The World Bank on Monday began two weeks of meetings to help it decide whether to start funding new projects in Cambodia after a four-year freeze.
The Bank suspended all new lending to the country in 2011 to protest the government’s mass eviction of families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood to make way for a ruling party senator’s high-end real estate project. At the time, it said it would not lift the freeze until the government and Boeng Kak residents reached an undefined “agreement,” something that still appears a long way off.
In November, the Bank also promised not to start funding new projects until it hosted a series of meetings around the country with lawmakers and government officials, companies, NGOs and other development agencies on how best to spend its money.
The first of 10 meetings began Monday.
World Bank spokesman Bou Saroeun confirmed that Bank officials met with the Ministry of Economy and Finance but declined to elaborate. He said a scheduled meeting with lawmakers, who were in a plenary session of parliament Monday, was postponed until July 9.
A spokesman for the Finance Ministry said he was unaware of the meeting. Other officials at the ministry could not be reached.
Future meetings will be with local officials and based around themes like corruption, disaster management and agriculture. There will be one meeting each in the provinces of Kompong Cham, Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap. The last meeting, on July 13 in Phnom Penh, will be with NGOs.
Rights groups have criticized the Bank for not reserving at least one of the meetings with evictees —especially those forced out of their homes specifically because of Bank-funded projects, like the families in Boeng Kak, the very people who triggered the lending freeze. The Bank has rejected the suggestion but declined to say why.
The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia is one of three umbrella groups the Bank chose to select the NGOs that would take part in the meeting on the 13th. Soeung Saroeun, the committee’s director, said Monday that the three had sent the Bank a list of 50 NGOs involved in a broad range of fields and were still waiting for feedback.
He agreed that the Bank ought to meet with evictees.
“I suggest they have a consultation with the victims…so the Bank can learn how they’re affected, because it’s very crucial that they learn from their mistakes,” he said.
If the Bank does lift the lending freeze, it plans to fund a $25-million second phase of a project that has awarded plots of land to 3,000-plus impoverished families. The Bank has declared the first phase a resounding success.
But a recent study by rights group Licadho found that many of the families have not taken the land or moved away because their plots could not be farmed for various reasons, including poor soil, forest cover and ownership disputes.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)