The Greatest Generation: Cambodia’s Inspirational Young Professionals
Adam Kogeman, KF10, Cambodia
Lend to a borrower in Cambodia and you’re making a sound investment. Aside from exhibiting extremely low loan default rates, Cambodian Kiva borrowers are clients of well-established and well-run microfinance organizations. They live in a country that enjoyed double-digit economic growth for much of the past decade, doubling per-capita income in the process. While praising the benefits of this growth in alleviating poverty and improving quality of life here, in 2009 the World Bank cautioned that this growth is “unlikely to be sustainable in its current form”. I agree with their analysis, but would argue continued growth is inevitable because the strength and comparative advantage of Cambodia’s economy lies in something quite durable: human capital. Cambodia’s human capital is impressive in that it is shaped and sustained by an obvious but mostly intangible quality: young Cambodians’ extraordinarily strong work ethic and ambition.
As the other Phnom Penh based Kiva Fellows will attest, our Cambodian colleagues, friends and acquaintances are, with very few exceptions, extremely hard workers, careful money managers and disciplined professionals who take great pride in their work. Like most Cambodians, they arrive to work very early and work until late. The younger of them typically work and go to school full-time, whether to university, English classes or both. Most have only one day off a week, which they like to spend with family. None of this is done grudgingly. On the contrary, young workers are highly motivated and enthusiastic (walk into almost any shop or restaurant in this country and you will probably find the staff over-attentive to your needs). One 25 year old employee of CREDIT, the microfinance institution where I’m placed, used to walk 40 km a day to attend high school. He now works and goes to university full time, sending a healthy chunk of his monthly income back to his home village to help his elderly parents and put his younger siblings through school. His story sounds extraordinary, but amongst young Cambodian professionals, it’s quite ordinary.
Young Cambodians impress not only with their work ethic and personal accomplishments in the face of adversity, but in their dedication to improving the society in which they live. They are focused on the future and make strategic investments of time and resources to ensure they positively impact their families and communities as much as possible. One young Cambodian woman I’ve met, an orphan, now owns a successful restaurant/boutique where she provides vocational training and mentoring to disadvantaged youth. She plans to open her own orphanage someday. Another young woman works at a non-profit organization providing dental care to orphans. She works 9 hours a day then goes to English class for over 3 hours each night. She tells me she is driven to become educated and successful in part to combat the glaring gender inequality in this country.
I know these are generalizations and not everything is roses in Cambodia, but it is not at all difficult to find inspirational stories like these in this country. As a Kiva Fellow, I’ve met young Cambodians carefully planning and working hard to ensure a prosperous, more comfortable future for their families and communities in the most remote of villages and busiest of Phnom Penh streets. One generation removed from the horrific Khmer Rouge years and decades of conflict and instability, they’re no strangers to uncertainty and hardship which, I suspect, makes them all the more motivated. They might never get to see the bright future they now envision, but they’re certainly moving mountains in paving the way for the next generation to achieve it. They’re an inspirational bunch to speak to, if you can catch them between work and class, that is.
Adam Kogeman is a Kiva Fellow serving at CREDIT, a microfinance institution in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He encourages all Kiva lenders to travel in developing countries to enrich themselves and better understand the incredible positive impact they are having! Check out CREDIT’s current fundraising loans and join the CREDIT lending team!