11/20/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

American Democracy Looks Pretty Good... From Cambodia

As host of the ASEAN summit and the historic first visit of a US President, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cleaned up his act--literally. On the eve of the summit, the road from the airport boasted gleaming pavements, well-lit streets, and exquisitely landscaped medians. Most likely, arriving heads of state did not notice. Competent and responsible governments routinely pick up the garbage and provide a safe environment for pedestrians. The view from the motorcade probably seemed pleasant, but not remarkable.

In actuality, this clean, pedestrian-friendly stretch of road was remarkable. When I arrived in Phnom Penh three weeks before the summit, I immediately noticed the garbage. On the sidewalks, in gutters, filling ravines. Trash of every size, shape, and smell. School children, business people, shoppers, and vendors must pick their way along the treacherous sidewalk, most often making hazardous detours into the road to avoid the refuse. This, despite the individual fastidiousness of the Cambodian people.

The citizens are forced to cope as best they can since the government apparently does not view the provision of basic services as its responsibility. Any official efforts at street sanitation seem half-hearted. I saw the occasional dump truck with workers trying manfully to shove in a few more bulging bags. The truck would drive off, trailing debris, leaving the pile of trash practically undiminished. Ironically, the millions of plastic water bottles clogging the country create an unnecessary environmental hazard; one area of service improvement has been in water provision to city dwellers. However, efforts to educate citizens about civic responsibility and environmentalism will only succeed if there are enough resources, such as trash bins and collection services, to implement changes.

Every government owes its citizen basic services such as sewage provision and trash removal. Even the poorest of Cambodia's poor realize this. They told me so. I met with members of a remote village cooperative assisted by a local NGO. As we sat on reed mats and ate newly harvested peanuts, they asked about my home. "In your country," a young man ventured, "do the poor people live like this?" He gestured widely at his surroundings: a small community isolated by dirt roads made impassible for months at a time, without running water or electricity, certainly without sewage or trash removal. I admitted that, no, our poor people did not live like this. The villagers insistently asked about how the government in my country addresses problems such as medical care for the poor, pensions for the elderly, education for young children, relief for farmers in natural disasters. I did not need the translator to interpret the wistful bitterness in their eyes.

The village leader--practically toothless, with an easy dignity, and fluent in French--explained the group's goals for 2013. They would like thirteen kilometers of dirt road graded so that they can reach the market and the neighboring village. They hope to have another deep well in the village; the shallow wells have run dry. These are not unreasonable requests.

Foreign donors finance nearly fifty percent of Cambodia's annual budget. Thousands of aid workers toil to improve access to health, education, clean water, agriculture. The country enjoys a bounty of natural resources and a popular culture which combines initiative, warmth, and hard work. So why do forty percent of Cambodians live on less than $1.25 per day? And why are the streets clogged with refuse?

The summit may not resolve the intractable ambiguity of competing international security claims in Southeast Asia. It may not melt the long-standing diplomatic tensions between member nations. However, the summit has demonstrated one very important lesson. We now know the Cambodian government could pick up the garbage if it wanted to. It is time for donors to talk trash with Prime Minister Hun Sen.