NGOs and civil society groups made a joint plea Tuesday for Cambodia’s donor community to stand their ground against a government they criticized for flaunting international aid and stalling crucial reforms.
Donors must enter next week’s Consultative Group meeting with a unified stance, prepared to scrutinize the government’s reform agenda that after a decade of foreign assistance has flagged or failed to produce results, key speakers at Tuesday’s conference said.
“The ball is in the donors’ court. They need to change their strategy,” said Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho. “If they don’t change, then we will continue to get the same results,” she said addressing representative from some 200 NGOs and civil society groups who attended the meeting at the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh.
Holding a forum on their own recommendations for the CG meeting, the NGOs echoed a growing number of critics who warn that some $2 billion in foreign aid over the past 10 years has done little to help average Cambodians.
A number of recent studies show poverty has deepened or stayed the same, corruption remains pervasive at all levels of government, and ordinary citizens have no recourse to a credible justice system.
In addition, the numbers of landless people in the country is on the rise, and several crucial laws proposed in the mid-1990s have been watered down or remain stuck in a bureaucratic morass.
In the face of these slow government reforms, donors and NGOs both have tried to present next week’s meeting as a crossroads of sorts, offering the government an ultimatum of kick-starting change or continuing to wallow in poverty and lawlessness. But attendees at the conference stopped short of calling for a suspension of foreign aid, instead suggesting that donors better coordinate among themselves and set clear benchmarks. They should also articulate a set of consequences for failing to meet those benchmarks, many of the attendees said.
“The important thing now is the donors themselves,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. “They have not yet had a consensus to present a clear strategy.
“If donors only say things and do not use their ability to pressure or monitor the government, then things will stay the same. Money can be a powerful instrument to create political will,” he said.
Since the late 1990s, donors have acknowledged that international assistance often has missed its aims. A draft report prepared by the World Bank for this year’s CG meeting includes an entire chapter on reforming international assistance. Nisha Agrawal, the World Bank’s country manager, attended Tuesday’s NGO forum and told the crowd that many of the issues raised there would be emphasized by donors at the upcoming meeting.
“The issues on your minds are exactly the same as in the donor community,” she said.
Still, when donors meet here from Monday to Dec 7, observers are expecting them to supply the government with the financial sum it requests, if not more.
Koul Panha, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the oft-cited metaphor of a government at a “crossroads” is better replaced with that of pushing a traveler into an overdue journey.
“They just have to follow the road,” he said.