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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Asian Development Bank marks 20 years in Cambodia

The Asian Development Bank marks 20 years in Cambodia

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A woman pumps water from a well, part of an Asian Development Bank-supported project to improve rural water supplies in the Tonle Sap basin. Photograph supplied

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is marking 20 years of operations in Cambodia with the release of a book today celebrating its achievements in the Kingdom.

The 67-member ADB says that over 20 years it has given Cambodia $1.8 billion in loans, grants and technical assistance.

The Post talked to country director Eric Sidgwick and senior country economist Peter Brimble to discuss the impact the ADB has had on the country.

Two decades ago things were very difficult, Brimble said. “We spent a bit of time when we were putting the book together talking to the first ADB director here,” he said.

“He came in on the first project mission, and put together a $60 million or $70 million rehabilitation loan which covered many things: roads and schools and just rebuilding, then opened the first office.

“In the beginning, he was the only person who spoke a foreign language, so as well as running the bank he was having to answer the phones, and was managing a $60 million loan on his own – and the Khmer Rouge were still bombing Siem Reap airport at the time.”

Sidgwick agreed: “In the beginning, we made a big difference with infrastructure, where we started rebuilding the connections that had been damaged, essentially focused around roads, ports; even later on the airports, irrigation, schools, the currency – the country had none of the basic foundations.”

Over the years, Sidgwick acknowledges that it hasn’t always been an easy place to work, with issues such as corruption looming large.

“It’s still a problem. ADB has never been up front and centre, screaming from the top of the roofs that there are governance problems here,” he said. “The approach that we have adopted is that we’re down in the weeds trying to help improve things.

“This is a long-term, sustained effort; we are very careful with the money that the ADB lends and maintain very strict controls over that. But, more broadly, we’re trying to improve the environment by actually doing, and building capacity.”

He went on: “We’re not here to take the government to task, we’re here to foster development in the country. And it’s not black and white. We’re engaged. Is the environment always easy? No. Are we sitting on the sidelines waiting for it to improve? No.”

So has Sidgwick seen an improvement in Cambodia?

“I was here five or six years ago, and foreign investors were knocking at the door, but not so many were actually coming in,” he said.  

“I’ve been back for a couple of months, and the people I’ve talked to, both in the government and the private sector, there’s more optimism now.

“The people who were knocking on the door have come in, so that’s a clear sign things have improved – they’ve actually started operations.

“People are much more optimistic; there’s certainly a different mood, and investment is starting to come in, so to me those are clear signs that things are improving.”

Sidgwick says there are still areas the government needs to address: “It is beginning to do some of the things it needs to do,” he said.  

“The business environment here is improving. Regulations and red tape are slowly easing. Things are becoming a little bit more transparent. I’m not sure we have a high level of accountability yet, but I guess that’s something they’re working on over time.”

“Now there are transport agreements in place. They’re working on trade facilitation. These are all recent examples of things that are improving the business environment. Does it still take longer than it should? Yes, probably. But things are getting better,” he said.

Brimble said education and training is crucially important.

“The real number one issue right now, we feel, is skills. Companies are telling us that their key concerns are skills and transport. Not the roads but the logistics, trucking and tea-money payments. But the number one good point is commitment from the government.”

Sidgwick said the ADB is in a unique position in Cambodia: “We’re here. We’re an Asian development bank, we live here, we work here, we have families here, so we have a special relationship. Like any relationship it goes up and down, but because it’s been tested along the way it’s grown stronger.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rupert Winchester at rupert.winchester@phnompenhpost.com

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