Early in the 21st century the world is in the midst of a ‘tectonic economic shift’ to a ‘post-American’ world, according to accomplished economist and author Dr. Benny Widyono.
Speaking to an audience at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP,) Dr. Widyono traced the history of global economic integration, from the beginnings of European colonization in 15th century to the rise of ‘China and the rest’ five hundred years later. Midway through this period, the advent of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to rapid economic growth, he said, and this was accompanied by an increasing gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries.
In 1820, Dr. Widyono noted, per capita gross domestic product in the then-dominant global power, Britain, was four times greater than that in Africa. By 1998, the United States had become the undisputed global superpower, dominating global economics, politics, science, and culture. In that year, per capita GDP in the U.S. was twenty times that of Africa.
America’s superpower status, however, is waning in the 21st century. Although the U.S. remains dominant in global political and military arenas, in all other dimensions – including industry, finance, education, and culture – a major change is underway. “We are moving toward a post-American (but not anti-American) world,” Dr. Widyono said.
Benny Widyono is no stranger to Cambodia, having served for three years during the 1990s as the Representative of the United National Secretary General in Cambodia (his memoir of this period, Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia, was published in 2008.) In his lecture, he noted that since stability returned to the country in 1998, Cambodia’s economy has grown at a ‘spectacular’ average annual rate of seven percent. Only 46 countries in the world have achieved this level of economic growth for fourteen consecutive years. The three main engines of Cambodia’s economic growth are agriculture, garments, and tourism.
Economic growth has been accompanied in Cambodia by a sharp drop in poverty. The percentage of people living on $1.25 a day or less dropped by more than half in the seven year period ending in 2011. Dr. Widyono warned, though, that in order to reduce poverty in the future, Cambodia must rapidly move its labor force from subsistence agriculture to an expanded manufacturing, construction, and services base. The country also needs to prepare for the future by strengthening institutions dealing with ASEAN integration, and more importantly by improving the skills of its labor force through vocational training and improvements in the Kingdom’s higher education system.
Dr. Widyono’s address was the third in a series of public presentations at AUPP. On January 9, former Korean Deputy Prime Minister Okyo Kwon discussed the Korean ‘economic miracle’ and its lessons for Cambodia, and on January 13 former Ambassador Sichan Siv told of his experiences in Cambodia and the United States.