A nearly $5 million US Agency for International Development grant will be siphoned through a US-based management NGO, cutting short funds for nine local human rights groups, NGO and USAID officials said Tuesday.
An agreement signed Sept 29 between USAID and East West Management Inc will redirect funds that are normally channeled through The Asia Foundation, forcing the closure of at least one human rights group and straining several others.
The nine NGOs must now reapply for USAID grant money via the new funds manager and are not assured support, a USAID official said.
The groups losing funds are Licadho, Legal Aid of Cambodia, the Cambodia Defenders Project, Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association, Adhoc, the Center for Social Development, Cambodia Legal Education Center, the Women’s Media Center and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.
The Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association can no longer pay its rent or salaries, and has only $37 in the bank, said association president Mom Sarin. The Asia Foundation had funded the association’s monitoring, investigating and operating costs since 1993.
“It’s a big shock,” he said Tuesday. “How can we solve this problem with the staff and rented houses in 11 provinces and Phnom Penh?”
CDP lawyers, who offer legal assistance to between 400 and 500 clients, will be forced to stop investigating human rights offenses, CDP director Sok Sam Oeun said.
“If we don’t have the funds, we will stop some cases or stop investigating. We will keep only the main cases,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
The CDP has run out of the $300,000 it received for fiscal year 2002-2003 from The Asia Foundation. About 25 Cambodian employees from CDP’s four provincial branches will be laid off if other funds are not acquired, Sok Sam Oeun said.
EWMI, designed to manage legal and economic consultants, is one of many organizational projects of the billionaire investment banker George Soros, who has faced criticism in the region for his involvement in the 1997 Asia financial crisis.
The head of the Soros Fund Management investment group and the Open Society Foundation—which supported Burmese opposition groups—came under fire for mixing politics with economic consulting in the late 1990s.
Regional leaders accused Soros of using his currency speculation business to sabotage Southeast Asian currencies in retaliation for Burma’s admission to Asean. The subsequent devaluation of the Thai baht sparked a devastating regional economic crisis.
USAID first contracted EWMI in 1995, according to the EWMI web site.
A USAID representative denied Tuesday that political philosophy steered its selection of EWMI, saying the tender aimed to offer local human rights agencies the best technical assistance available.
While local organizations are not required to match US social or political ideologies on paper, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Mark Storella said recipients of US funding should be in sync with US aims.
“Our aid strategy is always aimed at supporting general objectives the US supports,” he said Tuesday.
USAID also will provide $800,000 to the International Republican Institute, a long-time opponent of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Approximately $4 million more will go to the International Organization for Migration, The Asia Foundation, and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity and the International Labor Organization,.
The USAID official offered no assurance that the same group of human rights organizations will benefit from this year’s grant.
Naly Pilorge of Licadho said it was too early to predict how EWMI’s management will affect local human rights groups.
“I hope the successful bidder will contact human rights NGOs currently active in Cambodia so that work can continue. But I do not know what will happen,” she said.
The redirection of funding deals a huge blow to local groups, which currently are struggling to be self-sustainable, she said.
“At this point, the Cambodians are not able to contribute to human rights NGOs. It’s too early. So there is a very high level of dependency. We understand that donors change and leave the country, so fund-raising is a continued challenge. This is only one,” Pilorge said.