Aplanned survey to check the economic pulse of fishing communities living on the
banks of Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake - the Tonle Sap - threatens to
expose serious shortcomings in an Asian Development Bank (ADB) anti-poverty initiative.
The survey, to commence in late April, stems out of the critical view a Cambodian
NGO, Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), has of a "development" project
that the Manila-based ADB launched in October 2002. The five-year-long Tonle Sap
Initiative (TSI) set out, among other things, to improve the lives of the communities
that depend on the lake's fish for their livelihood.
But four years later, the ADB's flagship "pro-poor development initiative"
in one of the region's poorest countries is still stuck in the mud of basic details.
"Most of the people living around the Tonle Sap still don't know what this project
is really about. Some only have heard of it by name,'' says Raingsey Pen, project
leader of Tonle Sap Watch at the Phnom Penh-based FACT.
This ignorance is due to a lack of participation by the people from the beginning
of this project, he said in an interview.
"NGOs who have been monitoring this initiative have complained to the ADB that
most of the documents have not been translated into the local language and are only
available in English.''
The information gulf between the bank and the Tonle Sap's poor has been noted by
Oxfam, the international development agency.
"There is a general lack of awareness about the TSI,'' says Jessica Rosien,
who wrote a study on the Tonle Sap lake last year for Oxfam's Australia office. ''Can
the ADB save the Tonle Sap from poverty? There has been too little involvement of
the people who were supposed to benefit,'' she told IPS.
The ADB concedes that some of the criticisms by NGOs are relevant.
"We have heard some of the concerns by NGOs and they are valid,'' Mahfuz Ahmed,
senior agriculture economist at the bank, said in an interview from Manila. "Running
this project from Phnom Penh is not easy. People's participation is a core feature
of this project. We have got to be more aggressive.''
Even at a formal meeting this month in Phnom Penh between the regional bank and Cambodian
government officials, the ADB let slip the difficulty it was facing in being more
inclusive just as the TSI enters its final year.
"There is a risk that some of the poor and marginalized could be increasingly
left behind,'' Urooj Malik, director of the agriculture, environment and natural
resources division at the bank, said during the mid-March forum. "It is vital
to involve them more in the process of formulating policies designed to improve their
The Tonle Sap, which receives water from the Mekong river, plays a central part in
feeding Cambodia, with its rich supply of freshwater fish. Fishing on this lake,
which expands from 2,500 square kilometers to 13,000 km2 during the May-October flood
season, provides food and incomes to about one million Cambodians. The poor living
along the banks of the Tonle Sap are part of the nearly 40 percent of Cambodia's
13.8 million population living below the poverty line.
These were the communities that the bank hoped to aid as part of the TSI. This initiative
aimed to be "a partnership of organizations and people working to meet the poverty
and environment challenges of the Tonle Sap,'' states the ADB on its website.
In July 2003, the bank added the "Tonle Sap Basin Strategy" to the TSI
as part of its broader Cambodia country program to meet a 2007 deadline. This was
deemed "consistent with ADB's water policy and worldwide trend towards managing
land, water and biotic resources within a framework of basin units,'' the bank says.
In fact, the second pillar of the TSI was singled out as the "Tonle Sap Sustainable
Livelihoods Project," which was estimated to cost $19.7 million, with $15 million
coming from the Asian Development Fund and $4.7 million from the Finnish government.
The project aimed to improve the economy of the fishing communities by assuring the
locals a role in choosing, planning and managing small programs for their benefit.
Yet, as the Oxfam report revealed, public participation is "low in proportion
to the number of projects of the ADB's Tonle Sap Basin portfolio.'' Further, it is
also "difficult to trace whether and how the recommendations from community
members were or were not incorporated into the final project design.''
And for ADB watchdogs like FACT, nothing conveys the bank's distance from its intended
beneficiaries more than the departure from its original promise of creating new fishing
communities in addition to strengthening existing ones.
"The project sought to improve the fishing communities by establishing 500 more
around the Tonle Sap,'' Pen says. ''But until now we have not seen a new fishing
community that was promised.'' -IPS.