What kind of rural development programs work well? Which ones fail? And why? In the
effort to better the lives of the rural poor, these are crucial questions, fundamentally
so in Cambodia. They are also crucial to a global aid industry that supports a cast
of thousands and is worth billions of dollars.
However, competition is fierce for the money, and many development agencies therefore
tend to publish glowing reports about themselves and their work in order to justify
In an unprecedented Cambodian study that compares different approaches to rural development,
there are no such exaggerations.
Six locally-run rural development organizations volunteered to be independently scrutinized,
based on the testimonies of the people they are trying to help.
The Cambodian Development Resource Institute (CDRI) and the Ministry of Rural Development
have published the draft conclusions of this report, called "Learning from Rural
The six projects included one in Kraingyov commune, Kandal, under the patronage of
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen; the UNDP's massive $50.5 million CARERE/SEILA "experiment"
operating in more than 500 villages; and the tiny Oxfam/Chumraen Chiet Khmer that
has just three staff in four villages.
The others were Krom Akphiwat Phum, Provincial Development Program/GTZ, and Partners
The six were seen as representative of the various philosophies within the development
"industry": large projects versus small; those with differing attitudes
about local participation; those trying to build local capacity; and those more interested
in their "outputs". No organization refused the study.
None of the projects escaped some heavy criticisms, backed up by anecdote and evidence
- particularly CARERE's and Hun Sen's Kraingyov Center - though each also showed
individual strengths. "Rural developers can all learn from others' experience,"
the report noted.
Despite the very blunt critiques, one project leader said that the report "even
went so far as pulling some of its punches".
The report's authors paid tribute to the "commitment [of the six projects] to
[an] open, frank examination of the issues relating to rural development".
Undersecretary of State for Rural Development, Ngy Chanphal, said the findings would
form part of the government's new five-year national plan.
Chanphal said that the exercise was not designed to "criticize or offend",
because each organization had its own objectives, be they purely social, or economic,
or a mix of both.
CDRI director Eva Mysliwiec said that while the selected projects may still be too
immature to assess their impact on poverty alleviation, it was never too early to
draw lessons on "what worked, what didn't, and to understand why".
The six volunteer groups each chose two villages where they felt their program was
CDRI/Ministry evaluators first talked to local communities about how their lives
had changed, and how important they felt the projects were. They later talked to
funders, project leaders, village, commune and provincial authorities, and to local
communities who hadn't directly benefited from the work.
The report centered around four key questions:
- How are the program benefits distributed?
- To what extent has the local community assumed ownership of the program?
- In what ways might the program be sustained?
- How has the organizational structure and community approach of the organization
Co-author John McAndrew of CDRI said the idea of rural development organizations
in Cambodia sharing in such a critique and reflecting on its findings was valuable
"We're not coming up with a standard. [This report] shows that there's a lot
of room for experimentation and cooperation," he said.
The report had prompted "very lively discussion" among all those involved,
he said. While not everyone had agreed on the findings, CDRI had maintained a "hard-nosed"
approach to achieve a "credible, genuine assessment".
The ministry and CDRI had discussed "the pros and cons" of including Kraingyov
as a subject. "In hindsight, it was good we included it," McAndrew said.
"[Kraingyov] was very strong on its output approach.
"There was never an issue of [local] people not wanting to talk to us. People
had openly and honestly entered discussion in all 12 villages."
While the final report, due in May, will include some idea of the general budgets
spent by each group, this initial study only mentions one figure: CARERE's $50.5
McAndrew said that although the report would have been stronger had it gone into
a full cost-benefit analysis of each group, to do so would have required more technical
expertise, more time to do it properly, and "another level of commitment"
from the six subject groups. "In the end we just decided not to".
CARE: Big money, big question
The richest scheme ($20m for "core resources and technical support",
and another $30.5m till the year 2000), was the UNDP's self-acknowledged "five
year experiment in decentralized planning" called CARERE. This project supported
the state counterpart, SEILA ("Foundation Stone").
The usual description of CARERE is "ambitious".
It had first driven the election of 500-plus village development committees (VDCs),
trialed in five provinces, and allowed them to decide what they wanted from a certain
amount of aid - around $2,000 to $3,000 each per year. This proportion, from such
a huge enterprise, was questioned later by the study team as inadequate.
The village plans are then consolidated into commune, district, provincial and national
Generally the VDCs - which were operating in ten of the 12 villages studied - made
satisfactory decisions and cooperated well, according to local communities.
However, in the rice- and vegetable-growing villages of Beng and Cheakeak in Siem
Reap, the villagers didn't really understand how their development plans related
to the commune committees' decisions to distribute money.
"There has been little attempt to build community action around needs that can
be solved locally...," the report said. "There may be problems if village
committee members simply wait to be told what to do next."
The villagers should affirm their plans and seek resources wherever they could, it
Most local people turned out to vote for their VDCs, and in Beng and Cheakeak the
VDC chiefs became commune committee members.
However both men "were not actively involved in making the hard choices over
how the money in the local fund would be distributed". Rather they "waited
to learn what they would receive".
In Cheakeak, the commune chief insisted on buying the village's development materials,
but not all of it ended up getting there, which had caused ill-feelings.
A special project within SEILA, designed to improve the livelihoods of small farmers
by giving them access to more land, had instead largely helped families who weren't
poor. The village chiefs had chosen those who got support.
This component "will surely lose its original purpose" if poorer families
were not soon incorporated.
The UNDP expected that the local planning process it had introduced would continue
after it had pulled out from funding CARERE/SEILA in about three years time.
However, the report said that without more money from international donors and the
Cambodian government, that process "will be of limited use".
CARERE wanted the government to take over funding from the year 2000: a difficult
challenge, the report noted, seeing the government had no clear plan, and no budget,
to do so.
Even if that occurred, the state may not be able to sustain the program's ambitious
drive toward decentralization, and instead "it could extend the power of higher
levels over lower levels".
The report said that the large scale and speed of CARERE/SEILA had seen "real
benefits" reach a lot of people in a short time.
This was especially true of the 15 new ring wells, which villagers helped build with
their own resources, and two new schools and a health care center.
The program was also strong on getting clear information to villagers, which resulted
in a sense of ownership - if not of the actual program, at least of the activity
that had occurred.
Most villagers simply referred to the program as angka (organization); most committee
members knew SEILA but when pressed for more information had to look in their notebooks.
At the provincial level SEILA was well-known.
What sense of ownership the villagers did have encouraged them to look after the
CARERE's aim to link village development plans to commune-level negotiations and
money distribution was a "promising concept".
So too was the fact that villagers were required to contribute their own resources
and labor, and that state workers were involved in decentralized planning.
But for a program "so promising, so little had been gained by the villagers
in the first year", the report said.
It took time for such innovations to become effective, let alone institutionalized,
the authors said. What was worrying was that CARERE had less than three years left
to fulfill its mandate.
The report also critiqued CARERE's funding. For a $50.5m project, the $550,000 it
had allocated to 107 villages in four districts of Siem Reap was, "while a substantial
amount in itself,... a relatively small amount of total project funds for such a
key feature of the program".
"To a certain extent, the very scale and limited duration of the CARERE project
makes the attainment of its objectives difficult, if not unrealistic."
CARERE deputy program manager, Joel Charny, said the study's findings were "fair",
and that "there were no surprises" in the problems it identified. "We've
already re-cognized the areas where we need to improve," he said.
Charny pointed out that instead of saying CARERE only had three years to fulfill
its promise, it was just as correct to say that - after only two years - CARERE hadn't
yet reached its mid-point.
As regards funding, Charny said that CARERE's $50.5m budget also went to pay administration
costs, technical experts "to make the projects work", and for CARERE programs
at provincial and national level, in agriculture, health and education.
KRAINGYOV: Lessons for the West?
The Hun Sen Kraingyov Development Center, which began in January 1995 after the
Second Prime Minister had given rice to the drought-stricken commune, was "worthy
of further consideration as a potentially serious challenge to Western, process-oriented
While the authors' view - written in the executive summary of the Kraingyov Center
- may have been a fair deduction, the rest of the report contained numerous sharp
critiques of Hun Sen's project.
Of the six groups, Kraingyov was the one "where the people were most dissatisfied
with village development decisions".
Its management had also shown "complete disregard for the participatory process".
The report did say however that Kraingyov appeared to be an exception to the defective
strategy of trying to reach the poor by benefits "trickling down" from
Kraingyov's approach to development was to improve agriculture production, and the
center had built much new infrastructure.
Old irrigation structures had been renovated and new ones built, along with roads,
schools, a health center and a nursery, and a credit scheme geared toward farmers.
But as long as the village improved, less notice was taken of individual difficulties.
The poorest people, especially those without land, were not guaranteed help.
The center was staffed by state officials - their salaries supplemented by about
$4 a month - under the direct patronage of Hun Sen. The work was implemented by village
and commune chiefs.
But because senior managers had other jobs, it was harder for them to work together
The Kraingyov Center did not work with expensive foreign consultants, and villagers
tended to receive a higher proportion of aid. But the report was unsure whether this
benefit was because of administrative efficiencies, or more because Hun Sen had spent
a lot of money on communal projects and there was a large water source nearby that
just needed tapping into.
Most everyone in the villages of Jeik, the richest in Kraingyov, and Thom, reckoned
to be the poorest, had benefited from improved irrigation. Farmers were now growing
both dry and wet-season rice.
But the ones who had gained most were those with enough money to clear new land,
to lend cash out at high interest rates to farmers wanting pesticides and petrol,
and those who now owned and operated machinery.
The report said that the villagers were not consulted about the work being done.
Neither did they contribute toward it, nor could they change it, and therefore they
tended to take little responsibility for it.
Consequently, there was no sense of ownership, and the people - who were becoming
dependent, rather than independent - complained, rather than improving the projects.
But the irrigation canals worked and the roads had opened up new markets and saved
villagers time and money.
And, for the first time ever, Kraingyov students, 15 of them, had been accepted into
the district college at Prek Toch. Almost every child in Kraingyov is now being schooled.
The health care center provided free treatment to all, but recently people felt that
medical quality had deteriorated and that staff favored friends and relatives.
The Kraingyov credit schemes were not working well. Many people had defaulted on
loans, and most still had to borrow from money-lenders. In Jeik, the only two borrowers
from a Canadia Bank credit scheme were the village chief and a government staff worker,
who each borrowed 1 million riel - a situation that had antagonized local people,
even as it went unreported to Kraingyov Center management.
Hun Sen intended that investors, farmers' associations and profits from revolving
credit take over from his patronage of Kraingyov by 2000, though it was not clear
how that could be achieved. The report said it would set a valuable precedent if
it did somehow work.
KROM AKPHIWATPHUM: Village voices
Krom Akphiwat Phum (KAP) is a 12-person Cambodian NGO, with no director or administrative
staff, funded in the main by AusAID/OSB, and working in Battambang.
KAP - more than any other group studied - stressed the importance of staying in the
villages, building up trust among the 33 communities with which it works, helping
the poorest among them.
KAP is designed to learn from the people and share lessons with others, to promote
dignity and allow local people to organize themselves.
It was the only one of the six groups to explicitly advocate reaching the poor through
the knowledge and help of the wider community, including monks and older people.
The report noted that KAP's special projects for the poor "had received enthusiastic
support from the communities' development leadership."
In Spean, a relatively prosperous rice-growing village, and Kampong Ko, a smaller
settlement which had only recently known peace for the first time since 1979, the
village workers cooperated with KAP.
Its main project in both villages has been in credit schemes including, in Kampong
Ko, interest-free loans. It had also organized irrigation schemes and encouraged
villagers to repair a local road, prompting more trade.
KAP, said the report, had come to acknowledge that loan activities tended to benefit
those more prosperous to begin with. However, its schemes had forced moneylenders
to lower their interest rates from 20% to 10%.
The KAP credit schemes were operating well. However, the Kampong Ko rice bank - in
part because of frequent Khmer Rouge raids - was not; nor was it in Spean, where
mismanagement had gone unnoticed by staff.
In Kampong Ko the loans have helped build local capacity and improved community cooperation;
in Spean that had not been the case.
Similarly, Kampong Ko was the embodiment of KAP's mandate to involve the people,
to speak and exchange ideas - both formally and informally - leading to village initiatives
being supported by the entire community.
In Spean, that process was not working so well. Decisions by VDCs and the chief were
being presented to villagers after they were made. Though some activities were going
well, there was little understanding or sense of ownership of these in Spean.
The report found that KAP staff were well motivated and responsible, in part because
they functioned without permanent leadership. But an attempt to expand the program
from 21 to 51 communities - with the same 12 staff - might stutter because staff
were unlikely to spend sufficient time with the villagers.
Generally, KAP's approach of working closely with the people is "most effective"
at the early stages of community development. "While the approach is probably
best suited to Cambodian NGOs, the emphasis on building capacity through extended
presence in a community is an important lesson for everyone," the report said.
KAP was "unique", and its emphasis on building trust and confidence marked
it as having "special insights and sensitivities to the Cambodian situation",
it said. "KAP is widely recognized as a development organization that has valuable
experience from which others can profit."
GTZ: Wise use the German way
GTZ, an independent agency that runs the German government's overseas aid program,
works in Kampong Thom and is known there under its Provincial Development Program
Its 10-year project to 2006 aims to help the poor with infrastructure, farming, credit,
health care and education. It has a huge range of partners, from NGOs working in
the province, to ministries and state departments, banks and private sector groups.
The report found that GTZ/PDP was using its partners wisely, beginning with village-driven
It operates in 25 villages, including Svay Ear, where people subsist on rice and
fish, and Krochab, from where many residents commute to work in the provincial capital.
It plans eventually to open to the entire province.
In both chosen villages, PDP wrote a feasibility study for village planning, which
led to the building of two bridges, a culvert, a school and a rice bank in Svay Ear.
In Krochab PDP built 17 culverts. In both places PDP introduced farmers to high-yielding
rice, and trained a veterinarian.
The report noted that the projects have generally operated well. Any exceptions tended
to be isolated ones.
Villagers were being encouraged and motivated to participate in activities by pagoda
leaders. As with CARERE's project, the people tended to have a strong sense of project
The report noted that the GTZ's local self-help strategy was quite different from
the broader PDP approach.
The GTZ program has been effective, though limited by the reach of local groups.
The PDP - a bigger rural program involving many organizations, and led by the state
- could do larger-scale work than GTZ's smaller project, but both could benefit from
The withdrawal of German aid following the fighting in July had encouraged PDP staff
to take more responsibility. But it had also created a backlog of projects that now
threatened its viability.
PDP's 10-year duration allowed plenty of time - assuming the German government can
find the political space to honor its original funding commitment - for alternative
funders to be found to sustain the project, and for staff to learn about and organize
Chumraen Chiet Khmere: Integrity
Chumraen Chiet Khmer has three staff working in four of the poorest villages in Takeo.Oxfam
UK/I, which in 1996 changed 17 years of strategy in Cambodia when it decided to support
local partners, funds and supports its three former workers.
Two of the villages, Samaeng and Meaneak, are extremely impoverished, being constantly
affected by flood and drought. Many families have been forced to migrate from the
villages to seek a living; those left said they couldn't have remained without Chumraen
Chumraen Chiet Khmer supports Oxfam initiatives of emergency relief, locally-managed
loans, and building irrigation canals, a road and a school.
The report said the project hadn't fostered self-reliance. Villagers seemed to be
waiting for leadership and help from the outside.
The report details a litany of woes in Samaeng and Meaneak. Families had to compete
for water, and roads, canals, newly-planted trees and the school all suffered from
a lack of attention.
However, there had been signs of community development and "the commitment,
integrity and willingness to learn displayed by Chumraen Chiet Khmer staff and most
VDC members... give most reason to suppose development will be sustained".
The report lauded Oxfam's policy of recruiting local workers and training them well.
The spin-off was that staff stayed in the area - as had happened with Chumraen Chiet
Khmer - creating high levels of trust and cooperation.
"This will be invaluable as both organizations address important issues in the
However, the idea of visiting communities - rather than living in them as did staff
from Krom Akphiwat Phum- could cause "villagers to wait for the outsiders to
come back with the answer rather than search for it themselves".
PDF: The Mekong experience
The only organization that was US-funded, Partners for Development (PFD), had
been working in Kratie, partnering state and local institutions up to provincial
level, and with NGOs.
It had concentrated on drilling wells, building schools and teaching health education.
Almost all of the villagers in Sre Treng, 43 km from Kratie town, and Kampong Kor
(on the banks of the Mekong, an hour from Kratie by boat), had benefited from the
wells. The poorest in Kampong Kor used to have to buy their water, and consequently
now have 25% more money than they used to.
Locals contributed their own labor and part of the cost toward each new well. This
fostered a sense of ownership and pride.
In Sre Treng the PFD-run village committee election had not gone well - the first
VDC had to be replaced on the order of the commune chief by a second committee, elected
by secret ballot. That new committee had since been largely inactive.
In Kampong Kor however, the people felt they owned their projects because their VDC
- especially its three strongest women members - made unilateral decisions that were
nonetheless widely considered to be always good ones.
PDF's project was a relatively sustainable one, at least in Kampong Kor where its
VDC had clear plans of what it wanted.