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US aid 'constrained': Oxfam

US aid 'constrained': Oxfam

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Report cites US aid successes but points to long-term challenges.

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

The United States embassy compound in Phnom Penh opened in January 2006.

US aid assistance to Cambodia is hampered by resource shortfalls, conflicting directives and a lack of long-term strategic planning, according to a report released by Oxfam America on Wednesday.

The nine-page field study claims that USAID, the US government's aid agency, has achieved many successes in Cambodia but is still subject to constraints that have "sidelined" it and prevented it from effectively carrying out its development mission.

"With limited resources, USAID struggles to meet its core mission while juggling increasing demands from Washington," stated the report, based on interviews conducted with US officials, NGOs and government officials in late 2008.

The report highlights several successes of US aid, including the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), which has provided legal aid to Cambodian communities facing eviction from their land.

But the report also cites civil society concerns about the future of Washington's commitment to Cambodian NGOs, fears that could be linked to a "lack of strategic long-term planning", according to an unnamed USAID staffer referenced by Oxfam.

The report also claims that USAID's proximity to defence and diplomatic officials - all housed in the fortified US Embassy compound near Wat Phnom - had "inhibited" its development work.

"The closer we get to the State Department and the Defence Department, the more our agenda gets pushed aside," said another USAID staffer.

CLEC Executive Director Yeng Virak said he was grateful to USAID for its support but added that he was unsure about the agency's long-term strategic planning, specifically whether it is "relevant and responsive" to local needs.

Chea Vannath, the former executive director of the Centre for Social Development, said she was concerned by what she described as US-centric means of establishing aid goals, but noted that America contributed significantly more development aid than Britain and Canada.

She said that despite inflexible rules and guidelines, the US supported many local initiatives, and that NGOs were given discretion in how to spend funds. "Sometimes we have to be flexible, too," she added.

Ongoing engagement

Brian Lund, regional director of Oxfam America, said the report was part of an "ongoing process" of determining which elements of US aid were working, describing it as an opportunity for "new dialogue and new thinking".

He added that USAID staff, despite being housed in the imposing embassy compound, were happy to work with Oxfam on development issues.

"From my perspective, the majority of the people who work out of that centre are keen to be engaged [and] always clamouring to do more," he said.

"That's where I concentrate my interest - not on whether there's a wall there."

When contacted Monday, US Embassy spokesman John Johnson did not comment on the report specifically, but said that the United States' priorities in Cambodia would remain focused on "the development of a peaceful, stable Cambodia with emphasis on economic growth and the

development of the health and education sectors".

The US provided 6.7 percent of Cambodia's development assistance during 2002-07 - an average of US$41.55 million per year. America is the fifth-largest foreign donor to the Kingdom.

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