Education Gap Stunts Cambodia's Renewal

Country faces acute shortage of expertise as the most skilled workers remain away or accept jobs with high-paying foreign firms

FOR John Vyghen, Cambodia's most crippling economic loss is in human terms.

A Dutch anthropologist, Mr. Vyghen trains Cambodians in survey and research techniques for work in the government, the United Nations, and international aid agencies. Yet, for many of his students whose education was interrupted or ended by the brutal four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge and the 13-year civil war, learning is an uphill task.

"In my training seminars, what strikes me the most is the lack of logical thinking," says the researcher. "Among many Cambodians, this is a lost generation."

Struggling to rebuild a devastated economy, Cambodia confronts an acute shortage of trained and educated.

During the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in the 1970s, more than 1 million people died by execution, overwork, or starvation; professional and skilled Cambodians were targeted viciously.

As the fanatic Marxists turned the country into a vast slave-labor camp in their quest for an agrarian, peasant-based society, being able to read, wearing glasses, or speaking French or English was a death warrant.

Among survivors, many trained Cambodians fled to border camps in Thailand and then overseas. Few are expected to return despite a peace settlement among the four Cambodian factions including the Khmer Rouge.

"The most capable know they are the most vulnerable," says San Soeung, a government agriculture official.

What's left in Cambodia today is a mere remnant of the country's onetime educated elite, most now working for the government. For example, the 60 doctors estimated to have survived Khmer Rouge rule are now the top officials in the Health Ministry.

UN officials say that, despite the total devastation of the Khmer Rouge years and an international economic embargo, the bureaucracy has been able to reestablish a semblance of education and health systems. Soviet experts withdraw

Yet, with the withdrawal of experts from the Soviet Union and Vietnam, Cambodia is pressed for technical expertise during its reconstruction, UN officials say.

"The real problem is that Cambodia has operated in a vacuum for so long, the country desperately needs technical advice," says Grant Curtis, a planner with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

But abominably low government salaries undermine the bureaucracy and feed a rampant corruption that political observers worry is widening the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural. Government ministers earn $30 a month; lower ranking civil servants receive $10.

Hoping to curb corruption and keep the civil service intact, the UN, which will temporarily administer Cambodia under the peace settlement and hold elections by 1993, has made higher government salaries a priority.

Still, in trying to help Cambodians, the UN and international aid agencies themselves threaten to sap the country's limited technical base, political observers say. For example, 9 of the 10 French and English translators in the Health Ministry have left for high-salaried jobs with foreign organizations. Brain drain to the West

"Why should I stay when I can earn so much elsewhere?" asks a Phnom Penh government worker.

"As the UN and the embassies arrive, there is the danger that we will completely drain the qualified people," says a UN official. "If that happens, it will be a much longer and more difficult process to rebuild."

Education stands out on Cambodia's list of pressing needs, Western observers say. At one foreign-based company scrambling for trained help in Phnom Penh, an executive running Western-style job training programs speaks of frequent frustrations.

"They just aren't able to see things the way we do," she said. "When I ask them to write down their career goals, I get back responses like 'there should be peace and no more killing' and 'I want to find my mother and father

In the countryside too, education is a looming void. Since a cease-fire went into effect six months ago, thousands of unemployed soldiers are marauding through towns and villages.

"There is going to be a huge reeducation problem," says a Western military analyst based in Bangkok. "These are people who aren't trained to do anything other than fight." Farming skills lost

Vyghen, the anthropologist, says a lack of training and loss of traditional agricultural skills is undermining village life. In Kompong Chhnang province north of Phnom Penh, he has found farmers incapable of proper land management and planting and harvesting various types of rice.

A big problem - and legacy of the Khmer Rouge years - is that education has little value, Vyghen says. Although national figures estimate that a Cambodian on average attends school for 11 years, in fact a child may only complete three levels because of frequent absences and the need to repeat classes.

Another worrying trend is the flight of the skilled to Phnom Penh. "The social structure of the village is collapsing," says the anthropologist. "The city is a big drain, not just in resources but also in young people and the labor force."

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