Navigating a River by its Bends. A comparison of returnees’ contributions to the transformation of Cambodia

Dr. Gea Wijers, Erasmus University College in Rotterdam

This research grew out of the question why Cambodian American and Cambodian French returnees employ different strategies in working for Cambodia. Why does the first group often start an NGO and the latter rather work for Cambodian government? The study explores, describes, analyzes and compares narratives on migration, institutional entrepreneurial activity and return by a small sample of these returnees. This has resulted in the construction of multiple case studies that illustrate the experiences and activities of Cambodian American and Cambodian French transnational institutional entrepreneurs. This subject is linked to the societal debate on the ways in which the broad spectrum of institutional entrepreneurial activities, may impact the development of an emerging nation.
The case studies demonstrate that, upon return, neither Cambodian French and Cambodian American returnees can freely employ the social capital in their (trans)national networks to realize their ambitions for Cambodia. When the returnees first arrive in the country, and their social legitimacy in Cambodia is not yet established, they are often met with suspicion by local parties. For cultural, social, political and economic reasons linked to both host and home countries, returnees to Cambodia cannot remain neutral. In the long term, they are not be able to remain unaffiliated and have to choose sides in order to survive.
One of the more significant conclusions to emerge from this study is that the social capital in (trans)national networks is even more versatile than previous research has shown. Not only can it provide individuals with benefits through their membership of these networks, but also, in the dynamics of social relations, ‘negative social capital’ may be produced, which actually restraints relationships. A lack of social legitimacy, trust and acceptance limits the returnees’ opportunities to initiate institutional change in the Cambodian context of cultural competition, political contestation and looming social conflict.


About the speaker
After spending two years in Cambodia as a strategy- and management advisor to the Ministry of Environment, Gea Wijers (1972) started working on a PhD research inquiring into Cambodian returnees as institutional entrepreneurs. She is part of the Cambodia Research Group at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is currently a staff member at the Erasmus University College in Rotterdam and an independent consultant. Her research is part of an integrated programme entitled: “Competing hegemons. Foreign dominated processes of development in Cambodia” funded by the Netherlands Organization for Social Research’ (NWO) Science for Global Development department (WOTRO).

Venue: UNU-Merit Conference Room

Date: 18 September 2013

Time: 12:30 - 13:30


UNU-MERIT