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Members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh during a 2013 rally.
Members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh during a 2013 rally. Sreng Meng Srun

If donors really want to help they should learn Khmer

It was reported yesterday that USAID has just launched a new five-year $9 million program to support Cambodian Civil Society Organisations (New program to benefit civil society). While this is indeed welcoming news, signalling a major donor’s commitment to continue to foster Cambodian civil society amidst recent political turmoil, it is also important to take this opportunity to address one of the most significant barriers facing these organisations when they wish to apply for grants (I will refer to them collectively in this article using the common abbreviation “NGOs”).

Despite the Khmer language being the official language of Cambodia, the dominance of foreign donors and their aid has made English the primary language in the development sector. Language continues to be a major obstacle for local NGOs who need to maintain and foster their relationship with their donor partners. Despite efforts by some donor organisations to “localise“ their operations in Cambodia, most written communication between them and their local partners continue to be carried out exclusively in English. This applies to the entire process of project management, from initial grant application, to the various reports one must produce throughout the life of these projects.

One of the immediate consequences of this phenomenon is that most NGOs engaging with foreign donors in Cambodia would require having at least one or more western staff. Their job titles range from the impressive sounding “adviser” and “consultant” to “volunteer” or “intern”. Their primary function is often to edit or draft funding proposals and project reports, most of them will only be produced in English, to fit the donors’ requirements. This is certainly not restricted to USAID, as other major international donors engaging in Cambodia have the same requirements, including the EU, Australia, most international NGOs and UN funding opportunities.

My experience and observation has been mostly confined to local human rights and democracy development NGOs where the “revolving door” of international interns and paid advisers means most would stay in a local NGO for a duration of between 6 to 24 months. Strong anecdotal evidence also exists to suggest this is also the case in other development sectors. This is often necessary because of the local NGOs’ inability to adequately meet the donors’ strict language requirements. In most large donor programs, funding is determined through a two-step assessment process. Firstly, the concept note, where the organisation describes the “concept” of its proposed project to the donor. If the concept note meets the assessment criteria, then the donor would normally require a full proposal detailing specific activities and line-by-line budget for the proposed project. Donors have different requirements for this initial concept paper, usually ranging from two to five pages in length, but the aim remains to allow the donor the ability to assess the project proposed quickly and efficiently, without needing to spend a lot of time and resources shortlisting promising proposals. This efficiency also benefits the local NGOs developing the proposal, as there is simply no point drafting a 70-plus-page proposal without knowing there is a good chance for success.

Having said that, the importance of the concept paper cannot be overstated. The ability to successfully describe and “sell” a project in a succinct manner is often the key to win the large coveted grant from the donor. However, this skill requires a very high capacity of English, which is often only possessed by native English speakers or those who have completed advanced tertiary studies in English. Not only are proposals lengthy, with some Eu and USAID award documents totalling over 150 pages, they often contain very technical jargon that does not exist in the Khmer language.

In order to ensure that concept notes fit into certain length, donors often impose strict word or even character limits to each criterion that needs to be addressed. It is not unusual to see technical requirement of a call for proposal that reads: “Briefly define the problem/issues . . . (2,000 characters excluding spaces)” or “Describe the applicant’s monitoring and evaluation plan. (500 characters excluding spaces)”. These two “requirements” came from a previous USAID award in 2014 that earmarked up to $5 million just to Cambodian civil society organisations. The award specifically targets “local solutions” and prioritise the integration of “youth” and “gender”, yet it was unequivocal in requiring that “Concept papers must be in English” as the first step of submitting an application. It is rather disheartening to see that after more than 20 years of engaging with civil society in Cambodia, the USAID office in the Kingdom does not possess the capacity to even accept concept notes in the local language of the country in which they wish to build capacity. This is an admission that the USAID office in Cambodia lacks Khmer staff with the capabilities and power of making the first round shortlisting of incoming concept papers.

The practical impact of this language requirement is that significant numbers of local NGOs have been dissuaded from even putting in an application. Most NGO leaders I spoke to at the time believed they would not be able to compete in the award unless they had staff who possessed native or near-native English capacity working in their organisation. Those leaders also strongly believed that their application would simply be discarded if they submitted a concept note that was not written in perfect English. As I have already pointed out, USAID is by no means unique in having an “English only” engagement with local NGOs. This is contributing to the necessity for local NGOs to take on western volunteers or paid advisers for the sole purpose of engaging with their donor partners, which often leads to an inadvertent confirmation of the overtly “westernised” practice in program design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. western advisers become effectively “gatekeepers” in the grant proposal equation, often advising their Khmer colleagues that donors will only grant funding if the concept paper is written in a particular way. Donors seem to then take this as evidence that their funding approaches are achieving the stated goals in Cambodia without the need to critically assess the application processes. Local organisations, especially those working primarily at a grassroots level, and their Khmer staff who may have very innovative ideas, are often dismissed or dissuaded from participating in this process.

Donors who are serious about having “Khmer ownership” of their development programs should do everything in their power to be the “facilitator” between the local NGOs they are supporting and the government requirements in their respective home countries. There is no real reason why they can’t take on the burden of “linguistic conversion” between the local language and their “home language”. what has been developed in Cambodia is that English has become the “pseudo-official” language for development. If donors are truly committed in engaging with their intended local beneficiaries, surely it’s time for them to learn the Khmer language?

Billy Chia-Lung Tai is an independent human rights and legal consultant.

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