Photos: courtesy of Erik Davis

Seeing Cambodia through the lens of both economics and religion was the goal of a three week January trip to that country, undertaken by 12 students and Professors Erik Davis, religious studies, and Raymond Robertson, economics.

The group visited such diverse sites as the 12th century temple complex Angkor Wat; Phnom Penh garment factories; the Cambodian World Bank headquarters; and the Killing Fields, sites where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The trip’s economic and religious views of Cambodia provided “two sides of the same coin,” says Emma Lynn ’13 (Mt. Vernon, Wash.).

Emma Lynn and Alice RuppertA religious studies and music major who hopes to become an opera singer, Lynn signed up for the trip because of her interest in Buddhism. Once in Phnom Penh, however, she was surprised to discover a newfound interest in economic development—specifically the city’s garment factories and Better Factories Cambodia, a program that supports healthy working conditions in them.

“It’s easy to look only at potentially negative impacts of development, such as pollution and the inevitable change it brings to indigenous traditions,” says Lynn, “and turn a blind eye to its positive effects, such as raising the standard of living and providing better access to health care.”

Although admittedly a bit outside her comfort zone, economics major Anna Graziano ’13 (St. Paul) gamely climbed around Angkor Wat (sometimes on all fours), rode in tuk tuks (motorized rickshaws), and dealt with the heat and humidity of Cambodia, where winter temperatures often exceed 90 degrees. She considered any physical inconvenience well worth it. “Both professors are amazing,” says Graziano. “They made us feel like equals.”

Robertson serves on advisory committees to both the A Cambodian child selling souvenirs U.S. Secretary of Labor and the State Department. While the group was in Phnom Penh, he spoke at a conference about factory working conditions, introducing his book Globalization, Wages, and the Quality of Jobs (2009) to an audience that included Cambodia’s secretary of state. Equally impressive to the students was Davis’s knowledge of Cambodian culture. Having lived in the country from 2003 to 2006, he speaks fluent Khmer and has published articles on Cambodian religion and ritual.

For Graziano, at least, it may not be her last visit to the country. She hopes to one day return to Cambodia as a buyer doing business with the same kind of factories she visited.

April 23 2013

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