As peace returns to Cambodia for the first time in decades, the country is at a critical stage of development where massive social problems pose enormous challenges for the new government, says an NGO coalition.
“[Cambodia is] very much at a crossroads. Now people are saying, now we are at peace, just give us the dividends of peace…but Cambodia can very easily slip into the wrong track,” said Stephane Rousseau, executive director of the NGO umbrella organization Medicam.
Medicam, along with the NGO Forum on Cambodia and the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, collaborated to release a 40-page statement last week outlining Cambodia’s socio-economic and political conditions as well as suggestions for aid allocation.
The coalition of more than 100 NGOs will be sending a three-member observer delegation to the Consultative Group aid donor meeting in Tokyo later this week.
Traditional safety nets, such as ownership of parcels of land for farming, fishing and foraging, have been eroding in the past few years, warn the NGOs.
In Cambodia, where 80 percent of the population lives in the countryside, landlessness and restrictions on access to common property is increasing, as well as income disparity between urban and rural sectors, the NGOs report. Furthermore, such activities as illegal logging and overfishing have sapped natural resources.
Combined with an NGO estimate that the Cambodian population will double in the next 20 years while some of society’s most productive members may be hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic, these trends could have “devastating” consequences for most Cambodians, the statement said.
In such increasingly grim social conditions, Cambodia may become a “platform for organized crime in Asia” if demobilized soldiers are not disarmed and given job training, land and housing as part of a reintegration plan, according to the statement.
Underlying the problems of development is the continued absence of the rule of law, which impedes local and foreign investment, internal trade, public confidence in the government, and the security and general well-being of the people, the NGOs said. Among other things, Cambodia still needs an independent judiciary, neutral police and military.
While one government official declined to comment Monday on the statement as he had not read it, he said he saw no reason why NGOs couldn’t be partners with the government.
“This is a moment when the government concentrates very much on the livelihood of the people, and anything NGOs provide to us constructively we welcome,” said Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state of foreign affairs.
The statement comes as NGOs express their desire to become closer partners with the Cambodian government.
“We need to build better mutual understanding and encourage the government to seek the input of NGOs because we have something good to offer,” said Russell Peterson, representative for the NGO Forum on Cambodia, citing the NGOs’ grass-roots experience.When Canadian Ambassador Gordon Longmuir was asked shortly before leaving for the Tokyo meeting whether the NGO statement would be taken seriously by the donors, his answer was an emphatic “Oh, yes.”