Are the foreign technical advisers, specialists and experts working with the Cambodian government worth the millions of dollars in aid money that they cost each year?
Supporters of the system believe Cambodia needs foreign advisers to get back on its feet after decades of civil war, and that expertise, inevitably, comes at a high price. But critics charge that the costly foreign advisers may be wasting foreign taxpayers’ money rather than effectively helping Cambodia’s poor, and even the donors who pay for them have said their numbers are extremely high.
“I tell many [foreign] consultants, ‘you’re wasting my time,’” by asking for information about Cambodia that they could find on the Internet, Sok Siphana, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said Monday.
Cambodian officials have developed their capabilities in the last 12 years and also have local knowledge, but they are not being allowed to fill high-paying positions that the donors insist must be filled by foreigners, Sok Siphana said.
Donors “should not have foreign advisers doing work a Cambodian official or local consultant can do,” he said. “It’s cheaper to use local resources.”
About 40 percent—or $2 billion—of all foreign aid flowing into Cambodia since 1992 has been spent on technical assistance and cooperation, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released in October.
The cost of an international expert is around $127,381 per year, the UK-based NGO Action Aid said in a report released Friday.
At the Consultative Group meeting in Phnom Penh in December, donors noted that there were about 800 foreign technical advisers in Cambodia.
About $162 million was spent on technical advisers in 2001 alone, the donors said, noting that relying on foreign advisers “can undermine national ownership.”
“We’re slicing down the [the numbers of advisers] rapidly,” he added. “Today there are maybe 500.”
One problem with foreign consultants is that they are often flown in to work for short stints, to promote plans that have worked in other countries but which won’t necessarily work here, said Russell Peterson, director of NGO Forum.
“There is a lack of quality control” among foreign technical advisers, said Mike Bird, Oxfam Great Britain country program manager.
“There’s a problem if we’ve got people with a vested interest in designing projects that lead to further employment for themselves or their companies,” as is sometimes the case, he added.
The current US bilateral assistance to Cambodia exceeds $60 million per year, the US Embassy said in a statement Tuesday.
Only a small portion of this is used to support technical advisers working with the government. These technical advisers are primarily involved in health and education, the embassy said, adding that if properly used, they can offer invaluable expertise.
The UN uses national as well as international advisers, the UN Development Program said in an e-mail.
“When we bring one international adviser in we always try to make sure that the person is able to meet and share experience…with several hundred Cambodian officials,” the UNDP said.
Australia’s AusAid was unable to comment on foreign technical assistance on Monday and Tuesday.
Britain’s Department for Inter-national Development and the Japan International Cooperation Agency had not responded to e-mails on the topic by Tuesday evening.
One long-term foreign consultant in Cambodia said on Monday that good foreign technical advice is worth the money.
“If you spend $1 million on a consultant, I have no problem if the $1 million is going to create a pool of sustainable skills,” the consultant said, on condition of anonymity.
High salaries are necessary to keep good foreign advisers here and shortages of able and motivated officials at some ministries make foreign advisers a necessity, he said. Some ministry officials spend almost all their time on study tours that are mostly funded by donors, he added.
“We don’t see any output from these study tours,” he said “It’s become a big headache for the donors.”
One foreign diplomat said that it is not yet possible to see aid spending dividend in Cambodia and that ultimately Cambodia has little choice in the type of aid donors chose to give it. Donor countries also often require Cambodia to employ advisers from the donor country itself, the diplomat said.
“I’m sure Cambodia would want more direct grants and loans where they can just [build] more infrastructure…but these are the conditions meted out by the donor community,” the diplomat added. “Cambodia is taking the view that it’s better to have some aid than none, so they’ve accepted the constraints.”