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Analysis: Foreign donors taken for granted?

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh earler this week, during which he warned foreign donors against making aid threats. Facebook
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh earler this week, during which he warned foreign donors against making aid threats. Facebook

Analysis: Foreign donors taken for granted?

On Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen took aim at unspecified international donors, mockingly daring them to follow through on their “threats” to withdraw their aid to Cambodia.

“You threaten to cut off aid; please cut it and the first people who will suffer will be the people who work with NGOs,” the premier said.

While much of the international community’s aid is indeed funnelled through Cambodia’s non-government sector, data from the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) show NGO staffers would be far from the only ones to suffer from a cut in foreign assistance.

According to the records, Cambodia received $2.03 billion in aid grants from international donors between 2013 and 2015, with more than $639 million of that going to projects ranging from road and railway construction to flood relief and emergency food assistance.

Including loans, the three-year figure jumps to $3.8 billion, more than $1 billion of which was provided by China, who the premier noted did not “make demands” in exchange for their support.

Development aid taken for granted?

Hun Sen’s remarks appeared to be squarely aimed at European Union parliamentarians, who last week called for the bloc’s aid contributions to Cambodia be made conditional on improvement in Cambodia’s human rights record.

The barbs were delivered to an audience of some 4,000 graduating students on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich – somewhat ironic given that the CDC data show that the European Union supplied some $17.4 million in grants for education in Cambodia in 2015 alone. A total of $120.2 million delivered to the sector from foreign development partners in the same year.

In another speech yesterday, the premier hit back at what he characterised as unfair criticism of the nation’s much-maligned health system.

However, the health sector in Cambodia has been the beneficiary of $176.3 million in international donor grants. The health sector was this year allocated an annual budget of $275 million by the government.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said Cambodia welcomed the contributions from its development partners but did not take kindly to meddling in “domestic affairs”.

“They should not use the money as aid to put pressure [on Cambodia] to do this or that; we don’t sell our sovereignty,” Siphan said.

The EU parliamentarians’ motion, passed last Thursday, cited the recent slew of “politically motivated” cases against government opponents as one of several grounds for re-evaluating its aid to the Kingdom.

But after years of threats to cut aid that rarely materialise, the prime minister has become adept at calling donors’ bluffs, enabling him to score political points while suffering minimal consequences, said long-time political analyst Chea Vannath.

“This is far from the first time he’s said this,” Vannath said. “This is just a game . . . based on many years of experience . . . There’s mutual benefits [for Hun Sen and donor countries]. It’s diplomacy . . . Donor countries want to maintain good, positive relationships with Cambodia too.”

Ear Sophal, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said China’s “unsurpassed” influence on Cambodia had given the premier more leeway to challenge donors than in past years.

However, even in the years following the 1992 UN intervention, when a flood of aid money was directed to the Kingdom, Cambodia got more aid than it asked for despite many Western donors berating it for corruption, added Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“It should be cut,” he said, via email. “I’ve been arguing for a long time now that too much aid spoils the child. Let’s instead truly redirect that aid from the government to NGOs for real.”

However, speaking under condition of anonymity, a Phnom Penh-based diplomat said the premier would be better served by trying to put himself in the shoes of the donors he criticised.

Western governments needed to justify their aid spending to taxpayers, who do not agree with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s rationale for locking up and harassing elected parliamentarians and human rights activists, he said.

“If the PM is too proud to discuss donors’ concerns about this in earnest, he should also muster the pride to refuse aid from countries taking a critical view of his policies,” they said, via email.

According to the CDC records, international donors plan to provide a total of $966 million in grants and $534 million in loans this year.

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