About 20 Cambodian NGOs focusing on democracy have objected to a US decision made last month to cut their funding.
US government spending in Cambodia has increased to the level it was at before the factional fighting of 1997, according to US Agency for International Development documents. But US funding for programs related to democracy, human rights and good governance shrank from $6 million in 2001 to $2.3 million this year, US Embassy officials said last week.
At the same time, overall US funding increased from $29.3 million in 2001 to $34.5 million this year, largely for HIV/AIDS programs and assistance to the government for basic education programs, documents show.
The US will spend $2 million this fiscal year to train teachers and create school lessons relevant to farm children, an embassy official said.
The AIDS funding focuses on policy, prevention, counseling and testing, and on training health center staff, embassy officials said. US aid money here does not purchase medicines.
Last year the US Congress designated Cambodia one of four countries where a rapid funding increase, known as a “scale-up,” could have a considerable effect on the AIDS epidemic. The other three countries are in Africa.
The US Congress suspended all direct funding to the Cambodian government in 1997 to protest the role of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP in the factional fighting. Funding plummeted from $35.6 million in 1997 to $21 million in 1998, with all money going to NGOs.
Since then, however, the ban on direct government assistance has lifted slowly in the areas of health, trafficking and education. This year’s planned expenditure of $34.5 million is nearly the same as in 1997.
The new programs come at the expense of a US State Department program, known as Economic Support Funds, for relief of pressing political problems, an embassy official said.
The new, lower level of funding is more “typical of countries of Cambodia’s size” and shows that “there are other key competitors for our interest” since the dawn of the US war on terror, another official said.
Rather than merely cutting programs, the US has unveiled a new “Strategic Objective” to guide its funding: “Increased competition in Cambodian political life.” The objective follows a visit by a team of experts in democracy development earlier this year, embassy officials said.
The objective means that organizations that take on “‘cutting-edge’ [human rights] cases that have high public visibility or the potential to influence government policy” will be given preference over those that focus on “general awareness raising.”
“Broad-based legal services, legal education and general civic education programs will no longer be priorities,” guideline documents states.
With the US as the major international funder of democracy-building here, the cuts will have an impact. The Center for Social Development will cancel its program of forums in which ordinary citizens are invited to discuss pressing issues, such as a Khmer Rouge tribunal, with government officials. The Cambodian Defenders Project will end its legal aid program for poor criminal defendants, focusing instead on human rights cases.
Though unrelated to the USAID cuts, the democracy-building field took a blow last month when the Cambodian Institute for Human Rights closed in the wake of a financial scandal.
NGO leaders said the focus on high-profile cases ignores the experience of the average Cambodian confronted with a dysfunctional political and legal system. “It helps to make a big noise, to have a case or a report for the UN, but for the real people, the benefit is not much,” said Chea Vannath of the Center for Social Development.
The new strategic objective and focus on controversial human-rights cases could also be seen as an aggressive challenge to the government, given ongoing comments by US officials and members of the US Congress expressing impatience with the pace of reforms. “You could rephrase that strategic objective as, ‘Overthrow the Cambodian government,’” quipped one adviser to a US-funded NGO.
“To increase competition is not the same as overthrowing the government,” an embassy official said. But “we do hope they see the need for more openness,” the official said.
“Some of the reforms are laughable and almost an insult to the donor community,” another embassy official said. “But we have to take the good with the bad and try to steer taxpayer funds to where they’d be the most effective. We’re in for the long haul now.”