Saturday, 19 July 2008

Aid as impediment to development

Cambodia is one of the single biggest recipients of foreign aid in the world. However, some critics say the vast flow of development funds has created a culture of dependency.
101 East's Fauziah Ibrahim finds out if foreign aid is harming the country more than it is helping it.

Cham Kar Bei, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, is among the poorest villages in Cambodia.

Yet, the village was once considered a progressive community, largely thanks to being granted a development project by the UN agency Unesco in 1998.

UN funding saw a new school built and the installation of machines that meant villagers were taught how to sew, knit and weave.

But when Unesco handed control over to the local authorities at the end of its mandate in 2004, problems began to crop up, according to Chum Nuong, a Cham Kar Bei village councillor.

"Because our community did not have the managing experience and no leadership, we could not continue the activities," he told Al Jazeera.

Without proper infrastructure, the programmes have become dilapidated like the machines and hand looms - which sit rusting while children are forced to stand in classrooms due to lack of chairs.The Cham Kar Bei community say they were not given sufficient training and support to continue the development project and consequently the machines have been left to rot. Many non-governmental organisations say this is typical of major international aid agencies. They may have bigger budgets but they lack effective planning or a policy of consultation with local communities.

Today, a smaller group, Bridges Across Borders, is attempting to revive development in Cham Kar Bei.

Community participation

"Co-operation is the most important aspect," Sil Sineng from the group says. "The idea of thinking ahead for the sustainability of the project is the most important.

"The participation from the community, the empowerment of the community - I don't think Unesco is focusing on such concepts. They are just coming to run it by themselves. When they stop it, nobody can continue because Unesco didn't involve them in the beginning."

Cambodia does not suffer a lack of international aid. It is one of the single biggest recipients of foreign help in the world, most of which goes to helping the majority rural poor.

About half of the central government’s budget is dependent on donor assistance, and there are an estimated 600 NGOs currently operating in the country.

In some experts' opinion, all this available help sometimes proves counterproductive.

"Aid is helping Cambodians with regard to education, with regard to health," Theary Seng from the group Cambodian Social Development.

"But it's also enabling a system that is corrupt, enabling a system that is mismanaged, enabling the status quo that is poor governance, and more than that it is creating a mentality of dependency where we are constantly begging." Large-scale foreign aid continues to be given to Cambodia despite the fact the country consistently ranks among the most corrupt nations in Asia.

Some critics have accused the government of pocketing a portion of the financial aid before the money is channelled to those who need it most.

'Kind of blackmail'

Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader, even says the administration is guilty of a "kind of blackmail"."They [the government] say that if the donor community wants to help the people, they have to go through the Cambodian government and tolerate any practice, otherwise the poor will get nothing," he says.

The government rejects those accusations.

"I don't agree, not at all with such judgment," Hor Namhong, the Cambodian foreign minister, said. "Always the grant aid goes to the people.

"Take one example when China gave us the money to build a bridge in the countryside. We used all the money to build roads and bridges."

Other personalities critical of how development money is spent, say it is the donors who should be more vigilant when dispensing aid to Cambodia.

In 1999, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) loaned the Cambodian government $40 million to build part of a national highway linking the capital Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border, aimed at promoting economic trade between the two countries.

But activists say the Cambodian government failed to compensate those who lost their homes and livelihoods to make way for the new road.

Donor indifference

"We found that a lack of monitoring on the part of the ADB," Peter Raingsey of the NGO Forum in Cambodia, said. "And the ADB itself recognises this part of their activity.

"Most of the time ADB try to defend themselves by saying that those monies had already been released to the government, meaning it no longer responsible and the government needs to respond that. So the ADB only thinks about the loan."

International aid has also been plagued by the debate over "technical assistants" or foreign consultants hired by the agencies to oversee aid projects.

Cambodia is not immune to the controversy over these experts who often take up a large amount of the aid budget.

Sil Sineng from Bridges Across Borders says he worked once with an international agency where half the total project budget was taken by technical assistants' pay.

"I don't think it is necessary, they have only three people. It's necessary to have one or two people, is enough and by doing that we can build the capacity of the local people," he says.

"I can see that many Cambodians, they can do the work, but sometimes they are not empowered, they are not respected."

Until Cambodians are respected, many say the culture of dependency and the cycle of poverty will continue.

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