The US State Department has approved a plan to divert $1 million originally intended for the scandal-wracked Cambodian Mine Action Center to another demining agency, The Halo Trust.
The Halo Trust, a British NGO, said it will use the funds in part to buy brush-cutting machines to dramatically speed up demining operations in isolated areas of Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces.
The loss of the funding, although expected, is another blow to CMAC, which in the last six months has seen its sterling reputation tarnished by revelations of fraudulent billing, mismanagement and apparent contract demining. CMAC’s funding has been frozen by all donors and the government.
CMAC Director-General Khem Sophoan said although the US action comes as no surprise, the agency will run out of funds in November or December unless something is done. ‘‘I want to meet with [Finance Minister] Keat Chhon and have sent a letter to the prime minister to make an appointment and tell him about the crisis situation in CMAC today,’’ Khem Sophoan said. If no one frees up funding, he said, he does ‘‘not know’’ what CMAC will do. ‘‘But I hope to have support from the government,’’ he said.
CMAC officials also are slated to hold a press conference today to discuss an audit of donor funds. Officials are expected to announce that the audit contains no new damning revelations, such as loss of donor funds, missing equipment, or new instances of fraudulent billing.
US Embassy officials and other donors downplayed the significance of the Halo Trust funding decision. It was necessary due to a looming US government deadline for 1999 spending, officials maintained, and does not indicate a permanent change in policy, or presage a mass exodus of donors. ‘‘We will take another look in the next fiscal year to see if reforms are implemented,’’ US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said. ‘‘We’re hoping to be able to fund it. That will depend on CMAC’s response to specific recommendations by donors….Halo is good, but there is no reason that we can’t support other efforts, we’d like to support all efforts.’’
Even before negative revelations about CMAC broke, embassy officials had hoped to eventually fund the Halo Trust project. If the US money was not spent soon, it might have gone to another country, embassy officials said.
Other donors contacted said they have no plans to divert funds from CMAC, and several said most donors believe CMAC can recover. Some said they hoped to be able to resume funding before the money runs out, but can only do so once an audit of donor funds is released and scrutinized.
‘‘I’m very confident our funding will be restored,’’ said Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot, whose country is withholding between $1 million and $4 million. ‘‘My understanding is the US had a particular problem, and if you don’t use that money, you’re not going to get it.’’
Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said he too is hoping to resume funding, but is waiting on audit results. Australia has donated about $10 million to the agency over the last six years. “We’ve always said that we want to see CMAC back on track and that we would look at the results of the second audit,’’ he said. “We’re getting fairly close to making a decision….No one wants to see CMAC fall apart.’’
William Longe, program manager of The Halo Trust, said besides brush cutters, the $1 million from the US will be used to buy ambulances and all-terrain vehicles, among other things. Halo had a budget of $2.5 million this year, and the money will significantly boost operations.
‘‘This will allow us to clear more land; it will allow us access to remote areas without infrastructure,’’ he said. ‘‘Before, we’ve had to drag ourselves through mud with winches and build bridges. There’s enough work to go around, and the money the Americans are giving us is marvelous because it allows us to expand.’’