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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Brits freeze aid to save political face

Brits freeze aid to save political face

THE British Foreign Office decided to freeze millions of dollars in provincial

aid funding to Cambodia so that "awkward" questions could be deflected in

Parliament.

A British diplomat said funding expatriates to work in the

provinces "breaks our own rules" for tourists, and "MPs will find that very

difficult to understand."

Should a British NGO worker be killed or

injured in the provinces, the diplomat said, "MPs will grill the Foreign Office

and give them a hard time....[funding provincial aid projects] can't be defended

in Parliament."

Britain funds about $5 million worth of aid, mostly in

the provinces. The blanket decision to freeze money for aid projects in the

provinces - and request that their dozens of expatriates be recalled to Phnom

Penh - has appalled NGO workers.

It has been described variously as

"indefensible", "playing into the hands of the Khmer Rouge" and "a

joke".

NGOs say it sends precisely the wrong signal to a struggling

country whose rural development needs are an integral part of its

internationally-agreed peace plan.

"It's clearly demonstrating a lack of

confidence in the government of Cambodia to govern," said one senior British NGO

worker. "It's the wrong time to be sending that signal."

NGO staff - who

have banded together to fight the decision - are adamant that Cambodia's

security situation does not warrant a full-scale withdrawal of expatriates to

Phnom Penh.

"We do not see any reason whatsoever to withdraw these people

at this time," said one, adding that whoever was responsible for the decision

had "very little" idea of the true situation in Cambodia.

First Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh told the Post on Feb 6 that he regretted the

British decision and might have preferred it to have been made in consultation

with Cambodian authorities.

He suggested that if security was bad in some

provinces, a temporarily pull-out from those regions would have been

better.

But he said he could not influence any country's decisions, nor

did he blame the British.

The British have justified their edict, relayed

to NGOs on Feb 1, on the basis that it is consistent with its advice to

tourists.

Since November, British tourists have been advised not to come

to Cambodia and, if they do, not to venture out of Phnom Penh.

A British

Embassy spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the latest decision could be

defended "on the security situation alone".

Pressed on whether provincial

security had worsened considerably since November, he said: "Can you put your

hand on your heart and say that the Khmer Rouge won't kill an NGO

[worker]."

The spokesman confirmed that British ambassador Paul

Reddicliffe was in touch with the Foreign Office but refused to say what advice

he was giving.

Sources say Reddicliffe had offered alternatives to the

Foreign Office but was largely ignored.

Diplomatic and business people

were wondering why the British even had an embassy in Phnom Penh, given that

visas were issued in Bangkok and "they don't even have a decent aid program to

manage now".

In a Dec 3 letter to NGOs reiterating the London ruling,

Reddicliffe wrote that the "real threat" to Britons in the provinces left no

option but to strongly advise all such NGO workers to withdraw to Phnom

Penh.

Funding from Britain's Overseas Development Agency (ODA) would be

frozen for all projects employing Britons or other foreigners "unless the

projects can be reorganized to exclude the need for expatriates outside Phnom

Penh" said the document.

Reddicliffe told the Post it might be possible

for expatriate staff to visit the provinces for "four or five days" at time to

oversee projects.

Asked whether that, too, would be inconsistent with the

Foreign Office's tourist advice, he said it was not an ideal world and "quiet

diplomacy" was the best way to settle problems.

It is understood the

decision does not apply to the personnel and funding of Britain's United Nations

and the European Union commitments.

The hardest hit NGOs are Cambodian

British Teachers, 100 per cent ODA-funded, and Volunteer Services Abroad, 80 per

cent funded.

Other major NGO affected include Oxfam, Save the Children

Fund (UK), Concern, World Vision and Health Unlimited.

NGO

representatives sent a letter to the British Minister for Overseas Development,

the Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, who made the ruling, complaining of the

"sudden and unprecedented change of policy".

"If stabilizing Cambodia is

a prime objective of Her Majesty's Government, this action is directly contrary

to it," the letter said.

A similar letter was delivered to Reddicliffe at

the British embassy on Feb 7.

Joan Anderson of Save The Children Fund,

described the British decision as "paranoia."

"As of today your funding

has been frozen, bam... its absolutely crazy," she said. "There was no

opportunity for any dialogue."

"We are not irresponsible having expats

outside of Phnom Penh. We are not tourists, we are in a completely different

situation."

She said the British Embassy could not possibly believe

Cambodia's overall security situation had worsened.

Security had improved

"out-of-sight" since the November travel advise, she said.

Anne

O'Mahoney, field director of Irish-based Concern, said NGO workers could not be

compared with tourists. They had an information network and daily security

briefings that tourists did not.

"We do not think the security situation

warrants a withdrawal," she said, adding that the blanket order included regions

such as Ratanakiri, which "hasn't seen a Khmer Rouge since 1978".

Britain

funded aid work in far more dangerous countries such as Somalia and Rwanda, she

said.

Concern's 24 expatriate staff in Cambodia's provinces were staying

there until a decision on their future was made by the NGO's head

office.

In one project in Banteay Meanchey, Concern had three foreign

staff who were ODA-funded and two who were not.

"Do we withdraw three,

and say its unsafe for them, but the other two can carry on?"

She said it

made more sense to evacuate staff temporarily if security hot-spots flared up,

as Concern had done in Sisophon last April.

Meanwhile, United States

Ambassador Charles Twining has delivered a veiled threat to withdraw US NGOs

from Battambang province - but at the same time praising improvements in

security in other regions.

In a Feb 3 letter to the co-Prime Ministers,

obtained by the Post, Twining said the improvement of security in Siem Reap and

other provinces was a credit to the government.

However, he said he

continued to be concerned at the situation in Battambang, scene of repeated KR

attacks over recent weeks, and urged the government to take further

action.

"I count upon the Royal Cambodian Government to take every

measure to improve the situation in Battambang's districts...so that there is

sufficient security to allow the NGO programs to continue to operate," he

wrote.

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