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CAMBODIA: Education and Corruption

I promised this in July 2008, and I apologize for the delay. Once you read it, I think you’ll understand why it took me 6 months to write; it’s disheartening and depressing.

Cambodia is a country where corruption is so ingrained that it is essentially part of the culture. One would not be surprised to find that many politicians are corrupt, but it is shocking to find that some monks and teachers are as well. Even the people that run orphanages and schools for poor children take a cut of the donations. In Cambodia, the notion of a “not-for-profit” is all but unheard of.

Last summer we went to visit a monk-run orphanage and school that is a half-hour drive outside Siem Reap. Before we went, we asked our good friend (a Cambodian) what would be an appropriate donation, and he told us, “Give supplies, not money.” That made sense to us, but when we inquired as to why, our friend informed us that the good monks only take 25% of the donated money. Many monks take up to half of the donations. The worst part is that everyone knows this; and it’s just considered a fact of life. Our friend then told us a story that we would hear repeated from other reliable sources: more than one monk has been known to save up the embezzled funds and, upon retiring from monk-hood, buy a big mansion and a nice car using the money intended to help poor children. Sickening.

Then there’s the new “get rich quick” scheme that seems to have taken hold in Siem Reap. Locals (especially tour guides) have noticed how much money tourists donate to the orphanages and schools for poor children and some people have decided they want a piece of the action. More than a few locals have opened orphanages and schools of their own. Some of these are opened by tour guides, who then bring their tour groups to their schools and collect donations. I don’t know what percentages of these donations are actually used for their intended purpose, but I would say that half would be generous. The schools that aren’t opened by guides work with a guide to bring tourists their way. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guides got a “tip” for this service.

You may think that despite the embezzlement, that it’s good these people are helping children. But when you go to those orphanages and those schools, and you see the meager conditions, and see the dirty children with rotting teeth, and the food lacking in nutritional value, it’s hard to accept the corruption. When you think about how much more they could do with the donated money, how much better they could feed and help the children and how many more children they could help with that money, it’s sickening. These people are literally taking food, shelter and services from the children they proclaim to help.

Then there’s the corruption of the teachers. Being a teacher myself, this is especially upsetting. In Cambodia (and other South East Asia countries as well), teachers are not paid well. The average teacher is paid $30-$40 a month. This is clearly not enough to live on, so many teachers have devised ways to make money off the students. One method is to intentionally withhold information from the students. Teachers will withhold information critical to passing the grade-level exit exam. If a student wants to pass the exam, they have to pay the teacher to come to afterschool “special class”. The teacher will often hold a 1-hour class per subject; these classes cost anywhere from a quarter to a dollar.

The other scheme teacher’s use is selling lecture notes. Some teachers will refuse to write on the board, so if a student wants to get that day’s lesson, they must buy the teacher’s lecture notes. The teacher will copy the notes at a cost of 5 cents, and sell them to the students for 25 cents. Keep in mind that these students’ parents typically make $1-$2 a day.

Unlike the corruption, the teacher’s extortion of students is easily fixed by increasing their salaries. At least this is being worked on. The Cambodian government hired School for Children of Cambodia, a British NGO (non-governmental organization) as a consultant to the Ministry of Education. The ministry asked SCC to help increase education rates. SCC’s two main recommendations were: build more middle and high schools in the countryside and pay teachers (a lot) more. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are funding the former. Unfortunately, the Cambodian government doesn’t seem too keen about the latter. Hopefully they will change their minds in time.


  1. This is really happenig in Cambodia. I feel sad for the poor.
    If you want to make donation, you should donate to NGOs run by foreigns, cos they are trustworthy. not difficult to find cos there are many NGOs working to help poor children in Cambodia now.


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