Joel Brinkley, in his article, "Aid to Cambodia rarely reaches the people it's meant to help," is rather cynical of the donor meeting happening in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, 20 April, where more than 3,000 governments and donor organizations are gathering to decided on the fate of how much much will be given to Cambodia this coming year.
This year should be different. Over the past two decades, the Cambodian government has grown ever more repressive. Now it is actually planning to bite the hand that feeds it: The legislature is enacting a law that would require nongovernmental organizations to register with the government, giving venal bureaucrats the ability to shut them down unless they become toadies of the state.(Click here to see what the Phnom Penh Post says about the law.) Brinkley continues with his "facts":
Eight major international human rights organizations are calling on Cambodia to back down, saying the bill is “the most significant threat to the country’s civil society in many years.” Donors, they say, should hold back their pledges. But they say that every year, and each year the donors ignore them. Meanwhile, the status of the Cambodian people the aid is supposed to help improves little if at all. Nearly 80 percent of Cambodians live in the countryside with no electricity, clean water, toilets, telephone service or other evidence of the modern world.
This is the reality of modern-day Cambodia. Despite all of aid and donations, the majority of the population still lives in the shadow of the Khmer Rouge Regime, which took place just over 30 years ago, eking out a barely subsistence standard of living.
Most people don’t know that Cambodians are ruled by a government that sells off the nation’s rice harvest each year and pockets the money, leaving its people without enough to eat. That it evicts thousands of people from their homes, burns down the houses, then dumps the victims into empty fields and sells their property to developers.
That it amasses vast personal fortunes while the nation’s average annual per capita income stands at $650. Or that it allows school teachers to demand daily bribes from 6-year-olds and doctors to extort money from dirt-poor patients, letting them die if they do not pay.
This is a government that stands by and watches as 75 percent of its citizens contract dysentery each year, and 10,000 die — largely because only 16 percent of Cambodians have access to a toilet. As Beat Richner, who runs children’s hospitals there, puts it, “the passive genocide continues.”
Do Cambodians need more food? Probably, but the lack of it has less to do with the lack of food in the country, and more to do with basic economic adequacy and physical infrastructure to deliver food from the main city centers.
Do Cambodians need land and homes? Certainly, but many are selling out of desperation, or are forcefully being evicted because of ignorance about how economic land concessions work.
Do teachers and doctors need higher salaries? Definitely! Yet, this disparity is not easily remedied since higher salaries mean more money needs to be paid out, and if there isn't an efficient tax system to bring money in (among other things), then there simply is no money to increase their salaries as public servants.
Interestingly enough, there was an article today in the Phnom Penh Post outing the massive number of "ghost employees" in the government civil sector. However, this does not include the "ghost soldiers or police officers" who are usually family members listed on the rolls who have never put on a uniform, but are still collecting a monthly income.
Do Cambodians need toilets? Most assuredly! And that's what I am in the middle of working on: a plan to bring cost effective compost toilets to the rural areas of Cambodia. The challenge is acceptance of such a new method of waste deposit, and the acceptance of something that seems less than modern. After all, water toilets seems so "rich."
While I may not wholeheartedly agree with all that Dr. Richner says, he is accurate in that a passive genocide is still taking place as international aid and support is locked up in bureaucratic red tape and inefficient means of delivery to the most needy and vulnerable. (Most aid workers for large-scale, internationally-funded projects will privately attest to this.)
The question remains: Should I still give?
Of course, opposition to folks like Brinkley would say YES! In his rebuttal to Brinkley's opinion piece, John McAuliff (one of those who disagree with Brinkley) writes:
I don't know if it is enough to concede that just because Cambodia is far better off than it was 15 years after the Khmer Rouge Regime that we can take a "se la vie" approach and call what has been happening since 1993 adequate. I am very curious to read Brinkley's book, Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The used copies at Amazon are less than $15.
Cambodia is troubled by corruption and by the gulf between rich and poor, as are most countries in the region. However, it is a very different and far more developed place than during the first fifteen years after the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, having destroyed all of its modern economy and killed most of its educated people.
It has transformed itself economically and socially with a free press, a robust public forum and contested elections. The dominance of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party reflects in part a far more serious approach to governance and grass roots organization than manifested by their at least as ethically challenged rivals.
Why set the bar so low?
Why don't we compare present day Cambodia to the Cambodia of pre-war days? Wouldn't that be a fairer comparison?
In the end, this debate will not go away. People and governments give donations primarily for the "tax breaks" and because it makes them feel better about themselves that they are "helping" those less fortunate.
After all, isn't it better to give than to receive?