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Sophal Ear

Foreign aid, especially in abundance, affects how institutions function and how they change.

Author, Refugee, and Expert in Diplomacy and World Affairs

Contact Sophal For Booking
Sophal Ear | Author, Refugee, and Expert in Diplomacy and World Affairs

Sophal Ear escaped the Khmer Rouge thanks to his mother’s determination and moved to the US at the age of ten. He’s overcome both genocide and poverty to become a world-renowned expert on war, peace, and development. An author, professor, and TED Fellow, Ear speaks about conflict in the first person, providing uncommon insights into global issues from his truly uncommon, inspirational life. 

Sophal Ear fled the genocide in Cambodia as a refugee, and as a child. Today, professor Ear is an authority on international unrest, non-traditional security, epidemics and pandemics, and how to rebuild countries after wars. In addition to his own incredible story, he speaks on the political economy of development, China’s global resource quest, and the politics of diseases like Ebola, Avian Influenza, Swine Flu, and Malaria.


“Khmer Rouge survivor Sophal Ear is uniquely qualified to address the issue of aid and dependence in developing countries. Much more than academic criticism, Aid Dependence in Cambodia also charts a path for Cambodian reform.”

— Peter Maguire, author of Facing Death in Cambodia

Ear is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World. A TED Fellow, he is the writer and narrator of the award-winning documentary The End/Beginning: Cambodia, which follows his family’s escape from Cambodia through Vietnam to France and America. Aside from numerous scholarly journals, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. He has been featured on Public Radio International’s The World, and quoted in The Economist, The Washington Post, and Al Jazeera America, among other venues.


The Hungry Dragon provides an outstanding vision of China’s quest to engross oil and other natural resources … this book is a must read.”

— Dr. Marco A. Palma, Associate Professor and Extension Economist, Texas A&M

Ear worked for the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme in East Timor prior to academia. A graduate of Princeton and Berkeley, he’s now a tenured Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, for which he was named one of “40 Under 40: Professors Who Inspire” by NerdWallet in 2015. He is recognized as a Fulbright Specialist, a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He serves on the boards of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Refugees International, Partners for Development, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program, and the Southeast Asia Development Program. Previously, he was an Advisor to Leopard Capital, Cambodia’s first private equity fund.    

Speech Topics

Aid and Development How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and What We Can Do About It

2015 Economics Nobel Prize–winner Angus Deaton argued that “Foreign aid, especially when there is a lot of it, affects how institutions function and how they change. Politics has often choked off economic growth, and even in the world before aid, there were good and bad political systems. But large inflows of foreign aid change local politics for the worse and undercut the institutions needed to foster long-run growth. Aid also undermines democracy and civic participation.”

In his 2012 book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, Dr. Ear made that argument for Cambodia—that the more aid-dependent a country becomes, the more distorted its incentives to develop sustainably will be. In this practical talk, Ear details the ways in which Cambodia is prevented from owning its own national development, covering the country’s clothing, rice, and livestock sectors, its internal handling of the avian flu epidemic, and the international community’s role in the country’s current situation.

A post-conflict state unable to refuse aid, Cambodia is rife with trial-and-error donor experiments and their unintended consequences, such as bad governance and poor domestic and tax revenue performance—a major factor curbing sustainable, nationally-owned growth. Ear offers a way out of this aid dependency trap by taking back ownership and redirecting aid to areas that improve governance.

Infectious Diseases How Ebola, Avian Influenza, and Swine Flu Are All About Politics

Why do countries report—or not report—disease outbreaks? Why does disease control have little to do with public health and much to do with economics and politics? This keynote on the politics of emerging infectious diseases explains differences in outcomes observed in Southeast Asia and beyond. It examines Cambodia and Indonesia’s handling of Avian Influenza (H5N1), Mexico’s response to Swine Flu (H1N1), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong, China, and North America, Ebola in West Africa, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea through the politics of pandemics and epidemics.

Pandemics and epidemics are a non-traditional security threat that can teach us much when a country declares “viral sovereignty” and securitizes health, as happened in Indonesia in the mid-2000s. The world can expect two to three pandemics globally per century, and many more epidemics. We have already seen one pandemic in the 21st century, and it cost Mexico 1 percent of its GDP, or $18 billion, in 2009. As Bill Gates has warned, the Ebola crisis was terrible, but next time it could be much worse. With Sophal Ear’s expert analysis, we can learn from past mistakes and prepare for an uncertain future.

Global Economy
China’s Resources How China Is Reshaping the World, from the South China Sea to Africa

China’s global resource quest spans the continents from Africa to Latin America, but it is in its own backyard in Asia that the prospect of conflict looms. The South China Sea region is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would account for about one-third of China’s oil and gas resources. In Africa, China has cultivated Angola, Zambia, and other countries to their economic benefit and environmental detriment. With professor Sophal Ear, we can better understand China’s relationship with South China Sea claimant and non-claimant countries, and thus better understand China’s motivations in the region and beyond.

Cambodia’s Lessons Emerging Markets from Myanmar to East Timor

Cambodia is an emerging market economy that will host a special meeting of the World Economic Forum focused on Laos and Myanmar as well. Cambodia’s garment sector offers numerous contrasts to Bangladesh’s experience. Cambodia is the only country to have accepted external monitoring of its garment sector—a model that may well represent the future of bilateral trade relationships between the United States and Europe and the least developed countries. The lessons from Cambodia are numerous for countries like Myanmar and East Timor, but also for Haiti and any resource-poor country with staggering human resource problems like youth unemployment and bad governance.

The End/Beginning Cambodia Film Screening and Q&A

Written and narrated by Sophal Ear, this 47-minute documentary titled The End/Beginning Cambodia won the Gold World Medal in History & Society from the New York Festival’s Television and Film Awards in 2012. The film follows his family’s escape from Cambodia through Vietnam and onward to France and America. It is based on his 2009 TED Talk, but was made after his mother passed away. It uses audio recordings from interviews he conducted with her for a LIVES piece in The New York Times published on 17 April 2005, the 30th Anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. The script for the documentary follows the eulogy Ear delivered at his mother’s funeral—a letter to her grandchildren about what she did to make their lives possible.