A smiling Prime Minister Hun Sen returned to Cambodia Sunday with a $548 million aid package secured from foreign donors over the weekend in Paris.
“We got the money. Why should I not be happy?” the prime minister told reporters and government officials shortly after arriving at Pochentong Airport.
The money, part of Cambodia’s bid for $1.5 billion in donor aid over the next three years, comes at a time of newfound political stability but is contingent on continued reforms in human rights, the legal system and government corruption.
“I can say there was a sense of cautious optimism on the outlook for Cambodia,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Bank’s country director for Cambodia, who chaired the donor meeting.
Cabinet Minister Sok An told reporters Sunday that there is little difference between the government’s reform plans and the international community’s vision for Cambodia.
“Reform for the government is very important. There is not much of a differing opinion—there are some points where we need to talk more, especially in administrative reform but there is not a big gap,” Sok An said.
Observers here also said they thought the government’s reform efforts were deserving of the aid pledge, which is $48 million more than Cambodia asked for.
“Maybe it’s a bonus for a job well done,” an Asian diplomat said. “The tendency is to give money to push the momentum of reform.”
But the official acknowledged problems still exist in what is essentially an overhaul of most of the country’s major institutions.
“I think the will [to reform] is there, but this is not really translating down to the people on the ground. This fact is known,” the official said.
The government’s reform process has come under fire by critics, both foreign and Cambodian, who claim officials are paying lip service to the international community without making substantive changes.
No specific conditions were tied by donors to the money, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who attended the meeting, said Sunday. “There are general conditions attached to the aid,” Wiedemann said. “What came up as a condition was the government’s effort to continue to carry out [existing] reforms.”
But Wiedemann did say the government’s reform progress would only be reviewed bi-annually instead of quarterly, as was agreed to after the February 1999 donors meeting. “There was a general consensus that we were spending too much time in meetings and not enough time carrying out work,” he said.
The anticipated prosecution of former Khmer Rouge leaders was not discussed in the conversations about financial aid, Wiedemann said.
Phi Thach, cabinet chief of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said Sunday that the government’s reform efforts justified the influx of money.
“Yet the reform is still only a blueprint with no substantial actions being made yet,” Phi Thach said. “We will have to see how the money is dispersed and how well the government absorbs this aid.”
But the aid package promised to Cambodia could act as a guarantee that reform will be taken seriously by the government, according to Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“If the donors expect Cambodia to make progress the money had to be forthcoming,” Kao Kim Hourn said Sunday. “It’s a commitment by both sides. The money is only one part of the equation. The other side is that the Cambodian government will have to deliver what it promised.”
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said the pledge for aid was “beyond our expectations.”
“We have no room for complacency,” he said, noting that the country planned to target poverty and corruption in its quest to catch up with the pace of development achieved by its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Donors told the government that in order to secure this year’s aid package it had to move forward with reforms in its fiscal management and demobilization of its army, Okonjo-Iweala said.
A program is already under way to strike 1,500 soldiers from the government’s payroll. Plans to demobilize another 10,000 soldiers by the end of the year and 20,000 more during the next two years were also discussed, Okonjo-Iweala said.
Since 1993 Cambodia has received $3.2 billion in foreign aid, according to Keat Chhon.
(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)