Banking conferences in and of themselves are really boring. I attended my share of them as a corporate banking analyst in New York City. Keynote speakers, break-out sessions, networking events, and trade shows all packed into two days of conference center bliss. The Cambodia National Banking Conference held in Phnom Penh February 19-20th was no exception to this formula, however, it was by far the most exciting and significant BORING banking conference I have ever attended.
My name is Katie Davis and I am a new Kiva Fellow (KF7) working with AMK in Cambodia. At 26 years old I have a few year of business experience behind me, and this seemed like the perfect time in life to step away from the corporate world and do something off the beaten path. I am thrilled to be in Cambodia working in microfinance. I had to chuckle when at the end of my first week at AMK I found myself seated in a huge conference room full of people in black suits, awaiting the start of the first keynote address. This feels so familiar! Given the context, however, there was nothing ordinary about this particular banking conference. Here is why.
The National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) was established as a regulatory organization in 1954 when Cambodia gained independence from French colonial rule. The NBC began printing its own national currency, the Riel, in order to terminate the monetary alliance with the Vietnamese and Laos currencies. The NBC created a few state-owned banks and a series of reforms in the 1960’s and early 1970’s liberalized the banking system and allowed for private banks to operate in Cambodia under the regulation and supervision of the NBC. The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 and on April 17th, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) was shut down. Cambodia’s banking system was destroyed and Riel banknotes were no longer used.
In the difficult economic times we face today, government and regulating bodies around the world are becoming increasingly involved in sovereign banking systems on both the private and public entity level. Given this trend, it is almost impossible for me to imagine how a nation would function without a currency and without a central bank during times of distress, but this was the state of affairs in Cambodia during the terrible 4 year reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
The Bank of Cambodia was re-established on October 10th, 1979 and the rebuilding began, which was no small task considering there was no currency reserve, no document trail, and limited human resources (many intellectuals and businessmen were killed, scattered, or remained in hiding in the years immediately following the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge). The Cambodian banking system is still in its infancy, but great strides have been made in the last 25 years and the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) has evolved into a legitimate regulating body once again recognized by the international financial community. There are currently 24 commercial banks, 5 private banks, and more than 26 registered Microfinance Institutions (MFI’s) operating in Cambodia.
Banking Cambodia: Modernization of the Banking & Microfinance Industry in Cambodia held at the Naga World Hotel in Phnom Penh February 19-20th, 2009 was Cambodia’s first ever national bank conference. It was an honor to attend as a representative of Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea (AMK) and the Kiva Fellows Program. Microfinance is thriving in Cambodia and it is exciting to see that the member institutions of the Cambodia Microfinance Association have a seat at the table alongside the commercial and private banks. Microfinance is inherently part of Cambodian’s banking structure due to the large number of Khmer people who receive microcredit loans as opposed to loans from commercial banks.
Since this was only my second week in Cambodia, the conference provided an introduction to key industry players and also gave me some perspective on the overall economic landscape and the four primary drivers of Cambodia’s GDP: the garment industry, agriculture, construction, and tourism. That being said, there were also some drawback to the conference (which ironically was held at a casino) – shameless sales plugs by banking technology companies, and subtle references to the fact many things are negotiable for the right price in Cambodia when it comes to the government and business community trying to attract foreign investment.
I’m not going to lie, I had a difficult time staying alert and awake through all 35 presentations, and from the looks of it so did many of the other conference attendees. Cambodia has finally joined the rest of the world in hosting BORING banking conferences, which is actually quite EXCITING given the turbulent recent history and the role that microfinance has had in rebuilding the economic situation in this nation.