Government Palace, the imposing gray headquarters of the Cambodia Development Council next to Wat Phnom, should be buzzing this morning with the country’s top foreign diplomats and government officials discussing aid and reform.
Instead, with the government’s decision to indefinitely postpone this year’s Cambodian Development Cooperation Forum, the fenced-off compound will be as quiet as on most other days.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon surprised donors with news of the delay more than three months ago, and those donors say they are still waiting for even a hint of a new date. And though many won’t adjust their aid to the country right away, some are conceding their disappointment with the silence.
Held roughly every 18 months, the Forum is when Cambodia’s foreign donors pledge their aid for the coming year. In 2010, they collectively promised $1.1 billion, nearly half of what the government planned on spending that year.
It’s also when those donors call on the government to agree to a new list of broad reform targets— everything from new laws for fighting corruption to school enrollment rates.
“It’s a very important meeting. It’s part of the structure of dialogue between the government and the donors,” said Tom Hansen, head of mission at the Danish International Development Agency (Danida).
Not just a part of the dialogue, in fact, but the pinnacle, the one time every 18 months when the government and most of its donors- China being the major exception – exchange pledges of aid for pledges of reform.
But as of yesterday, Danida’s Mr Hansen said yesterday that he had still heard nothing about a new date.
“No hints, no nothing. I hope the government is discussing this internally,” he said.
Officials at both the Finance Ministry and CDC, which formally hosts the meeting, declined to comment.
Still, Mr Hansen said the Forum was too important for the government to cancel altogether and was hopeful that it would set a new date for the meeting soon after an international forum on aid effectiveness wraps up in Busan, South Korea, next month.
Even so, he said donors still felt stung by the government’s decision to postpone such a high-level meeting without warning. In his Aug 17 letter to the World Bank, Mr Chhon put the decision down to the financial “crisis” distracting many of the donor countries and efforts to reform how their aid gets delivered and monitored that were “still way off.”
“Most donors were very disappointed with that decision, that’s very obvious,” Mr Hansen said. “We are partners. I thought we should have been discussing this issue together.”
“It gives the impression that the government might not be so interested in a dialogue with us,” he added, noting sourly that the government had still gone ahead with its annual forum with the private sector just yesterday. There’s even talk that the government plans on merging the two.
But for now, he said a modest delay in the donor Forum would likely have no immediate effect on how much or what sort of aid comes through; Danida itself was already locked into $10 million worth of ongoing and future project and would not be backing down from that.
If the meeting gets put off for too long, though, that could change.
The longer the donors go without the Forum, Mr Hansen said, the harder it will get for them to plan and coordinate their aid. Programs could start to suffer.
“That will in the long run, it will get difficult for us to go to our headquarters” for more funding, he said. “And if you don’t have good programs, you don’t want to finance them.”
Mr Hansen declined to guess at how long it might take donors to reach that point.
It may be some time yet.
Hinichi Tamamitsu, first secretary at the Japanese Embassy, said the Forum helped donors coordinate their aid. But going without, he added, was unlikely to affect how much Japan gave.
“In our case it doesn’t affect much because regardless of the meeting we are going to continue our aid,” he said.
As for the human rights issues covered in the reform targets the government agrees to at each Forum, Mr Tamamitsu said, “I think we are not going to delay a project because of that sort of thing…. Each project [we fund] has smaller indicators, so at least we can know how our projects are proceeding.”
In August, the Asian Development Bank said it had just launched a new “country partnership strategy” that mapped out all the ADB’s projects for the country through 2013.
And when the US Agency for International Development signed over a new $32 million in aid last month, mission director Flynn Fuller downplayed the Forum as just one of three formal channels of dialogue between the donors and government. He said the US would “continue to work with the government through whatever mechanism is available.”
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)