Global Witness takes donors to task for blind aid pledges
Prime Minister Hun Sen praised China yet again for its no-strings-attached aid while inaugurating a $29-million bridge that Beijing paid for in Kandal province. The prime minister’s comment comes two days before the government meets foreign donors for their latest aid-pledging conference.
“This is a simple habit of China, that it is not arrogant and it doesn’t talk much but does more than it talks,” Mr Hun Sen said yesterday.
“With China, we talk easily,” he said.
The premier also brought up the 257 military trucks China promised to send Cambodia in May, a month after the US canceled a similar military aid package in protest of the government’s decision to deport 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China late last year.
Mr Hun Sen said yesterday that he would even greet the Chinese shipment of trucks with a parade.
In an open letter released today, London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness chastised Cambodia’s foreign donors for failing to hold the government to account on a long list of promised reforms.
“The Cambodian government has been promising to reform for years, but nothing had changed,” Global Witness campaign director Gavin Hayman said in the letter. “Our latest report [on illegal sand dredging] shows that the political elite has no intention of loosening its stranglehold over the country’s natural resource wealth. Donors simply cannot continue to turn a blind eye.”
Cambodia and its foreign donors will meet on Wednesday and Thursday in Phnom Penh to assess the government’s progress toward development targets they agreed to 18 months ago and to set new targets for the next year-and-a-half.
Donors will also make their latest pledges of aid.
At a pre-conference meeting between the government and donors on April 29, Finance Minister Keat Chhon said those pledges would top $1 billion, half the government’s 2010 budget.
Global Witness accused donors of continuing to blindly pledge aid, “despite evidence of widespread corruption and mismanagement of public funds and repeated failures to implement promised reform.”
Global Witness listed the government’s failures on donor benchmarks on several fronts: An opaque bidding process among the oil, gas and mining firms vying for the country’s natural resources; a “mysterious” social fund those firms allegedly pay into; mounting land grabs and forced evictions; and the sponsoring of select military units by private firms, some of which have used the soldiers to protect their land concessions from local protesters.
In its letter, Global Witness calls on Cambodia’s donors to make government reform a condition of their aid.
“Donors must take a coordinated stand against the horribly subverted dynamic of aid in Cambodia in which their country’s money props up the basic functions of the state, leaving an elite free to exploit the state’s assets for personal profit and gain further power,” Mr Hayman said.
“Taxpayers rightly expect development aid to be spent on genuine poverty reduction rather than underwriting corruption and state failure.”
While extolling Chinese aid in Kandal yesterday, Mr Hun Sen made no specific reference to Cambodia’s other donors. Last week, however, he took direct aim at Global Witness, calling the NGO “a group of thieves.”
“Don’t talk too much,” he told Global Witness.
As for today’s letter, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he would not bother to comment.
“We are not interested in responding to Global Witness,” he said. “We don’t value them.”
Mr Siphan likewise dismissed similar complaints from the opposition SRP.
“The SRP is looking down on the development partners,” he said. “The development partners have sophisticated measures to insure their funds are used correctly.”
Cambodia’s foreign donors and development partners have been reluctant to comment on their aid ahead of this week’s meeting. Several either declined to comment or ignored requests for comment.
Christophe Peschoux, however, who heads the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said the development targets could be made stronger if top officials were to join the running meetings the government and its donors use to negotiate the targets.
“Given the slow pace of land registration, the need remains to take measures to protect those indigenous communities that have yet to receive titles,” he said. “Such measures could include having prior consultations with communities affected by land transactions, or placing a temporary freeze on economic land concessions or other land transactions on the land of communities identified as indigenous.”
NGOs have long pressed the government for such a freeze, blaming the concessions for throwing thousands of families off their land and into poverty. Mr Peschoux even suggested moving beyond the traditional donor process in some cases.
“As such measures cut across ministries and require a comprehensive approach, we would like to suggest they could be recorded and monitored as part of broader, cross-cutting commitments between the government and development partners,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Simon Marks)