March 31, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 13

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    Soros fellow to continue reform work in Cambodia

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Nirav Shah

    Nirav Shah does not set himself to small tasks. A graduate student pursuing a joint M.D.-J.D. degree at the University, Shah already has applied his medical knowledge to reform Cambodia’s health care system. Now the former Henry Luce Scholar and new recipient of a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans will return to the country to help reform its justice system.

    Shah will use his three-year $20,000 Soros stipend to study legal systems in Cambodia, with the intention of recommending reforms that might improve the justice system there. The country has invited outside experts to assist with its path toward modernization, he said.

    “We don’t realize in this country the problems some nations have with institutions such as the courts,” Shah said. “In Cambodia, the system of reviewing judicial decisions is haphazard. The judiciary is not separate from the rest of the government, and some judges aren’t trained in the law.”

    In addition to studying the system, he will work with government officials in Cambodia to gain political support for changes, he said.

    Shah is well experienced in dealing with change in this Southeast Asian country that borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Using his Henry Luce scholarship, he worked in Cambodia to deter corruption in the health care system. Through the scholarship, he was chief economist for the National Institute of Public Health in Phnom Pehn from 2002 to 2003. In that position, Shah helped decrease the potential for corruption by reducing the number of decisions being made by local and national health care authorities.

    “We tend to think of corruption as being a moral problem, but I looked at the ways in which it is an institutional problem,” Shah said. “In the previous system, decisions about health care needed to be approved at 13 different steps, each providing an opportunity for a bribe to move the decision along.” Through Shah’s work, the health care system was reformed to require only six steps of approval, and as a result, more funds were available to care for Cambodian people seeking health services.

    In order to work effectively with local people, Shah pushed himself to learn Cambodia’s national language, Khmer. “It was difficult, but I was determined to become the best foreign speaker of the language in the country, and by the time the year was over, I was dreaming in Khmer and speaking it well enough to be an official translator. I just think it’s ineffective, and even insulting, to go to a country to help with a problem and not speak the language.”

    After he completes his law degree and his medical residency, Shah hopes to eventually work in public health at an international level.

    The Soros Fellowships for New Americans are awarded to naturalized citizens, resident aliens or the children of naturalized citizens. Shah’s parents immigrated to the United States from India.