Someone seeking reasons for the strange ambivalence—the mix of surprise, gratitude and outrage—that many observers felt after international donors announced that they would give Cambodia more aid money than it had requested last week can look no further than statements made by the Sam Rainsy Party.
“We…thank donor countries and international financial institutions for the significant amount of aid they pledged to support Cambodia’s development,” read a statement by Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers after the close of last week’s Consultative Group meeting.
But later in the same statement, the lawmakers said Prime Minister Hun Sen was “fooling donors because, in spite of billions of dollars that have been lavishly poured into this country over the last nine years, the Cambodian people continue to live in dire poverty and without justice.”
Sam Rainsy added, in his own statement, “I hope the donors will not be fooled again.”
Judging from past actions, they will be.
Each year, many donors hint darkly that reforms must accelerate if aid is to continue, then continue to give equal or greater amounts of money. Phnom Penh-based diplomats and aid workers complain that the government must be held accountable for not responding to pressure. But publicly, they emphasize the government’s progress and the people’s dire needs.
Even as international attention drifted toward poverty-wracked hotspots such as Afghanistan, donors offered $635 million last Friday, about $150 million more than the government asked for.
Donors praised the government for holding commune elections, inaugurating reforms in administration, forming the National Audit Authority and adopting the Land Law. But they also noted that the poor are poorer and more numerous than before, and that a lack of legal and judicial reforms could neutralize the impact of any new laws or programs.
Cambodian officials interpreted the amount as a stamp of approval for their efforts. Speaking to Reuters, Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh called it a “reward for the efforts that the government has made so far to implement its commitments.”
Other observers were not so sure. “It’s good that it’s getting money,” grumbled one international human rights adviser. “But it wasn’t for progress.”
Donor meetings can seem like orchestrated affairs, said the adviser, who has worked in several other developing countries.
“You see a lot of pressure built up before these donor meetings. [But] in a majority of cases countries get what they ask for. It’s far easier to justify giving the money than turning the tap off.”
“Donor meetings aren’t really about raising money,” added Chanthol Oung, the director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center and a representative of NGOs at the donor meeting. “It is about [preserving] the face of the government.”
The appearance of an increase in aid this year is mostly an illusion of accounting, warned Daniel Asplund, counselor at the Swedish Embassy. He labeled this year’s figure “the result of a series of coincidences.”
Germany was not represented in last year’s donor conference, and so neither was its aid, he noted. And major multi-year Asian Development Bank programs are just now receiving funding.
Many donors, including Sweden, decide and allocate funds in three-year or longer increments, making last week’s figure even less significant, Asplund said.
The figure also includes money that is not certain to end up in Cambodia, such as money that has been pledged but not budgeted by home countries, and money that is conditional on future government performance, said Russell Peterson, representative of the NGO Forum.
Still, the overall trend over the past few years is for stable or increasing funding. The number can be taken as a raw indication that donors still believe the Cambodian government is worth engaging—in contrast with Burma, where needs are great but the government is simply too repugnant, Peterson observed.
Nor are other donors following the lead of the US government, which after the factional fighting of 1997 pledged to bypass the government and only help NGOs. Only about $40 million of the donor-pledged funds went straight to NGOs last year, said Carol Strickler of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, and the number is likely to be similar this year. Meanwhile, the US is starting limited funding of government programs in such fields as HIV prevention, basic education and human trafficking.
Some meeting observers are placing faith on the new practice of establishing benchmarks as a step toward linking aid to reform. First proposed at the 2000 meeting and implemented in 2001, this year’s benchmarks require several concrete reforms by next year, including restructuring the Supreme Council of Magistracy and submitting the anti-corruption law.
So far the record has not been so good, with the British government pointing out that only four of 10 of last year’s benchmarks were fulfilled. But in the long term the benchmarks may have important effects, Chanthol Oung said.
“I hope that with the benchmarks, the government will be more steady [in reforms],” she said.
Many donors say they supervise their fund distribution closely enough to ensure that it is the average Cambodian, and not government officials, who benefit. “We are giving because there’s a real need, and because it goes directly to the poorest strata of the population,” said Aldo Dell’Arricia, charge d’affaires for the European Commission, adding, “We can trace all the money.”
Cambodia’s sheer poverty and turbulent recent history makes it too early to place strict conditions on assistance, said Marc Hermant of the health NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres, which does not depend on international donors.
“I think it’s the right strategy for the donor to highlight what is wrong, but to say, ‘The needs are so enormous, all of this is so precarious, that we continue to support you.’”