. “You can’t say: ‘Awfully sorry. Hope this works out for you.’ ”

The federal government’s flood insurance program, established in 1968, is one of the world’s largest. The insurance is mandatory for homeowners with a federally backed mortgage if they live in an area subject to flooding at least once every 100 years. The average annual flood insurance premium is about $615, but for homeowners in areas at higher risk of flooding, an annual policy can cost from $1,200 to $3,000, according to Steve Harty, president of National Flood Services, a claims-processing company, depending on the level of coverage.

The federal program collects about $3.5 billion in annual premiums. But in four of the past eight years, claims will have eclipsed premiums, most glaringly in 2005 — the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma — when claims totaled $17.7 billion. Private insurance companies have long avoided offering flood insurance to homeowners.

“It’s like rat poison to them,” said Tony Bullock, an insurance industry lobbyist, explaining how the risk outweighs the benefit for private insurers. “You need the federal backstop.”

But the program is still a moneymaker for the private insurance industry. Even though these companies bear none of the risk, they take, on average, $1 billion a year of the premiums the government collects, as compensation for help in selling and servicing the policies. Federal auditors argue the payments are excessive.

FEMA officials declined to address whether changes beyond the already passed legislation are needed to strengthen the program.

“These reforms are being implemented,” the agency said in a written statement. “Right now, we’re focused on helping survivors.”

More than one million property owners who live in homes at least four decades old also have historically paid only about 40 percent of the estimated true cost of the coverage the government provides — in large part because of lobbying by the real estate industry, mortgage brokers, homeowners associations and other groups to keep federal authorities from charging more.

Perhaps the most troubling problem, program officials acknowledge, is that only a tiny share of enrolled properties accounts for a giant share of the overall claims, as the properties are repeatedly flooded and rebuilt in low coastal regions and in hurricane flight paths.

One Biloxi, Miss., property valued at $183,000 flooded 15 times over a decade, costing the program $1.47 million, according to federal data provided by the agency to a member of Congress. Another in Humble, Tex., has resulted in over $2 million in flood payouts even though it was worth just $116,000.

An analysis of two decades of claims by the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania shows that certain states, like Texas, which has the second-largest number of policies, pay much less in insurance premiums than the homeowners there collect in damage claims, evidence of the inherent inequity in the national program.

The problem of repetitive claims is much less prevalent in coastal New York and New Jersey, where FEMA estimates Hurricane Sandy flooded 100,000 insured homes.

But homeowners in those two states have fought measures that would reduce storm damage. Barrier island communities in the Northeast, for example, have resisted overtures from the Army Corps of Engineers to build sand dunes as a natural flood barrier, arguing that the dunes would block ocean views or harm the local tourism industry.

Other communities, like Tuckerton, N.J., have failed to take steps recommended by FEMA to better protect homes after flooding through a program that pushes owners to elevate new homes above minimum required heights or to move flood-prone buildings.

Hurricane Sandy damaged more than 300 of the 660 houses in Tuckerton’s beach area, including 22 that were washed away, according to Phil Reed, the town building inspector.

Fifteen years ago, Don Horneff, 74, had his Tuckerton house raised on pilings nine feet above ground level. As a result, he said, Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters ran only through his basement.

That is the kind of protective measure that federal officials want mandated into all new or rebuilt homes in flood zones.

Last week, piles of mattresses, fencing, chairs, appliances and other debris sat outside many of the homes on Mr. Horneff’s street — and a backhoe worked to clear the mess. “All around me, the homes that were lower, most of them will have to be demolished,” he said, surveying his neighborhood. “It’s very sad. They have lost everything.”

The pending costs for Hurricane Sandy would have been even higher if a greater share of residents along the East Coast had signed up for the insurance, which is voluntary outside the 100-year-flood zones. There would also have been more premium dollars, though not enough to pay the claims.

The fact that many homeowners hit by Hurricane Sandy have no flood or homeowners insurance could prompt Congress to provide assistance to the uninsured, too, as happened after Hurricane Katrina, further raising the cost to the federal Treasury.

Officials in New Jersey and New York say the federal government must move quickly to put the flood insurance program back on stable footing, even if it means increasing the federal deficit.

“All we want in our community — not any more and absolutely not less — is what is due to Sea Isle,” said Leonard C. Desiderio, the mayor of Sea Isle City, N.J., one of the coastal towns hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina put the program so deeply into debt that federal officials have acknowledged they will never be able to fully repay the $18 billion Treasury-financed loan that bailed the program out.

FEMA, as a result of this year’s legislation, has the authority to raise premiums by as much as 25 percent per year over the next five years. The increases will be imposed mostly on vacation homes and other properties that repeatedly flood, but whose owners have paid far below market insurance rates. The legislation also authorizes the creation of a national reserve fund to help the program handle major flood catastrophes, and urges Congress to appropriate $400 million a year to update the thousands of out-of-date flood control maps. That would likely force new homes to be built elevated off the ground in spots where rising sea levels or recent major storms have had an impact.

Lawmakers who pushed the legislation call it major progress in fixing the program’s well-documented failings.

“The program is on a much more responsible path than it had been just one year ago,” said Zachary Cikanek, a spokesman for Representative Judy Biggert, Republican of Illinois, who co-sponsored the legislation.

But others say much more needs to be done. The federal government should ensure continuous coverage in flood-prone areas, spreading the risk among a larger pool of homeowners, who now often allow their coverage to lapse, said Robert Hunter, an insurance administrator in the Ford and Carter administrations.

The 20,000 communities that participate should also be adopting stronger building or flood prevention codes the way Florida has since Hurricane Andrew did $23 billion worth of damage in 1992. Mr. Hunter pointed to earthquake-prone Chile, where builders must assume the liability for catastrophic earthquake damage for 10 years after construction. “This program still encourages unwise construction instead of discouraging it, and to me that means the program has failed, even with the reforms Congress just adopted,” Mr. Hunter said. “People are being killed and their properties are being destroyed because of a government that gives the false impression that there is less of a flood risk than there really is.”


Eric Lipton reported from Washington, Felicity Barringer from San Francisco, and Mary Williams Walsh from Philadelphia. Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Tuckerton, N.J.

The Cambodia ODA Database


This Database is maintained on behalf of all ministries and agencies of the Royal Government of Cambodia by the Cambodian Rehabilitation and Development Board (CRDB) of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC)

The Royal Government is grateful to Cambodia’s development partners for supporting this Database and contributing to more effective aid management by providing timely and comprehensive information.

For further information or assistance, please visit or contact

UN report slams Cambodia’s land abuses

Source Wednesday, 26 September 2012 Abby Seiff

Blackened tree stumps smoulder on deforested land in the Prey Lang forest in March. Photograph: May Titthara/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia’s economic land concession (ELC) policies are hindering development far more than helping it and beginning to erode the country’s hard-won stability, Cambodia’s special rapporteur warned yesterday.

“As I have noted in relation to other sectors in Cambodia, the existence of the legal framework on paper is one thing, the implementation of the law is another,” rights envoy Surya Subedi told the UN Human Rights Council last night.

“I have been consistently informed that the formal framework relating to land concessions is not being applied properly in many, if not most, cases.”

Addressing the inter-governmental body in Geneva, Subedi also delivered a 130-page addendum to his annual report printed last month, which offers an unsparing look at ELCs.

In the report, released to the public yesterday, Subedi underscores how a solid set of laws intended to govern concessions is flouted and ignored to provide companies and the government with gains that are temporary at best.

The government declared a moratorium on ELCs in May, but dozens in the pipeline at the time of the announcement have continued to go through.

“Throughout my analysis, I struggled to fully comprehend the benefits of many land concessions that the government has granted. In general, it is not clear to what extent the people of Cambodia have actually benefited from land concessions,” Subedi writes.

“The overwhelming conclusion drawn from petitions, letters, studies, peaceful protests, violent demonstrations, legal complaints, land-dispute statistics and my own direct observations is that land concessions are only benefiting a minority.”

Backed by dozens of pages of maps and concessionaire details, the report draws special attention to two rampant misuses of the ELC laws: concessions granted in protected areas and those over the permissible 10,000 hectares.

Both are ostensibly illegal, but loopholes and government compliance have resulted in a surge of such concessions.

In the case of granting land in protected areas, a seemingly ad hoc system of reclassifying the land as a “sustainable use zone” has allowed concessions to proliferate in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

“There is concern that sub-decrees are being used opportunistically as a means for the government to designate land within protected areas and grant it to concession companies,” Subedi writes, pointing out that nearly 20 per cent of the country’s protected areas have been re-purposed for rubber plantations, agro-industrial complexes, exploratory mining and hydropower projects.

Meanwhile, concessionaires have been able to collect parcels of land far larger than the legal limit “by obtaining separate but contiguous concessions and using them for the same purpose”.

Officials at the Ministries of Environment, Agriculture, and Land Management could not be reached for comment.

Accusing the government of allowing concessionaires to “operate behind a veil of secrecy,” Subedi cautions that whatever benefits the government may reap from such allowances will probably be short-lived.

“Perhaps the greatest impact that the irregular granting and mismanagement of economic and other land concessions has on the country is to its stability,” he writes. “Businesses without proper legal and procedural safeguards run significant risks that could affect their reputations, legal status, and profits, and in turn could hamper Cambodia‘s economic growth.”

Speaking at the council last night, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN, Sun Suon, addressed few of Subedi’s points head-on, instead focusing on progress — highlighting the ELC moratorium as one such success.

Economic land concessions – highlighted in Subedi’s recent report for having massive detrimental impacts on the general populace – have proliferated in recent years. This time lapse map by rights group Licadho shows the speed at which concessions have been granted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at

Cambodia: World Development Indicators

Google Public Data Explorer

Hmm. Embedding isn’t working. Here are some screenshots.



Future Architects Brace for Major Hike in Student Loan Interest Rates

June 4, 2012 By Guy Horton

Whether they pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree, many architecture students are forced to take out loans to cover tuition. With design jobs rarely offering large salaries, architects can spend years, if not decades, paying off that debt.

Tuition at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is $40,440 per year.
Image courtesy Wikipedia
Tuition at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is $40,440 per year.

Now, that repayment period could get even longer.

On July 1, the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans is set to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The hiked rate will apply to new loans, not existing ones. The increase stems from legislation enacted in 2007, when Congress voted to gradually reduce the 6.8 percent rate to 3.4 percent over a five-year period. At the end of that period, the rate was to jump back to 6.8 percent.

The higher rate is expected to generate an additional $6 billion in revenue for the government—a mere 0.16 percent of the proposed $3.8 trillion national budget—but for many future architects, the increase will have a significant impact. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), architecture students can expect to graduate with an average of $40,000 in debt, exceeding the national average by $15,000.

Program fees vary widely, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. In a 2008-2009 study, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) reported that the average yearly tuition for a B.Arch at public schools was $4,992 in state and $13,624 out of state. Undergraduate tuition at private schools was much higher, averaging $23,561.

As for master’s degrees, public schools charge an average of $9,439 in state and $24,068 out of state. Private schools average $31,081. (The NAAB could not provide updated statistics at press time.)

A Good Investment? 
John LaSalle, an undergraduate student majoring in international development and architecture at Michigan’s Calvin College, says he takes out $2,500 in loans each semester and is two years away from completing his four-year degree.

“I’m about maxed out on how much I can take out in subsidized loans,” he says. He plans to pursue a master’s degree, but not right away. “I’m already looking at taking a year or two off after getting my bachelor’s before going on to a master’s to pay down the debt,” he says. He might wait even longer if the increased rate takes effect.

Alexander Sexsmith, who in 2005 earned an M.Arch from SCI-Arc (where tuition is about $33,000 per year), currently pays $350 a month toward his student loans. To make matters worse, he was recently laid off due to a slowdown in his office.

“Under-utilizing our educations makes all that debt feel like a foolish bet rather than a good long-term investment,” he says. “I should have studied in the Netherlands.” (There, the average annual tuition for a foreign student is 8,000 euros, according to Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education.)

Attempts to Halt the Hike
In Congress, both Republicans and Democrats want to stop the forthcoming increase, but they can’t agree on how to cover the lost revenue. Republicans recently floated a bill called the “Interest Rate Reduction Act” (S.2366), sponsored by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. This bill proposed pulling money from a preventative health fund established by the new healthcare law.

On May 24, the bill was struck down in the Senate, as was a similar bill put forth by the Democrats. Aptly named “Stop the Student Loan Interest Rate Hike Act of 2012” (S.2343), that bill, sponsored by Senator Harry Reid from Nevada, would have made up the lost revenue by altering the way taxes are assessed on wealthier shareholders in S corporations.

Originally designed to benefit small business owners, S corporations don’t pay corporate taxes; rather, the company’s income (and losses) are reported by the shareholders in their personal income tax returns. In turn, owners can report some of their income as “business profit” rather than “salary,” which allows them to avoid payroll taxes. The S.2343 bill said that an S corp shareholder with an income over $250,000 would have to start reporting S corp income as “salary.”

The AIA lobbied against the S corp provision in the S.2343 bill because it could have impacted architecture firms operating as S corps. More taxes might lead to decreased hiring, explains Andrew Goldberg, the AIA’s managing director of federal affairs and outreach. “Many architecture students depend on loans, so we are concerned about that,” he says. “We just don’t want any offset to come at the expense of small firms.”

Some wish the AIA would have focused more on protecting individual architects. “There are more employees suffering than employers,” says Los Angeles designer Edwin Fang, who earned his M.Arch in 2006 and is still paying off his student loans. “It doesn’t seem right that young employees should pick up more load on their loans just to help owners on their taxes.”

What Next? 
With both bills now dead in the water, legislators are scrambling to find a palatable alternative before the July 1 deadline.

Congressional Republicans sent a proposal to the White House last week with suggestions to offset the $6 billion in lost revenue. The Obama administration is currently reviewing the proposal, which calls for increasing annual employee contributions to retirement programs, compressing the interest-free grace period for student loans, and revising taxes for Medicaid providers. The AIA has not taken a position on the Republicans’ most recent proposal, according to AIA spokesperson John Schneidawind.

U.S. student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said during a recent interview with Yahoo that high unemployment and lower pay presents graduating students with “very dim prospects,” in turn making it harder for them to pay off their debts.

Students complain that tuition is too high, forcing them to borrow money if they want to get a good education. “The way I look at it, we are at the mercy of the government and the big institutions and have to take the loans,” says Julian Brummitt, an undergraduate student at SCI-Arc. Even though he works 28 hours a week, participates in a work-study program, and gets some scholarship support, Brummitt still has to take out student loans. “It’s a nightmare,” he says. “I’ll be 60 by the time I pay them off.”

Laura Mirviss contributed additional reporting for this story.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 5, 2012. The original story stated that the AIA lobbied against the S.2343 bill; in fact, it only lobbied against the S corp provision in the bill.

Water Conferences

April 16-18: Water Security, Risk and Society International Water Security Conference, April 16-18 in Oxford, UK.
Water security is a defining challenge for society in the 21st century. The ancient struggle to cope with water access and shocks is now magnified by global change to societies, economies and climate at multiple scales.

The International Conference on Water Security, Risk and Society will be held April 16-18th 2012 at the University of Oxford. The event will convene many of the world’s thought leaders from science, policy and enterprise to understand the status of and pathways to water security at multiple scales.

The conference offers a platform for 200 academics, policymakers and business leaders to respond to society’s pressing water security challenges by (i) taking stock of the evidence base informing policy choices and strategic business decisions; and (ii) establishing investment priorities for science-policy-enterprise partnerships. The conference fosters exchange across developed and developing countries and regions, seeking to identify and elucidate global interdependencies between different socio-economic and cultural contexts.

April 21-22: Global Health & Innovation Conference 2012. Presented by Unite for Sight, @ Yale University.
2,200 participants from all 50 states and from more than 55 countries who are immersed in global health and international development, public health, medicine, social entrepreneurship, nonprofits, philanthropy, microfinance, human rights, anthropology, health policy, advocacy, public service, environmental health, and education.
Company Overview

The Unite For Sight Global Health & Innovation Conference is a must-attend, thought-leading conference that convenes leaders, changemakers, and participants from all fields of global health, international development, and social entrepreneurship

April 27: The Glass Half Full: Valuing Water in the 21st Century, Tufts and UMass Amherst water symposium. April 27, 2012.
The theme for this year’s symposium is The Glass Half Full: Valuing Water in the 21st Century. Students, academics, and professionals in the greater Boston area and across the nation from the public, private, and non-governmental sectors will join us to explore the various complex and interlinking factors of valuing water throughout developed and developing nations.

Unplanned Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh Unplanned












For the first time in history, more than half the world’s people are living in urban environments. While less than a quarter of Cambodians currently live in cities, Phnom Penh is growing fast. From being home to just over a million people in 1995, the capital’s population is expected to top two million in ten years time, if not sooner. AsiaLIFE explores whether there is a method to the madness that exemplifies the development of Phnom Penh.

The stampede at Koh Pich in November brought to Cambodia’s capital international headlines. While many readers abroad are likely to have dismissed the story as just another “developing country disaster”, many Phnom Penh residents were genuinely shocked. How could this happen on Diamond Island, the country’s flagship urban development?

In the aftermath, many questions were asked with the majority of commentators noting proper planning could have prevented the tragedy. Officially, no one was to blame. Though most likely a breakdown of crowd control rather than a failure of urban planning, the Koh Pich disaster brought questions about Phnom Penh’s development to the fore. And it was about time.

Urbanisation anywhere presents both opportunities and challenges. Young, recently established cities often feel growing pains.

“The development of the city of Phnom Penh today offers us a choice,” the country’s iconic master architect Vann Molyvann wrote in 2003. “We can either continue along the present path in which a form of laissez faire development responds to immediate needs and desires, or we can plan for a controlled development in which needs are anticipated and future requirements of growing populations are considered and prepared for.”

Eight years later, some contend the unique opportunity to rebuild and modernise the capital city has been wasted. Urbanisation has followed the money, not the needs of the city and its inhabitants. Phnom Penh could be on a path towards becoming another Bangkok, characterised by speculation, gridlock, pollution and empty high rises.

Pressured Growth

“The centre of Phnom Penh has been getting very dense in recent years with population growth of around four percent,” says Tep Makathy, a Japanese-trained urban planner and co-author of an upcoming urban sector assessment by the ADB. “It is imposing pressure on everything.”

Built at the confluence of four rivers, water both epitomises and puts a strain on the city. The Tonle Sap and the Mekong curtail its growth to the east, while flooding and drainage problems affect the expansion to the west. Nevertheless, the boom of the 2000s saw significant construction particularly in the outer districts lying close to the airport.

Limited laws and regulations mean the development has been largely uncontrolled. Zoning does not exist, while lack of planned parking facilities has led to traffic congestion on the city’s main arteries. Demolition of old buildings is a regular occurrence, with replacements going up equally as fast. The suburbs in particular are experiencing sweeping changes in land use, as former agricultural land is bought up and put to other uses.

As the city changes, its most vulnerable residents are caught in the crossfire. Rights groups report over ten percent of Phnom Penh’s population has been displaced in the past decade.

“Since around 2005 there has been rapid physical development and the city is not really ready for it,” says Makathy.

Din Somethearith, current hotelier and former head of the local UN-Habitat office, concurs. “There is no plan for the urban sector and no money allocated for urban planning in particular,” he says.

That’s not surprising. Somethearith notes rapid urban development is the norm in the region. “European cities have had hundreds of years to gradually grow, while most cities in the East have developed over the past hundred years or less,” he says. “We can’t control it.”

Planning Ahead

After years in the making, a master plan for the city is finally at the cusp of being adopted. A 330-page document, the “Livre Blanc du Developpement et de l’Amenagement de Phnom Penh” provides a comprehensive description of both historical and current characteristics of the capital, ending with a strategic master plan leading up to year 2020.

Not everyone is convinced of its value.

“It’s just a coloured drawing,” says Somethearith. He argues the document provides little practical direction for the development of the city. “Urban planning is about finding solutions. It’s costly and it takes a lot of time.”

Makathy too argues a more practical roadmap towards achievable, short term goals is needed. “City development can’t wait for ambitious plans, it moves on especially during rapid property booms such as the one we saw in 2004-2008,” he says.

Geoffrey Pyle is a British architect with studios in both the UK and Cambodia. According to him, the lack of plans and regulations mean decisions over land use are currently left to the investor.

“Rather than guidance from the city on the growth of the city, we’re steered by clients,” he says. This makes for haphazard development where high rises flank wooden corner shops. “You need an authority with a vision. Having some kind of a strategic master plan is important in guiding how investors choose to develop sites.”

Still, Pyle is realistic about the power of planning.

“If the plan goes contrary to the market, then land will just sit idle,” he says. Laws and regulations are further needed to ensure any plan is implemented, as investors otherwise are unlikely to take heed.

Somethearith argues this is not possible in the current economic climate. “Conditions can’t yet be put on investors as it would make Phnom Penh lose its competitive advantage,” he says. “Economic growth is needed. It’s a good image for the government and it’s good for the people. No one builds skyscrapers in wartime.”

Foreign Cash Leads the Way

The lack of restrictions and oversight has led to growth of the city being typified by ambitious construction projects. The filling in of Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh, which rights groups say will displace over 4,000 families, is a prime example of urban growth following the money.

Golden Tower 42, Camko City, and Grand Phnom Penh International City are further cases in point. They represent an imported urban future, which the majority of Penhites, not to mention the rest of Cambodia, can’t afford. “We don’t have a lot of middle class people–only the rich can afford these developments,” says Somethearith.

As the city centre becomes increasingly dense, the building of “satellite cities” has emerged as the number one solution for easing congestion. Yet the amount of planned mega-developments has experts worried.

“Satellite cities need so much time to get established,” says Pyle. “It’s incredibly ambitious. Incremental development according to a plan following the economic cycle might be better.”

Somethearith considers many of the foreign-led developments too aggressive. “The market is not there,” he says. ”I think it will crash in the next few years.”

It’s not only a question economics. Wider concerns regarding the impacts of fenced-in development projects are also aired.

“The large scale developments are isolated and not very well coordinated with the existing city structure and infrastructure system,” says Makathy. “Take for example sewage connections, if there are not any in the area, is the developer going to build them? There are no requirements to this effect.”

Pyle is concerned poor development will take place. “It’s soul-destroying to see important sites being developed in an ad hoc fashion, not contributing to the quality of the city.”

He cites the Bassac riverfront area as a great opportunity within the growing city. Already home to the capital’s latest five-star hotel, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeetra, Bassac could, with proper planning, become the city’s newest district. “Sofitel is making a statement, setting the tone of the area,” says Pyle.

Changing Suburbia

The opportunity presented by the now free land in Bassac came at a cost. Rights advocates point out that the area used to be home to thousands of urban poor families, evicted to the city’s outskirts during the past ten years.

Somethearith laments what he considers rushed, non-transparent development that has made some groups increasingly vulnerable. “Development should not affect people negatively, there are win-win solutions,” he says.

Lack of vision and accountability means these solutions are not being implemented. Instead, over 40 so-called “relocation sites” in the capital’s four outer districts now house urban poor communities who previously called prime real estate their home.

“The government thinks that giving the urban poor plots in the suburbs is good, but it doesn’t work for everyone,” says Somethearith. “The lack of transportation to the city centre means it is impossible for the very poor to make a living there.”

Transportation isn’t the only problem. Lack of jobs and services, as well as drainage, sewerage and roads add to the recipe for disaster not only for the displaced poor, but for all those who choose to relocate to the suburbs.

“It’s not atypical for a city to face these challenges in coping with infrastructure and service provision–it’s very expensive,” says Makathy. “But one thing you can do is to have a plan or a vision–let these direct you to avoid adverse impacts in the future.”

While the city centre’s layout is guided by colonial and 1960s urban plans, the largely agricultural land in the suburbs is developed unrestrained. “The suburbs are already becoming dense,” says Somethearith. “If we don’t plan and prepare, in twenty years time Phnom Penh will be like Bangkok.”

Makathy argues that in order for the city to develop more equitably, the twin issues of demand for land and need for housing have to be resolved together. “There needs to be supply of affordable housing units–but who wants to invest in that?” he asks. “In other countries, governments take the lead in the provision of affordable housing options.”

Loss of Identity

The rapid gentrification of the city is not only changing its texture, but also its makeup. Some young, up-and-coming architects fear the city is developing out of their hands.

“The good point is that we still have the old layout of the city to guide some development,” says Serey Pagna, an architecture student. “But really, Phnom Penh today is unplanned.”

Unlike many of his compatriots, Pagna is a fan of 1960s Khmer New Architecture, and laments what he considers the destruction of historically and architecturally valuable buildings in favour of imported urban dreams.

He maintains the unique opportunity to modernise war-ravaged Phnom Penh with sensitivity has been missed and there is little sign of an emerging 21st century Khmer urban aesthetic.

“Vann Molyvann put the Khmer soul into the buildings he designed,” says Pagna. In contrast, contemporary local architects either copy designs from abroad or use obvious symbols to assert their “Khmerness”, he maintains.

Pyle looks at the situation from a historical perspective. He says Cambodia is by no means unique in destroying its heritage.

“Cultures go through cycles,” he says. “Many Cambodians think of the 1960s Vann Molyvann period as not very Khmer. It is seen as French and post-colonial, it’s not considered a part of the heritage.”

While the argument is not academically accurate, Pyle notes it is likely to take some time before wider appreciation for Khmer New Architecture is achieved.

An Unsustainable Future?

“By the end of the 1960s, all the structures were in place for Phnom Penh to become the great capital of a clearly developing country,” writes Vann Molyvann. Indeed, when Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, visited Phnom Penh in the 1960s, he reportedly remarked: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.”

Compared to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, and Jakarta, Phnom Penh remains a small, liveable city. “You can hardly breathe in many other regional capitals,” says Makathy. “Phnom Penh is really fresh in comparison.” But the real estate and construction boom is starting to take its toll.

As Phnom Penh repeats the mistakes made in other regional capitals, many working in the sector express deep frustration with the current situation. “The private sector is very powerful and the government only cares about macro-economic growth,” says Somethearith. “It will be too late when we realise the effects of that.”

Young professionals like Pagna provide a glimmer of hope. Benefiting from improved training and international exposure, they are better equipped to deal with urban development.

“I believe in what my generation and the next can do,” Pagna says. “We hope to learn from other cities and apply those lessons in Cambodia.”

If Pagna’s optimism proves founded then Phnom Penh might in the future start making international headlines for the right reasons, although Pyle’s summary that the “city will survive and grow, and there will be both good and bad bits,” seems more realistic. The extent to which the city’s authority orchestrates its future planning is likely to have a bearing on just how much is good and how much is bad. Only time will tell.