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Oxfam urges greater US aid transparency

THE United States should increase the transparency and predictability of its development aid to Cambodia in order to improve its overall effectiveness, according to a report released by Oxfam America on Thursday.

The 20-page report, based on interviews with 200 representatives of US aid agencies, governments and civil society groups in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, and Rwanda, states that a lack of information about US aid has complicated government planning and runs the risk of compromising transparency.

“Without greater transparency and predictability, donors risk undermining, instead of strengthening, the citizen-state compact that is at the core of development,” the report states.

In its conclusions about Cambodia, the report argues that due to a lack of information from USAID – the US government’s development arm – Cambodian NGOs have grown concerned about the perceived increase in ties between the US and the Cambodian government, while government officials are worried that USAID is becoming too close to civil society.

“In addition to making US foreign aid a less-useful tool for recipients, the lack of aid transparency can also fuel misperceptions about why the US is providing aid in the first place,” the report states.

“In Cambodia, not having a clear sense of USAID’s direction generates uncertainty.”

The report also says that the information shortfall has made it hard for US-funded organisations to plan their own activities and programmes.

Policy debate
Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America, said the report was prompted by the Obama administration’s search for a new model of development that is more focused on “country ownership”.

“A lot of the problems are Washington problems, so they tend to be systemic. They have a lot to do with how we plan and distribute our aid,” he said by phone from Washington.

“The Obama administration acknowledges this problem and is working on it, but there is still a dialogue about how this can be done.”

In that sense, he said, the situation in Cambodia is typical of the other countries surveyed in the report. The problem is not that the US is “secretive” about its aid payments, Adams added, but rather that the information released is often not targeted to those people who are on the receiving end of development assistance.

“It hurts the implementation of our assistance, because it doesn’t allow other people to leverage our assistance to have a greater impact,” he said.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, which receives funding from USAID, said the relationship between the agency and local NGOs is generally good, but that it could improve its responsiveness to the needs of local development partners.

“I believe that one of the priorities is meeting the needs of the Cambodian people,” he said. “I hope that they become more flexible in providing support for local initiatives.”

At a government-donor forum in Phnom Penh last month, US officials announced US$68.5 million in development aid indications for Cambodia for the 2010 financial year, a figure that is projected to rise to an estimated $79.3 million in 2011.

US embassy spokesman John Johnson was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

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