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Donors must be assertive

Donors must be assertive

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Humanitarian aid arrives in Cambodia last October during nation-wide floods that caused devastating damage to crops and infrastructure and resulted in dozens of deaths. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

The spotlight is squarely back on the responsibilities and strategies of donors – if, indeed, it ever went away.

In their opinion piece in The Phnom Penh Post on August 24 (“Better nutrition, better future”), Annette Dixon of the World Bank, British ambassador Mark Gooding and Australian ambassador Penny Richards discuss the scourge of malnutrition in Cambodia in the context of what the World Bank and its bilateral donor partners can achieve in terms of aid and development effectiveness.

In fact, there are ways in which donors can be more strategic across the board. Once again, donors such as the World Bank are engaging directly with the Royal Government of Cambodia by contributing pooled financing, which is then distributed to specific programs.

If donors are to engage again with the government – rather than working directly with civil-society organisations and networks – they should consider three key points in order for aid and development effectiveness to have any chance of success.

First, donors can raise standards by creating competition for donor funding, just as non-government organisations currently compete. For each civil-society funding call, countless NGOs compete for the same funds.

Ensuring open competition means the most effective NGOs will be successful – and the beneficiaries will be the Cambodian people the funding is intended to help.

Open competition could be established by donors deciding to fund the government at the departmental or local level rather than at ministerial or Council of Ministers level.

Donors can dictate such terms, because it is their citizens’ money that is involved.

In reality, the Cambodian government is a conglomerate of multiple groups rather than one amorphous body, and donors should be brave and begin treating it as such.

Second, creating competition between governmental departments would play its part in establishing the requisite levels of transparency that are essential to any aid program’s success.

Complete transparency throughout the implementation process of aid programs can also be ensured if donors use their muscle to apply pressure, gain leverage, and attach conditions to funding in line with international principles of development effectiveness.

Without transparency, there are no guarantees as to how donors’ money is being spent.

NGOs are always beholden to various safeguards, checks and balances, such as outlining planned programs in advance, submitting detailed action plans at the outset, and providing regular donor reports throughout the program.

There is no reason why donors cannot insist on the same terms for governmental funding.

As part of this drive for transparency and accountability, donors could insist that civil-society organisations are incorporated in program structures as on-the-ground monitors from the very outset – for example, in relation to the joint monitoring indicators agreed between donors and the government in connection with the latter’s pending land policy and law on land management and urban planning.

Donors could also undertake strict vetting procedures to approve funding – which should then be made public to be properly effective.

Third, if donors encounter resistance to their requests, or if their demands are not respected, they should consider walking away.

But this is always the position of last resort. The ultimate losers in this situation are inevitably the Cambodian people – the very people donors are trying to help.

Donors, however, have a responsibility to their own countries, to their own people – and to their own taxpayers.

In these bleak times of gloomy financial forecasts, threats of double-dip recessions and the continuing euro crisis, it is admirable that people, NGOs and governments in better-off countries continue to help those who are less fortunate.

But it is never justifiable – let alone when purse strings all over the world are being tightened to the extent they are now – to throw good money after bad.

After 20 years of not having control over their own money, it’s time for donors to adjust their thinking and their strategies, and ensure their funding is properly targeted.

If the Cambodian government can adjust to the realities of the global financial slowdown and respect the wishes of donors, there’s no reason why donors, civil society and the government cannot work collaboratively and effectively together to create a better future for Cambodia and its people.

The money is still there, but it’s time to spend it wisely. Then Cambodia can become a shining example to donors and donor recipients around the world – a beacon of aid and development effectiveness to which others can aspire.

Such a shift would also mean that donors would be able to look their people in the eye and reassure them that their money was being well spent.

Otherwise, given the economic situation, it won’t be long before people begin taking matters into their own hands and demanding that their hard-earned cash is spent elsewhere. And who could blame them?

Ou Virak is the president, and Robert Finch the legal consultant, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights

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