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Funding giant faces its critics

"Quick and dirty" or "pre-development"? The European Union's approach to aid to

Cambodia is a controversial topic among NGOs. Benjamin Quenelle

reports.

EUROPEAN Union (EU) Ambassador Gwyn Morgan isn't

diplomatic when asked about criticism of the EU from NGOs.

"I'm not

interested in the points of view of the NGOs. They are badly informed. NGOs have

got so many points of views which are all to do naturally with their own

interests," Morgan said in a recent Post interview. "I represent the European

Community. I don't represent NGOs. They are just part of a public opinion I

don't always respect."

The ambassador grew irate when questioned about

NGO relations with the 15-member EU, at one point threatening to end the

interview.

"We're not here to keep NGOs alive, we're here to help NGOs

who help us and help the people of Cambodia.

"For some of the NGOs,

Europe is a superbank. It will not be a superbank any longer for inefficient

NGOs, as it was before in some cases."

As Cambodia's largest aid donor -

and with an open policy of moving away from funding NGOs to providing direct

government support - the EU has inevitably upset some NGOs.

Even more so

given that the attitude behind its programs can be at direct odds with those of

NGOs.

EU officials speak of "pre-development" and "crash programs" to

give Cambodia a jump-start, while NGOs typically see themselves as working for

"sustainable development".

The EU's $87 million, 30-month European

Rehabilitation Program in Cambodia (PERC) was launched a year ago. As well as

the sheer amount of money involved, it is notable for the speed of its planning

and implementation.

The very same haste which is seen by the EU as the

best way not to waste time is viewed by some NGOs as the best way to waste

money.

One NGO manager describes the EU approach as "quick and dirty",

while another says: "They wanted to do something quickly. They do not care about

the results."

Many EU staff in Cambodia - and even the Bangkok-based Gwyn

Morgan - acknowledge drawbacks to the EU's approach.

"But one year ago,

when all the other donors were talking, talking, talking and doing nothing on

the ground, the European Union decided to crash things into place and be active

on the ground as soon as possible," says Morgan.

"The whole concept of

the PERC program is to be a crash program to get things starting on the

ground."

The EU, active in Cambodia since 1991, previously concentrated

on funding NGOs, particularly in Pursat, Battambang and neighboring

provinces.

Now, under the PERC, much of its money goes toward a national

primary education program and a rural development program in six provinces near

Phnom Penh.

"Europe is muscling into provinces where it has never been

before," says one NGO critic. "It may walk over initiatives which have been

prepared over many years in provinces it does not know at all."

In

Battambang, Hervé Bernard, provincial director of French NGO Action Nord/Sud,

praises the EU's previous work in the province and wonders (why?) it withdrew

much of its aid.

"They should have stayed here to complete what they had

started. Here Europe had a good knowledge of the concrete situation.

"The

EU stayed here two years, then pulled out. They cut the aid very suddenly...it

was not very elegant."

Others suggest that public relations played a

factor in the EU's choice of provinces - Takeo, Prey Veng, Kompong Speu, Svay

Rieng, Kompong Cham and Kompong Chhnang - for its rural development

program.

"Here Europe can easily show it is active on the ground," says

one NGO worker, referring to the six provinces' close proximity to Phnom

Penh.

Jean-Luc Rossier of Handicap International in Battambang says:

"Europe stopped its funding in Battambang because of the bad security

conditions, but also because Battambang is a long way from Phnom

Penh.

"Its action here was not so visible...so it returned back to Phnom

Penh."

Morgan hotly replies: "That is not true. We chose the regions in

consultation with the Cambodian government who probably should know more than

anybody else where are the needs for assistance."

Some NGOs worry that

the EU may duplicate, and even threaten, existing projects. They point to an

ambitious credit scheme planned for the six provinces as part of the rural

development program.

EU staff say the scheme should compliment and complete

local credit projects already underway, but NGOs worry it will cause more damage

than good.

"Credit schemes require time," says one NGO manager. "Time to

identify villages, time to train staff, time to assess the needs. Time, then, to

set up the system.

"Thirty months is not enough. It [the scheme] will

collapse, with bad impacts for the NGOs' work afterward."

Similarly, the

EU's primary school education program - which, unlike the rural development

plan, is nationwide - is in some ways racing against the clock.

Gerard

Renou, an EU technical expert on the program, acknowledges that "with so much

money to be spent in only 30 months, without any initial frame at the beginning,

there is of course the risk we will not have time to carry out the plan

completely before the expiry."

But he still sees advantages to the EU's

approach, including that "as we had the money before the details of the plan, we

have been able to adapt easier to realities on the ground."

Morgan,

meanwhile, says the PERC will at least build "a frame" to be expanded upon

later. Even if the whole PERC is not set up after 30 months, there is no

prospect of the EU leaving "overnight".

Perhaps the biggest cause of

contention about the EU, however, centers on how it works with

NGOs.

Since the 1993 elections, the EU has moved toward working with

government officials and bringing in outside technical experts rather than using

NGO staff.

In Battambang, the EU pays someone from Action Nord/Sud to

liaise between the EU and NGOs.

"But how will the EU experts manage in

other provinces?" asks Hervé Bernard.

He says EU experts are skilled and

experienced but there are not enough of them; they will not be as closely

involved with individual projects as they should.

"If you take something

on, you must see it through to the end. But the EU has no means to," says

Bernard.

Morgan, for his part, sees the EU's job as to work with the

Cambodia government.

If outside advice is needed, he prefers to

sub-contract private experts "who have the expertise and the large degree of

professionalism that the NGOs don't have."

He refers to the "independence

of NGOs", saying he would rather have someone working full-time for him than

someone "who half works with me, half with NGOs".

"That doesn't mean to

say NGOs haven't got a place. They have. But NGOs have to make up their minds as

well you know, whether they really want their independence to the point they're

making a principle of it, or they want to fit in with our

objectives."

The EU still funds, or sub-contracts, NGOs and international

agencies under both the PERC and other smaller programs. There are numerous

examples, including the EU's short-term funding of Handicap International's

artificial limb program and a proposed alliance with the World Food Program to

distribute rice.

Morgan says NGOs are free to apply for

funding.

"Where the NGOs are valuable, where the NGOs have a good track

record, where the NGOs come up with projects that contribute to our overall

policy towards Cambodia, they will be strong contenders to continue to receive

funding."

All the NGOs the Post visited, even those most critical,

acknowledge they are hoping for funding from the EU.

Not all are

critical. For instance, Jean-Claude Prandy, head of Medecins du Monde in

Cambodia, says: "The EU is a kind of bank that's fine to work with. Compared to

many of the other donors, Europe has the advantage of keeping its promise. The

most difficult stage is to get a project accepted. Once it is, the collaboration

is usually very efficient."

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