Don Teng, 59, did not know Cambodia receives aid money from foreign countries and international institutions.
He did not know that his country’s leaders are to meet in Paris later this week to ask donors for $1.5 billion in aid over three years. All he knows is he has five children to support, and no land to plant rice. He claims military police burned dozens of homes in Battambang province’s Bavel district in March and he has been without a home ever since.
“There is no improvement in living conditions,” he said. “People don’t have land, rice, food.”
If he had a chance to talk to the donors, he would tell them to give money directly to the people. He would advise them to not trust the government. “If donors give money to the government, the people will get nothing,” he said.
Today, Prime Minister Hun Sen leads a delegation to France for the two-day Consultative Group meeting. Government officials will present their progress report on reforms and donors will decide how much aid to give, if any. From 1992-98, Cambodia received $2.7 billion from donors, according to an October report by Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
But many average Cambodians interviewed recently said the donors aren’t getting much for their money. Living conditions are no better, and the number of people who are poor seems to be increasing, they said.
British Ambassador George Edgar said statistics show that the percentage of Cambodians living below the poverty level has inched down from 39 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 1999. At the same time, he said, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing.
“There is a great deal of work to do to ensure that reforms go through to help those people they intended to help,” he said. “There’s a very long way to go.”
The average Cambodian remains extremely pessimistic.
Sek Treng, a 43-year-old vendor at Psar Thmei, said nowadays, poor people don’t even have rice to eat.
“People are poor and they don’t have money.” She said the country’s leaders must not be using the aid money properly because the country is not moving forward.
“I want donors to set up a control committee to come here and make sure the aid is delivered properly,” she said. “I don’t trust the government to do it.”
Mom Tuy, a 44-year-old motodop, thinks donors should threaten to cut off aid if the government doesn’t respect laws. He said the biggest problem in Cambodia is that people’s human rights are often violated.
“The government does nothing for the people,” he said. “They just use money to change the style of their villa or car.”
Chhay Yiheang, dean of the philosophy faculty at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said aid money has improved many sectors, such as education, public works and health care.
But rampant corruption remains the main obstacle to the country’s development, he said. “Donors must control the money by themselves,” he said.
Nop Sarin Sreyroth, an investigator at the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center, warned donors to be careful.
“Make sure you know where the money goes and what it’s going to be used for,” she said. “Is it for the people or is it for personal use? They [donors] have to make sure the government is not cheating people.”
She agreed that the biggest problem facing Cambodia is corruption, and the way to solve that issue is to raise the minimum wage and the salary paid to government workers, who earn an average of $15 a month.
Khieu Thavika, a government spokesman, noted that Hun Sen has met with the donors regularly so they can review the government’s progress on reforms. He said living conditions have improved, with increased democracy, a free press and a market economy.
“People have a right to protest in front of the National Assembly if they think the government is not fair,” Khieu Thavika said.
A weak education system and the lack of competent, skilled workers are the biggest problems facing Cambodia, he said.
Sophag, a 30-year-old nurse at Calmette Hospital, gets just $10 a month from the government. If you “don’t have friend in high places or you can’t pay money to someone, you won’t get a job,” she said.
She knows she is lucky because she has skills to allow her to hold a job. But people who don’t have an education have a harder time, because they can’t compete, she said.
“The biggest problem facing the country is poverty,” she said. “There are more poor people and most of the rich people are high-ranking officials.”
Chheun Yun, 67, has been a cyclo driver since the Lon Nol regime. He has not had any teeth since he was born and has a foot deformity, so he can’t be a farmer.
He says he has seen the country become more developed, but some things remain the same.
“The poor are still poor and the rich [are] still rich,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of donors. Even if I had heard of Cambodia getting aid, I know I’ve received nothing from them.”