As I walk through a produce market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I’m glad that I spent some of my younger years learning kung fu. Not because I ever feel threatened in any way. The case is quite the opposite, actually. If anyone seems overtly curious about me as I snap pictures with my conspicuously large Nikon, I simply smile and put my hands together under my chin in the common Buddhist form of greeting. I instantly receive a wide smile in return and an offer to show me what is for sale. The reason I’m glad I studied kung fu is the footwork needed to navigate the furious pace at which commerce is conducted in the market. I step forward, looking up, looking down, right and left, planning my movements three steps in advance, as commerce swirls around me. But the environment changes quickly, as suddenly a scooter is behind me, horn honking. All my senses are heightened as I nimbly hop out of the way in cat stance, trying to land in the 2 inch space amidst a pile of fish guts, a rotten melon, and a reeking puddle of who knows what. Occasionally I’m not so graceful as I try to avoid a bicycle or a cart selling grilled corn and I feel a swarm of eyes watching me, giggling.
Cambodia is a country in flux. One has the sense that a year from now it might be a completely different place. Three years ago the scars of Pol Pot’s brutal brand of communism were felt to the extent that Cambodians wouldn’t even talk about forming business associations. To many Cambodians the word akna, meaning organization, echoed with Maoist undertones. Today, however, businesses are recognizing the need to organize and improve the business environment through their own efforts. In the past they have had their rice sold to Thailand and marketed internationally as Thai rice: a low place to be on the value chain. Local manufacturers have not been able to distribute their goods effectively, as Vietnamese and Thai producers successfully sell their goods around the country. Living between the rapidly growing economies of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodians want to see equitable economic growth, but they need help to get there.
As I walk through the market, putrid with the smell of decomposing fish and fruits, I wonder whether Cambodians are ready to walk onto the world economic stage. With all of this abundance around me, will farmers be able to get their produce to other markets? Will manufacturers develop the skills to market their products abroad? Will the country find a way around the massive corruption problem that threatens the nation’s growth? The government seems enthusiastic about helping to make this happen, but avoiding common traps is a lot like trying not to step in a pile of reeking mess at the bazaar. There are obstacles at every corner and the environment is constantly changing. The government here is on the right track as it gives voice to the business community through national forums. However, if micro enterprises and SMEs are going to take part in the larger economy, they need business support organizations that represent their interests. I just wonder how they will learn to take these steps so that growth here is equitable and beneficial to the wider majority.