PRAKEAP - When villagers here on the outskirts of Battambang talk about "development",
they talk about the four-kilometer canal they dug that doesn't hold water.
The World Food Program (WFP) gave the villagers a choice of projects they could do
to improve their lot, in return for rice. They decided to build a canal on the poorest,
driest side of the road.
The Cambodian Red Cross got involved, but building permission was refused by the
local authority's Irrigation Department, who said it wasn't part of the district
"They just wanted money... everything is corrupt," said one villager. Eventually
the authorities agreed and the canal was dug.
That was a few months ago. But now there's still no water.
For the sake of two $200 irrigation gates to regulate the flow of water, the canal
remains dry. For $400, the villagers say, 4,000 people could have better irrigated
land. They have little idea of what to do now, and there are jokes about how at least
Khieu Samphan wasn't corrupt.
The same village is in the watershed heart of the Mekong River Commission's (MRC)
plan to dam the Battambang and Mongkol Borey rivers. The MRC says it will provide
irrigation, flood control and enough hydro-electricity to power (at least) ten Battambangs.
It will also displace hundreds of communities.
Although the news of a dam came as a surprise, villager elders told the Post: "Very
good. We need the water, and cheap power is very necessary and helpful."
However, it is rare that people are given the means or opportunity to make informed
choices about development.
It is far more common to hear protest when local people are told to give up their
land, in sacrifice for the larger development goal.
The debate about whether big aid projects are better or worse than small ones is
keen in Cambodia.
Big donors like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) are accused of being
driven by the need to spend their budget profitably and quickly by directors ignorant
of the country, of being insensitive "destroyers" of culture and community,
and secretive about their decisions. Small NGOs, others say, have no scope, and are
at times as clumsy in their work as the big organizations.
The crux of the problem is the entrenched aim to drag Cambodia into the free market.
One senior aid researcher says that the march toward a free market is "inevitable"
and "global". The argument that subsistence cultures should remain "isolated"
could not be justified "on the [high] infant mortality rate alone... People
from Ratanakiri want to go to the disco too."
But others are very worried. They say outsiders - the World Bank and the IMF being
the most obvious - are pushing this one model of development into which Cambodia
A new report by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) on development
aid to Cambodia, says that development must start by changing subsistence agriculture
- and a "reduction in fertility" to reduce the size of families.
This will eventually lead to a more dominant industrial sector, promoting trade and
export. SIDA says that priority areas of help should be to human resources, infrastructure
such as roads, and public institutions.
Ardhendu Chatterjee, a rural development advisor for the Japan International Volunteer
Center (JVC), says big development tends to operate in a vacuum, always beginning
from zero, and that it does not build or use local resources and strengths.
Mathew Varghese, country representative of the International Co-operation for Development
and Solidarity (CIDSE), says big infrastructural projects - such as dams and roads
- that involve the stripping away of natural resources in the drive towards a market
economy tend to widen the gap between rich and poor.
That gap in Cambodia is wider now than it has been in years.
Varghese argues that nothing can be done without expense, but that expense - such
as the displacement of people, and environmental and social impacts - must be better
understood and mitigated.
"Is big development bad? No," he says. Big infrastructural developments
and institutional reforms - like that insisted by the IMF and the World Bank - are
needed. But all development, big and small, "only has value when the people
have the necessary information and can be critical, understand and make choices."
"If you build a dam to produce electricity and displace poor people, then I
have a question." The displacement of people, and environmental and social impacts,
must be better understood and mitigated, he says.
Bringing Khmer people into the decision-making and consultative process would help,
but there were nevertheless basic clashes between aid organizations. Varghese says
the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is funding roads so villagers can more easily "sell
their vegetables" and develop trade. That is "totally different" to
the cultural and social aspects of grass-roots projects done by smaller NGOs in the
The ADB "totally misunderstood the country situation", spent $15,000 a
month on a policy document for the (then) Secretariat of Womens Affairs only to have
Hun Sen throw it out, he says.
"You've got to know the system of operation here," he says. The entire
CPP structure is still in place "so use it... there are many ways it can be
Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy founder Thach Bunroen agrees political tension can follow
if foreign aid donors do not participate with locals. He points out that Hun Sen
has recently said that if people wanted the King to live longer, Cambodia must not
be dependent on or be "lackeys of the foreigners."
Development throws up many anomalies.
Varghese says for example that food handouts by the WFP can skewer rice markets,
affecting supply, demand and price.
Chatterjee criticizes some of the WFP's Food For Work programs as "killing initiative."
"Every day in the media some [government] leaders are being shown distributing
rice, rather than showing people how to help themselves," Chatterjee says.
Varghese also questions the priority of the USAID-built Route 4 to Sihanoukville.
He says it cost four times more than what a team of Khmer laborers would have. As
well as not providing employment or skills to locals, USAID's money went quickly
offshore to American roadbuilders Fischbach and associated (mainly Thai) contractors.
"It's a beautiful road and I can drive to Kompong Som at 150kmh... but you don't
need that quality, at such cost, at this stage of Cambodia's [economic development]."
The development of "human resources" - teaching people skills - is the
number one priority, Varghese says.
Big development projects tend to be "directly implemented" - using only
foreign expertise from planning to building - "so how can [Khmers] learn...
if you continue to do things for them?" Varghese says that is a big fault of
the Japanese - Cambodia's biggest aid donors - who exult that there is no corruption
in their projects because they build a bridge, for instance, and "then just
hand over the key."
The European Union (EU) has been roundly criticized by many.
Varghese says that in Svey Rieng the EU has, after 12 months, not yet even decided
in which village to begin work "and they're only going to be here for three
years anyway. NGOs [in Svey Rieng] were worried that the EU would take all their
staff away, but they didn't have to worry. When the EU drew up their short-list of
Khmer staff, it was all the wives and family of provincial officials," he says.
"The EU had no idea."
Varghese reckons that more than half of the EU's $70m budget will eventually go in
"salaries and cars." He talks of 70 expat EU staff earning up to $12,000
Many projects are being duplicated, and aid was too centered within Phnom Penh "which
is strange if you're trying to reach the poorest," Chatterjee says.
Despite "welcomed" efforts by the government and the UNDP to coordinate
aid, around 90 percent of the $1.3 billion donors have given to Cambodia since 1992
has been spent in the capital.
"Many NGOs bask in the glory of speaking to ministers," he says, when they
should be dealing at the commune and village level. Others point to foreign researchers
being paid huge money and never leaving Phnom Penh to "get their feet dirty."
UNDP resident deputy representative André Klap says that if aid is spent without
the participation of those whom one is trying to help, it can be detrimental to the
country, leading to "aid dependancy".
Klap believes also however that Cambodia's transition to a free market is not only
inevitable, but desirable.
Criticism of the way some of Cambodia's donors work - though Klap would not name
specific organizations - is quite valid, he says.
UNDP's philosophy was to develop the national capacity, with local communities participating.
Without that, development is unsustainable, he says.
Problems happen because donors and the government are under "huge pressure"
to make a national impact - and quickly.
There is a dilemma to spend money without thinking of improving Cambodia's capacity
to absorb it properly "and that's putting the horse behind the wagon,"
Politicians and donors alike often look only in the short-term, and favor highly
visible projects, he says. "But this is not an issue of scale, it's an issue
Klap believes that Carere has been successful because it began with a grass-roots
project to repatriate returnees. Over time, it has expanded "upwards" so
it was now liasing with central government.
Carere are about to begin a $40m "experimental" project to spend on a whole
range of aid in the provinces - all done with input at "grass-roots" level.
This coming June, the government will present a new five-year "Social Economic
Development Plan" to an international "consultative group" - bilateral
and multilateral donors that have taken over from what was ICORC.
The group will make pledges of aid, but unlike ICORC will have no mandate of comment
over political questions. The chairs of the meeting are Japan and the World Bank.
The World Bank - historically, and globally - has taken the most flak as representing
much of what is bad about the "big spenders."
A senior foreign development advisor to the Cambodian government, who asked not to
be named, says many criticisms of the World Bank and its big infrastructural developments
"If you want to increase agriculture in a remote village, how do you get the
produce out? How can you reach people to provide social, health and educational services?"
The advisor says that a "judicious mix" of all sizes and scales of development
give the best results.
The World Bank - and others like the ADB - are not making a profit from Cambodia,
he says. Cambodia qualifies for loans under the International Development Assistance
program, which provides a ten-year grace on repayments and is interest free, save
for a 0.05 percent "service charge" to cover costs.
The World Bank will approve up to $80m this year in loans against various projects
and programs agreed upon with the government - whose "point-man" is Finance
Minister Keat Chhon.
The Bank has approved $185m in two years; $65m has been drawn down by the government
for projects already finished.
The Bank did not lend "based on its own internal judgements" but had a
"great deal of dialogue" with the government.
The Bank has pumped money into "priority" lending - electricity, water
supply, agriculture, port rehabilitation and, early on, a $50m loan into the national
cashflow for the country to "subsist."
The Bank pays for a "large number of [foreign] experts" in various government
ministries, most importantly the Ministry of Finance, he says.
When asked about the huge amounts of aid flowing out of the country in foreign consultancies
and experts' salaries, he says those experts are at present only temporarily filling
roles that will eventually be staffed with Khmers.
The World Bank is conscious of the need to withdraw those foreign experts after the
economy has been "jump-started" and Khmer expertise established, he says.
"Otherwise the work will not get done... it's a fact of life."
The Bank has lent $20m into the "social funds secretariat", to farm out
smaller grants to rural development, health, schools and buildings.
"These are needs identified by and the responsibility of the community,"
"These people who criticize the World Bank's emphasis on infrastructure may
not be able to substantiate it in terms of Cambodia."
Answering criticisms that the Bank's policies cause massive community disruption,
the advisor says: "Inevitably, all over the world, experience has been that
labor and resourses usually go from one sector to another... the primary sector to
"Mobility of labor takes place... there are adjustments that have to be made,
but other employment opportunities [emerge]. But that ripple doesn't last long, people
move on... society evolves [and] goes through the pangs of experience," he says.
He says such "pangs" are hard to overcome unless state intervention provided
a "safety net" so poor people were not further "marginalized."
He says that in Cambodia, the economic "revolution" will take place faster
than in other countries.
He gave as an example "rice farming peasants" being able to move into small
manufacturing businesses. "Cambodia is fast-growing", cannot afford to
be left behind, and will never be "an isolated pocket of impoverishment"
based on its geography alone, he says.
Author and head of the Krom Akphiwat Phum aid agency in Battambang, Meas Nee, is
an articulate example of how small NGO development is driven.
Nee says that he spends his time talking to and eating with the locals and living
in their villages.
He says hope, confidence and dignity have to be rebuilt, and only then will food
production, health and education, sharing of land, and peace follow.
Many aid workers are looking at his philosophy as being "the Cambodian Way,
and bigger organizations such as PADEK and, increasingly, UNDP/Carere are being praised
for beginning to follow similar paths.
Thach Bunroeun of the Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy says that pre-war Cambodia was a
successful, literate and rich country, based on Buddhist values of community cooperation
- without Western aid.
"I say to international donors, any donors, please help Cambodia to become independent
from this aid," Bunroeun says.
In his book "Towards Restoring Life", Meas Nee takes a very different view
from that of the World Bank regarding Cambodia's future development:
"Looked at from the outside, religion, the teaching of the monks, music, traditional
games and traditional skills are a way to strengthen the culture. But I see them
as not just that. They are the way to build unity and to heal hearts and spirits.
They help to create a community where everything can be talked about, even past suffering.
They help create a community where the poorest are cared about. They help restore
"... projects are not the important thing,... a process for working with the
village is just gradually being developed and... we are learning from the village
people. The Khmer Rouge grew strong because they knew how the poor suffered and they
exploited this suffering. It is essential that the village people do not feel abandoned