Cambodia has been selected as one of 20 countries that will be targeted in a $22 billion US-led global initiative to end hunger and spur agricultural development among small farmers, the US Embassy said Friday, adding that talks with the Cambodian government had already begun over the first project in the initiative.
The US-funded project has a reported budget of more than $100 million earmarked for Cambodia. It would be the first such initiative in which the US government gives direct financial assistance to the Cambodian government, officials said.
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said Cambodia is among the countries selected for the “Feed the Future” initiative, a proposal brought forward by US President Barack Obama at the G-8 summit in Italy last year. The US pledged $3.5 billion, and $18.5 billion was pledged by other countries, according to the US Agency for International Development.
“We will soon initiate a dialogue with the Cambodian government in order to determine the structure of the program,” Mr Johnson wrote in an email, adding, the implementation of the initiative “will help Cambodia in reducing poverty, hunger and under-nutrition.”
Talks are already underway for the first agricultural project, called the Harvest Project, he said.
“It’s too early to speculate on size and scope [of the project] and how many projects will follow,” he added.
USAID, in a news release on Monday, announced the strategy of the initiative, which will disburse its $22 billion-budget in the 20 countries over a three-year period and focus on improved agricultural policy and research and issues such as increasing access to farm inputs for small farmers, women’s control over land, improving rural infrastructure, natural resource management and climate change resilience.
Chan Tong Yves, secretary of state of the Ministry of Agriculture, said he had heard of the US-led food security initiative, but added he was unaware of details.
“We just found out recently. I don’t know how much money there is, they did not tell us yet,” he said, adding, “If the US focuses on helping agriculture and food security [in Cambodia], it is a good thing for our country.”
In Asia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Tajikistan were selected for the initiative along with 16 other countries on the basis of their levels of rural poverty and their high ranking on the Global Hunger Index, but also because of political stability and government commitment to developing agriculture, according to USAID.
In December, Cambodia was categorized as having an “alarming” level of food insecurity in the International Food and Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index 2009, which said only 23 countries worldwide are worse off than Cambodia in terms of the nutritional status of its population.
The IFPRI said even before the impact of the global economic crisis and the 2008 food price crisis, in 2003-2005, 26 percent of Cambodians were undernourished and 28.4 percent of children under five were underweight, while in 2007 there was a 9.1 percent mortality rate among children under five.
Mr Tong Yves denied Cambodia had been selected because of food security issues in the country.
“I think that it is not because of a lack food,” he said, adding that the donors of the initiative had chosen to help Cambodia because increasing the country’s rice crop would strengthen supply to the global rice market.
Srun Darith, deputy secretary-general of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, said he briefly met the USAID-delegation last month to discuss the Harvest Project.
“I was told it was a huge amount, more than $100 million,” he said on Friday, adding, “I am not sure if all these funds will be given to Cambodia.”
“This is the first project in which the USAID will work with the Cambodian government,” he said. “In the past the US government never provided funds directly.”
Mr Darith said the Harvest Project “will contribute to the improved productivity of agriculture and improve the livelihoods of the people.”
He said the new project signaled the increased interest of donors in investing in agriculture following the 2008 food price crisis.
Mr Darith added however, that despite the potential size of the Harvest Project it was still “a drop in the ocean” compared to the enormous amounts of investment that were needed to truly lift Cambodian agriculture sector to a higher level of production.
Other agriculture experts confirmed they had also heard of USAID’s $100 million project and said it could provide a strong boost for smallholders in Cambodia over the coming years depending on the way the funds would be spend.
Cambodian Center for the Study and Development in Agriculture Director Yang Saing Koma said “It’s good there’s a lot of money to support agriculture, but we have to be careful it’s spent well… and it’s used so that Cambodia becomes more self-reliant.”
Mr Koma said funds should be invested in farmers and farmers’ cooperatives and associations, so these organizations “have more capacity to help themselves, work together among themselves.”
Olivier Gilard, head of Agence Francaise Development, also welcomed the new funds for agriculture, but cautioned these funds should be spent on sustainable development of the sector and should not interfere with existing, ongoing projects.
“It’s good news because it’s complementary funding for agriculture,” he said, before cautioning, “When there’s a lot of grant money it’s also easier to allocate money that’s not spent on sustainable development.”