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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NGOs resist international aid cut-offs

NGOs resist international aid cut-offs

C AMBODIA'S numerous non-governmental organizations have been watching apprehensively

to see what effect the recent political upheaval will have on their funding and operations.

Despite aid freezes by some donors and the departure of many staff, most NGO representatives

remain guardedly optimistic about future prospects for their organizations.

The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC) estimates that its 70 member NGOs depend

on foreign government grants for 30% of their total combined budgets. A CCC statement

in June predicted that these organizations would disburse $80-85 million in 1997.

Thus recent announcements by the United States and Germany of aid suspensions sent

a shockwave through the community.

Japan, Cambodia's largest aid donor, has postponed funding disbursements to NGOs

while it assesses the situation here. According to Masato Iso, First Secretary of

the Japanese Embassy, Japan's Economic Cooperation Department is waiting at least

a week before making any funding decisions, in order to see if the National Assembly

reopens and what NGOs still remain in the country. Iso emphasized that "we have

not decided to suspend or stop economic cooperation to Cambodia."

Australia also has no plans to cut humanitarian aid, according to John Wilson, First

Secretary of AusAID. Reiterating the Australian government statement of July 15,

he noted that "the future of the aid program here is being kept under review

and will take into account whatever the situation is on the ground."

The European Union has not announced any funding withdrawals, although the European

Parliament passed a resolution to suspend aid to Cambodia on July 17. According to

an EU spokeswoman, the resolution is important because it formulates "a very

strong opinion" about Cambodia, and the EU must take into account the Parliament's

fears and concerns, but "this does not necessarily lead to a suspension of aid."

In contrast, all US-supported projects have been affected by the US Agency for International

Development (USAID) cutoff. The American governmental aid program directly funds

50 organizations and contractors in Cambodia. USAID's 1997 budget for Cambodia was

$35 million. The aid is now subject to a 30-day freeze effective July 10 "for

a period of intensive review," according to an embassy spokesperson. American

citizens working on USAID projects were also ordered to leave Cambodia for the duration

of the freeze.

However, there may be exceptions to the US suspension. "When the freeze was

first announced, we thought all work was suspended and all expats had to leave,"

said Cheryl Urashima, Director of Programs at Private Agencies Collaborating Together

(PACT). Now, though, she is expecting official USAID confirmation that her program

will still be funded and her staffers can stay. According to Urashima, those organizations

and projects which provide humanitarian assistance or support human rights, and which

do not provide any direct assistance to the government, will be allowed to continue.

Graham Miller, Country Director for CARE, also said he is "cautiously optimistic"

about the future. Despite having been forced to lay off some 70% of his staff, CARE

retains the ability to resume most of its former operations quickly if aid recommences.

"CARE is obviously not going to shut its doors," he said.

Nonetheless, the American aid freeze has had a serious impact on NGO activities.

Calling the suspension a "pretty damn sad thing to happen," Miller said

that CARE has been forced to shut down several programs. PACT, too, has canceled

an environmental management project and a primary education project.

In response to the freeze, PACT, CARE, and 18 other organizations sent letters to

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and key US Congress members. While supporting

US disapproval of Hun Sen's military actions, the letters express concern over the

impact of aid suspension. "It is important to make a distinction between cutting

off aid to an illegitimate government and cutting off aid to the people of Cambodia,"

the letter to Albright read in part.

Other foreign governments have received a similar appeal from the NGO Forum of Cambodia.

The advocacy group issued a statement to international donors after a meeting on

July 15. It reads in part: "We have seen, in Cambodia as well as in other parts

of the world, that it is ordinary people who are the most vulnerable and who suffer

most when punitive measures are imposed." In conclusion it urges donors "to

continue the work they have started in support of the Cambodian people and not to

again use the withdrawal of humanitarian and development aid as a political tool."

The Country Director of the Mines Advisory Group, citing the Forum statement, argued

that aid cutoffs rarely work. "Iraq is the perfect case in point," Ian

Browne said. "Saddam Hussein was not toppled by the stopping of food and medicine.

We don't condone what happened here, but we want to protect those most vulnerable

and those made vulnerable by the recent conflict."

Local NGOs are suffering from woes other than funding problems as well. Fear for

the lives of International Republican Institute workers prompted their US headquarters

to evacuate the entire staff. According to a former IRI employee, much of the organization's

work focused on the development of political parties such as the Khmer Nation Party.

"We promote democracy in Cambodia, but now there is no more democracy in Cambodia,"

said the official, who requested anonymity. Nineteen Cambodian citizens, including

three staff members, two drivers, and their families, were flown to an undisclosed

location in Thailand July 20.

Most overseas volunteer organizations have also taken their workers out of the country.

Many small NGOs depended heavily on the foreign volunteer staff and have been hard

hit by the pullouts. "Watching the volunteers leave has been demoralizing as

well as debilitating for local NGOs," said Cathy Zimmerman, Research Advisor

at the Project Against Domestic Violence.

However, volunteer officials remain upbeat about the longer-term prospects. Although

Debbie Land, Field Representative for Volunteer Service Abroad, sent her workers

home to New Zealand, she expects to bring them all back soon.

Michael Bevis, Field Director for the Voluntary Service Overseas (Britain), said

that all his volunteers "have been sent to Thailand for a two-week holiday,

but apart from that nothing has changed."

Other organizations operating in Cambodia have remained unaffected. Yves Coyette,

Director of Medecins Sans Frontiers-France, said that MSF functions were unchanged.

Jaisankar Sarma, chairperson of the CCC, summed up the attitude of the NGO community.

"We feel an even stronger commitment at this time to work with the Cambodian

people," he said. He questioned the utility of the aid freezes, but is nonetheless

positive about the future. "I have been here for nine years and have looked

around for hope. I am optimistic, but my optimism is not derived from political processes

- rather from the Cambodian people," he said. "NGOs are here to stay."



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