Addressing the International Community’s Aid Addiction

Last week, hundreds of villagers converged on Siem Reap provincial hall to make their case on land rights. After hours in the hot sun, 17 representatives were invited to meet with local officials and the provincial governor agreed to review their petition.

Grassroots community mobilizations such as this one have often proven effective where traditional aid has failed. Over the two years spent researching “Seeding the Ground,” a white paper just released by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, we spoke to over 150 community mobilizers, local NGOs and international donors. We learned that most international donors do very little to empower communities to mobilize independently and, worse, often perpetuate a codependent relationship with the Cambodian government.

In recent years, the Cambodian government has received substantial criticism for lack of accountability to its constituents and inefficient service delivery. Much of this criticism is deserved. However, there has been very little scrutiny of the international donor community’s real impact on the communities they purport to serve. Most international donors lack an articulable long-term plan for handing over responsibility to the Cambodian government or Cambodian civil society.

The result is a vicious cycle of codependence that directly benefits the government and the donors, but only peripherally benefits the communities who most need the support. The government gets a free pass on having to pay for key social services such as education and health care. The donors can claim credit for a never-ending cycle of projects ostensibly designed to develop Cambodia, and a steady stream of well-paying expatriate jobs and consultancy positions to keep that project mill grinding.

Cambodian communities are, at best, not invited to the feast, or, at worst, weakened by donors who pursue their own priorities to the exclusion of community needs.

If the international community is serious about helping the Cambodian people—and indeed we met a great number of expatriates who are deeply passionate about that mission—it also needs to critically and introspectively reconsider its methods.

First, many donors are not currently pursuing strategies to “work themselves out of a job” and divest the primary responsibility for the protection of human rights and the provision of social services to the Cambodian government and Cambodian civil society. To do this properly, donors and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) that often act like donors need to structure their support to be more adaptable to local needs. Donors and INGOs need to make themselves accountable to communities the same way they expect communities to be accountable to them. And donors and INGOs need to make their support focused on honing sustainable skills that communities can use to solve their own problems.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, donors should plan for their exit, even if the incentives they face point in the opposite direction. Only in this way can donors claim to be building the capacity of independent and empowered communities, and only independent and empowered communities can drive Cambodia’s sustainable development.

Aid is still very necessary in Cambodia, and will likely remain so for some years to come. But Cambodia is also growing more wealthy, and soon donors will no longer be able to justify investing the millions of dollars that have helped fuel this codependency cycle. That future is almost certain. What is less certain is whether the remaining millions of dollars that are still likely to be invested in Cambodia will do any more good than the dollars spent in the first 35 years of development aid.

Our paper and recommendations are available and open for commentary here. We intend the paper as a discussion starter, and very much look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Stephan Sonnenberg is a clinical lecturer at the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic. Nari Ely and Cassandra Kildow are students at the Stanford Law School.

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