BOOK REVIEW: ‘Aid Dependence in Cambodia’, by Sophal Ear

June 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Aid Dependence in Cambodia’, by Sophal Ear

by Sebastian Strangio*

*Sebastian Strangio is a former reporter and editor at the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest English-language newspaper. As a freelance correspondent he has reported widely from across the Asia-Pacific, and his writing has appeared in leading publications including The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and Foreign Policy.

On November 22, 2011, at Cambodia’s United Nations-backed war crimes court, one of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge rose to address the chamber. In his booming voice, 85-year-old Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of the murderous regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, delivered a speech on the government’s early days in power and its infamous evacuation of the capital, Phnom Penh.

In particular, he spoke about the importance placed on disseminating the party line around the country, or, as it was translated into English, the “mainstreaming” of central directives. The translator’s choice of words was unintentionally comic, making Nuon Chea sound more like a non-government organization (NGO) bureaucrat delivering an anodyne address on “capacity building” than a hardened revolutionary and alleged mass murderer.

In its own small way, the translator’s lapse into “development” language symbolized the extent to which modern Cambodia has been shaped by international aid, and the flourishing NGO-industrial complex that has been enabled by it.

The country today remains one of the world’s most aid-dependent states. Over the past two decades, it has received billions of dollars in “development assistance” from foreign governments, international agencies, and the hundreds of NGOs spawned by the UN mission of the early 1990s. The associated jargon of this enterprise – the “mainstreaming” and “workshopping” that take place daily in a dozen plush hotel conference halls – has become a ubiquitous part of Cambodian civic life.

Cambodia’s dependence on foreign aid is taken for granted by many observers but few have set out to examine it systematically and in detail. In a new book, Sophal Ear, an Assistant Professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, goes a long way in filling that gap. In Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, based on extensive field interviews and a handful of focused case studies, Ear concludes that billions of aid have done little to improve governance, promote democracy, or lift the country out of poverty.

As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who fled with his family to France and then to the United States, Ear has watched from a distance as a ballooning aid influx has undermined Cambodian democracy and empowered a corrupt and predatory ruling elite. “Modern Cambodia is a kleptocracy cum thugocracy,” he writes, “and the international community, led by the UN, is its enabler.”

On the surface, the past decade has been a successful one for Cambodia. Under Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the country has made considerable economic progress. Between 2004 and 2007, Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by more than 10% annually and last year it expanded nearly 6%. The capital, Phnom Penh, has been transformed from a sleepy Indochinese city to a modern capital where cranes and skyscrapers dot the horizon.

Many Cambodians have undoubtedly benefited from the recent growth. But these gains, Ear argues, have been built on shaky foundations. Impressive GDP figures have papered over widening income inequalities. Health indicators continue to languish. Cambodians still have to bear all the costs of medical treatment. Remarkably, maternal mortality has actually worsened since 2000.

Then there is the country’s root scourge – corruption – which encompasses everything from the bribes extracted from the poor to the systematic plundering of the country’s natural resources by a ruling elite in cahoots with Asian capital. In the annual Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, an independent corruption monitoring organization, Cambodia perennially flounders in the ranking’s bottom reaches. The country, Ear argues, has seen plenty of “growth” in recent years, but little “development”.

To prove his point, the author examines three key Cambodian sectors – garments, rice, and livestock – that have achieved varying degrees of success. Governance in Cambodia has been sufficient for the creation of an export-geared garment industry, he argues, but it has inhibited the growth of potentially lucrative rice and livestock export industries. Cambodia’s economic successes have been attained in spite of government policies rather than because of them.

More broadly, Ear shows how foreign aid has distorted Cambodia’s economy. He argues aid has reduced the need for the Cambodian government to collect taxes, and thereby reduced the accountability of the state to its citizens and fostered corruption. In the words of one expatriate manager, one of several dozen surveyed by the author, “donors have no real incentive to curb corruption because they are not held accountable, nor are their activities very transparent. Donors are parts of the problem of corruption in Cambodia.”

The country’s five-yearly national elections therefore operate on the basis of handouts; the CPP, with its deep pockets and close links to business interests, has consistently and overwhelmingly won the polls.

Complex aid

According to Ear, Cambodia’s aid complex dates back to the early 1990s, when the US$2 billion UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) presided over the country’s transition from a one-party socialist state to a pluralist political system. This was followed by a windfall of international aid, which implanted a vibrant media and civil society. Though Cambodia came to be seen as a poster-child for UN interventions, the author argues that the UN mission “sowed the seeds of failure for democracy in Cambodia”.

In the volatile decade that followed, Ear argues that donors made a fateful trade-off: they pursued political stability in the hope it would safeguard their democratic investment. The opposite happened. The one party most able to ensure stability – the CPP, under Hun Sen – was thus given a free hand to vanquish its enemies, benefiting all the while from the flow of aid.

Despite political repression and the deterioration of human rights, Hun Sen remains the donors’ “go-to man” in Cambodia. The country continues to receive an average of around half a billion dollars annually. For donors and international agencies, working through the CPP is often the only way to effectively implement development projects. The dependency, in many ways, is mutual.

The book also looks at the local and international responses to the feared outbreak of avian influenza in Cambodia in the mid-2000s. According to Ear, this was a textbook example of the “pervasive weakness” of Cambodian policy-making – in particular, the reluctance of the government to compensate poor poultry farmers for the culling of their flocks.

The author also indicts donors who poured in millions to promote bird flu preparedness, arguing that they were more interested in preventing a regional outbreak of the disease than in protecting or educating the Cambodian poor, who suffered as a result.

The final section of Aid Dependence in Cambodia looks at Cambodian civil society – an example of the “shallow democracy” implanted by the UNTAC mission. He argues that Cambodian civil society remains weak and heavily reliant on foreign funding. Even its successes, such as the campaign that forced the release of a handful of high-profile activists in 2006, rely on pressure from the outside and do little to alter prevailing power structures.

“Just as the human rights activists were arrested with impunity,” he writes of the 2006 case, “they were also released with impunity.” To the extent that it exists, accountability flows from the prime minister – a system that has only been strengthened and legitimized by foreign aid.

Given his personal history, Ear possesses a close familiarity with Cambodia’s political system and the distance necessary to analyze it dispassionately. Indeed, his intimate understanding of his country underlines one of his overarching conclusions: namely, that technical donor solutions, particularly those imposed like templates from outside, “often fail in the face of political reality”.

Sections of the book may be overly technical for general readers, and the author could have further explored the roots of dependency in Cambodia, which, he notes in passing, may stretch back to the colonial era. Nonetheless,Aid Dependence in Cambodia offers valuable lessons not just for policy-makers working on Cambodia but also for other countries emerging from conflict or upheaval.

In the final analysis, Ear blames Cambodia’s rulers for the parlous state of the country. But he argues convincingly that donors bear much of the responsibility for letting this situation arise, having made a strong commitment to Cambodian institutions. So what is to be done? Ear offers no easy answers, in large part because there probably aren’t any.

The rise of Chinese influence in Cambodia, spearheaded by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans, investment and economic aid that come with no governance “strings” attached, has only made it more difficult for donors to encourage reforms.

He concludes that donors should get tougher on corrupt behavior and build up civil society as a counterweight to government cronyism. But without the political will for a thorough structural reform of the Cambodian system, any victories will likely be confined to the margins.

“As long as Western powers arrive with wads of money to pay,” he concludes, “Cambodian authorities will be more than happy to play.”

[Published by Asia Times Online, October 26, 2012]

REVIEW: ‘Aid Dependence in Cambodia’, by Sophal Ear

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