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Aid, development and localisation: After 25 years, issues remain

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As Cambodia develops, measures should be taken to ensure its human capital also does. Hong Menea

Aid, development and localisation: After 25 years, issues remain

Multiple aid organisations in the Kingdom have made great strides in the localisation of staff, placing many Cambodians in leadership positions.

Moving away from an over-reliance on costly foreign consultants, often with minimal to non-existent country expertise and operating on short term contracts, these organisations have substantially increased the hiring of a new generation of well trained, well qualified, Cambodian local staff.

As development theory has advanced in recent years, greater recognition has been paid to the importance of local knowledge and transitioning from the historic “top-down model” of aid.

One-size-fits-all policies are now more generally recognised as having been a failure.

Policies and programming developed in overseas capitals have consistently failed to grasp realities on the ground, the role of informal institutions and the overwhelming importance of a thorough grasp by development professionals of a country, its culture and history in order to develop truly effective programming.

Many bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and NGOs in the Kingdom have strongly taken this lesson on board, and their efforts deserve praise and recognition.

Alas, this approach is far from universal and there remains significant room for improvement.

Despite its recent economic growth, Cambodia continues to suffer from human capital gaps in particular areas, necessitating the presence of foreign experts with strong technical training, deep experience and top-notch academic credentials in their respective fields to help to contribute to the Kingdom’s movement towards upper middle income status.

Rising questions

Concomitantly, it is time for every foreign NGO and aid agency to begin to institutionalise practices that prioritise the training and transfer of skills to Cambodian staff.

Medium to long range plans should also be prepared and implemented to minimise the footprint of foreign development workers where qualified local staff are either available or can be trained to advance in their current careers.

Just as bilateral and multilateral aid agencies include issues of gender equity and environmental impact in evaluation of grants to the NGO sector, so should they include questions such as: “How will the implementation of this project contribute to the improvement of local human capital in this sector?” and “What procedures and policies do you have in place to support localisation of staffing and transfer of skills to the local population?”

NGOs that are unable to clearly demonstrate a real commitment to localisation – where feasible – should be cut off from international aid funds.

The “aid industry”, as it has often been termed, has an increasing image problem – contributing to rising questions in many governments as to future levels of funding support, particularly in light of the political shifts taking places in many traditional donor states.

Illustrating a commitment to localisation and the concomitant benefits as regards greater cost-effectiveness will help to demonstrate that the development profession is open to reform and is not the “gravy train of state-subsidised tourism” so often assumed by members of the public.

Next generation

Finally, writing as a scholar of development who has been in and out of Cambodia for nearly 20 years, it is long past time for many NGOs to begin a serious process of professionalisation in their human resource practices.

Again, this is not a universal problem – and many NGOs certainly adhere to international best practice.

However, the expat NGO employee without the requisite academic or professional qualifications who managed to acquire their position through social networking around Phnom Penh has been a ubiquitous figure for years.

This sort of individual is an embarrassment to the development profession as a whole and to the NGOs who rely on what only can be termed “expat social nepotism” in their hiring practices.

When I discuss my role as research director at Future Forum, an independent NGO with a mission to train the next generation of Cambodian policy analysts and development experts, I often joke: “If I am still in this role in five or 10 years and have not been replaced by a Cambodian, I will have failed.”

Notably, Future Forum was established and is led by a Cambodian-American refugee and Khmer Rouge survivor who returned to Cambodia to develop this institution and support the development of the Kingdom.

By way of conclusion, every foreigner working in development in the Kingdom needs to ask themselves one question at the end of the workday: “What have I done to increase the skill set of our local staff and support the localisation of our organisation?”

We should have been asking that question, daily, for the past 25 years.

Today there is no longer any excuse not to do so.

Dr Bradley J Murg is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Seattle Pacific University and Affiliate Professor at the Henry M Jackson School of International Affairs at the University of Washington. He is also Director of Research at Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh.

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