Ministry Riled Over Refugee Deal Money

Australia has so far disbursed more than $3.5 million in aid to Cambodia as part of the agreement for its unwanted refugees to be resettled here, but the Interior Ministry’s spokesman is livid that the money has come into the country via development agencies rather than going directly to the government.

The Australian Embassy confirmed on Thursday that it had begun to shell out part of the AU$40 million ($29.16 million) that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop promised over four years in exchange for Phnom Penh taking in refugees currently detained by Canberra on the Pacific island of Nauru.

“A$4.95 million [$3.91 million] of those funds were expended in 2014-15 and we are on track to ensure the full amount is disbursed over the announced four-year timeframe,” a spokesman for the embassy wrote in an email.

“Those funds have begun to be disbursed for the benefit of Cambodians by contributing to existing development programs in the areas of agricultural productivity, mine clearance, and electoral reform.”

According to the spokesman, $2.19 million has been disbursed to the UNDP for demining efforts; $730,000 has been given to the Cambodia Agricultural Value Chain program for rice milling and export projects; $182,000 has gone toward electoral reform via Unicef; and another $510,000 was “distributed across other existing development programs.”

“Australia’s aid to Cambodia is delivered through long-standing partnership with a range of organisations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Australian non-government organisations, and trusted managing contractors,” the spokesman said.

However, in an interview Monday, Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the government had “never seen one dollar regarding the receiving of those refugees.” He added that Australia would be “stupid” to start spending, as only five refugees had taken up the offer to move here.

Told on Thursday that more than $3.5 million had in fact made its way to Cambodia under the deal, General Sopheak launched into a critique of Canberra’s method of disbursal.

“Giving the money to the UNDP, in the past, we have seen that this money does not find its way to the Cambodian stomachs. Maybe 30 percent [will reach Cambodians]; 70 percent will be absorbed. You can study this,” Gen. Sopheak said.

“The UNDP employees, the sharp-nosed people, they do not receive wages like the government—$200, $300—they get $2,000, $3,000. That is U.N. culture,” he added.

When the AU$40 million deal was announced at a champagne ceremony in Phnom Penh last September, observers in both countries raised concerns about where the money would end up, given that Cambodia is ranked as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Gen. Sopheak said he had been under the impression that the government would directly receive the aid from Canberra and be free to distribute the millions as it saw fit, and was clearly peeved that that has not been the case.

“The deal was between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Australian prime minister, but not one penny goes into the government budget,” he said. “If it is the U.N. people that hand the money to the Cambodian people, Australia will not be in Cambodia’s memory. The UNDP is the donator.”

Australia’s 2015-16 national budget, released in May, showed a $729 million cut to overall foreign aid. Most Asian countries saw their assistance slashed by about 40 percent, apart from Nepal, which was rocked this year by a devastating earthquake, and Cambodia, which was pledged $38.2 million, the same as the previous year.

Sophal Ear, author of the book “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said it was only natural that Canberra would do its best to control the money it is pouring into Cambodia.

“Australia, along with most donors, don’t think their money’s safe with the government. There have been too many incidents of misprocurement (a nice synonym for a type of corruption),” he wrote in an email, rattling off a list of instances in which Cambodian officials had been found to have “misappropriated” aid money.

“There’s a long history of how everything public…will be exploited for maximum private benefit,” added Mr. Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Mr. Ear agreed with Gen. Sopheak’s claim that much of the aid would be absorbed by the implementing agencies.

“Yes, certainly it gets absorbed into expat salaries, and that’s by design because when there is a lot of corruption in procurement, donors direct their resources to highly paid consultants who can burn through lots of cash predictably and usually without corruption,” he said.

However, he disputed the notion that the government would be more effective in getting the money to the people.

“If by people, [Gen. Sopheak] means government officials, i.e., plutocratic elites, then yes, a lot of money would get into the pockets of officials connected to the projects, and that is probably what they would like to do,” Mr. Ear said.

“If instead we’re talking about Cambodia’s poorest, most vulnerable and most deserving then no, typically it wouldn’t.”

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