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Thoughts on Foreign Aid

by Bert Hoak and Ray Zepp

Editor's Note: The following article is extracted from several messages posted on the Camnews mailing list by Bert Hoak, the former proprietor of Bert's Books and Guest House in Phnom Penh, and by Ray Zepp, the author of a travel guide on Cambodia.


Bert Hoak:

"The ordinary people of Cambodia have suffered too much already."

On this statement all can agree. But to use that statement as an argument to continue aid to a despotic regime is both simplistic and erroneous.

The argument is often presented in defense of continued foreign aid and, simply stated, claims that "The people will suffer if aid is suspended." Doubtless there is some truth to this, but it also gives the erroneous impression that people are not suffering if foreign aid continues unabated. Any individual who ventures outside of an air-conditioned office can see clearly that the suffering is virtually everywhere. And as the government continues to allow the virtual rape of the country, it can be expected to worsen.

Bloody footprints, 1997 - photo by Bert Hoak Although my opinions on Cambodia are by no means unique, my observations were made from a perspective that was unique. Unlike many others, I continued on after the completion of the UNTAC mission and was daily witness to the rapid decline of Cambodia...socially, politically, and environmentally. The business that I operated dealt with clientele that included NGO, tourists and professional travelers, journalists, academicians, and diplomats. It was common for our clientele to share their experiences from throughout Cambodia. I know of no other who had the benefit of such a such a unique vantage.

My conviction is further seasoned by time working in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the most ecologically ravaged in the world. I know from my experience there how the value of human life degenerates once the land can no longer support the people who live upon it. It is easy to see that the so called government has for years been leading Cambodia down that path to oblivion. Cambodia, which has the potential of being the richest country of the region, is destined to be the Haiti of Southeast Asia.

The pain, the suffering continues. In spite of Cambodia being the highest per capita recipient of foreign aid -- for more than five years. The deforestation spite of foreign aid. The drug network spite of foreign aid. The Human Rights abuses, the killing of journalists, editors, dissidents and others continues, and will continue, in spite of foreign aid. Our continued aid will only serve to prop up a despotic prolong the prolong the ecological devastation, even to the point of no return.

Again and again we hear that foreign aid should be continued so that we can have some influence on the "government" of Cambodia, or as [Australian] Ambassador [Tony] Kevin states it: "By remaining engaged (continuing foreign aid) outside governments and agencies have some leverage on RGC behaviour....that by withdrawing, that leverage is lost."

I lived and worked in Cambodia for almost five years. Throughout that time there were repeated and continuous instances of murder, atrocities, ecological rape, and the violation of even the most basic Human Rights...not to even mention the abject terror that the rural Cambodian comes to expect in Cambodia today.

Throughout those years I waited...together with millions of Cambodians, waited for the international community to act, to make some stand, to give some sign of hope that the outside world would not sit idly by while Cambodia again slides into despotism.

Throughout those years I waited...together with millions of Cambodians. There were rumors that something would happen...the NGO community was once rumored to be about to make a boycott...but nothing happened. Others called for action...Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Global Witness. Many saw the path of destruction that Cambodia was on.....but nothing happened.

March 30th, 1997. No one who was in Phnom Penh at the time can forget that day. March 30, Easter Sunday, the day of the Easter Sunday Massacre. Nineteen innocent people killed, and over a hundred wounded in one attack when the forces of evil attempted to strike down Sam Rainsy, the most visible and vocal Human Rights advocate in Cambodia. The attempt failed, almost miracuously, and the whole population of Cambodia waited to see what would be the response from the international community...

And the whole population of Cambodia waited...and waited.

And the response was a near nasty letter in the papers...supposedly a statement from the international community.

And the response was a petition of protest...a petition which fewer than 10% of the NGO community found time to bother signing.

Where is the lever?

And the bloody coup of July, 1997...torture...murder...the assasination of Democracy. Where is the lever?

Most recently acting head of state Chea Sim stated " Development and liberal democracy and respect for human rights ...will take a plunge again if, in the future, the international community fails to PROVIDE AID ON TIME"

Are these words of warning? Or are these words of threat? Is this veiled threat truly the words of a leader of a legitimate government? Who is holding whom hostage? Perhaps this is the arrival of the long heralded lever.....but who is being levered?

Look at the facts. Since 1991 over 5 billion dollars has been spent on foreign assistance to Cambodia. No country in the world receives a higher per capita rate of foreign aid. Over 200 NGOs are presently working in Cambodia. Every area of human need is being addressed. And to what good?

Scarce land that has been demined with international aid has been taken over by the government military. The forests are all but gone in spite of all the international aid to preserve the natural resources. Recent reports tell of huge parts of the Cambodian National Forest being taken over by the military. The roads built throughout the country, ostensibly built to aid the peasant farmer, have been destroyed by logging trucks and tanks! And in areas of Siem Reap the roads appear to have been built for the pleasure of military officers who like to have villas in the countryside. And where is there a marketplace in Cambodia that does not sell UNICEF medicine? And where is there a hospital that dispenses it for free?

I have myself seen shiny new garbage trucks, donated by the people of France, used to block the path of Cambodian Human Rights demonstrators...and these same trucks werre used to haul away the humble memorial established by the people at the scene of the Easter Sunday Massacre. And what of the new, high-tech fire trucks...donated by the people of Japan...and used as water cannon to break up a demonstration of young factory workers. Foreign aid seems to be used as a tool of oppression as well as a tool for good.

Speaking at a press conference in Bangkok two years ago Human Rights advocate Sam Rainsy stated "if all aid to Cambodia was cut off, the government would collapse in two or three days". Although that may have been an exaggeration, it cannot be denied that with Cambodia's dependence on foreign aid (50% of the total budget), a complete cutoff would be disasterous. The Cambodian government...or the present dictator could not long survive in the face of a total cutoff of all aid. At least today he couldn't. Given the increasing drug trafficking in Cambodia it may not be long before the dictator can thumb his nose at foreign aid...and the ability of the NGOs to influence Cambodia will be lost.

Next to my desk I have a photograph that was taken near the scene on the day of the Easter Sunday Massacre--March 30, 1997. The photo shows bloody footprints running up to the gates of Kantha Bopha Hospital--the newest, most modern hospital in Cambodia. The footprints were left by a woman who was wounded in the grenade attack on the peaceful demonstration led by Sam Rainsy. The woman fled in terror to the hospital...and was denied entrance...because someone made a determination that to help people wounded at the demonstration might be construed as political. The woman later bled to death.

At the time that the photo was taken I tended to condemn Dr. Beat Richner, the Swiss medical doctor who operates the hospital. In time I came to realize that the photo perhaps best symbolizes that actions, or inactions of the entire NGO community who has seen fit to relegate the entire issue of Human Rights and Democracy to the realm of "politics". And hiding under the argument that "we don't get involved in politics" allows these NGOs to continue on in the belief that they are helping the country to develop while ignoring the reality that there can be no true lasting development in a nation under the yoke of a despot.

As we enter into the new millenia it is perhaps time to take a more critical look at the whole concept to foreign aid, and what passes for humanitarian assistance. In the field of social work, family counseling, a new strategy is being adopted which is based on the concept of "Tough Love". It is felt that the alcoholic, addict, or otherwise maladapted individual cannot be helped until he takes responsibility for his own behavior. Maybe the same type of therapy can be applied to the global family. And while no one wishes to see increased hardship for the Cambodian people, no one can deny that continued aid must, in some ways, help to prop up the dictator. And where have the people attained Democracy and Human Rights without a struggle and the pain that goes with that struggle?

[Those in favor of continuing aid to Cambodia] have taken the stance that "we stay out of politics and stick to aid work". Yet the biggest problem facing Cambodia is the death of Human Rights and Democracy. And until that problem is resolved no lasting development can be expected to happen. The death of Human Rights... that is the problem. And if the NGOs are not part of the solution then they are part of the problem. To date the majority of the NGO community has largely chosen to be part of the problem.


Ray Zepp:

I have been working for NGO's in Cambodia for the past three years, and have some first-hand experience of the political dimensions of NGO aid. I believe it may benefit the discussion if certain distinctions can be drawn between different types and results of aid projects.

The first key question is whether the aid replaces some government expenditure whcih can then be freed up for military or political purposes. In this category one might place some forms of medical aid. If, for example, a donor agency provided a doctor so that the government did not have to pay its own doctor, then that aid could be seen as supporting the military regime in the sense that the regime can now spend the doctor's salary on guns. In this way, what appears to be 'humanitarian' aid, devoid of political considerations, translates directly into military aid.

I talked with several foreign aid workers in Cambodia during the latter half of 1997, and their response to the above argument was always, "But the Cambodian government is not going to spend their money on doctors anyway. Since the Health budget is practically zero anyway, sending an extra doctor will in no way enable the government to transfer funds to the military."

The same applies to educational projects, such as USAID's CAPE project. The Hun Sen government pays its teachers only about $20 dollars per month, and so a foreign teacher frees up only $20 per month for military purposes. That is hardly a sum to worry about.

This argument does not satisfy me completely. For one thing, the presence of foreign teachers and doctors lends credibility to the the regime. It is moral support even if it is not monetary support.

A second point is that a government has an obligation to its people. If a government totally disregards that obligation, as in the case of Cambodia, is it the responsibility of the rest of the world to step in? If so, would not the proper response be to overthrow that government and replace it with one which meets its obligations to the people? Remember the old Bantustan system in South Africa? The Apartheid regime simply dumped thousands of people onto land and called it a 'country' such as Transkei. Did the outside world rush in to offer humanitarian aid to the Transkeians? Of course not, because it was the responsibility of the South African government to provide for those people, and the international community was not about to allow the South AFrican government to shirk its responsibilities. Likewise, if the Cambodian government wants to force its citizens into intolerable conditions, it should not be the responsibility of foreign governments to intervene and absolve the regime of its responsibilities.

In fact, the evils of the regime go far beyond mere neglect. What should be done when soldiers and officials are permitted by Hun Sen simply to confiscate land, throwing peasants into starvation-level poverty? When these peasants appear in squalid squatter camps in Poipet and around Pnhom Penh, is it the responsibility of the international community to care for these displaced persons and let the soldiers get away with their land grabs? Or what should be done when soldiers kidnap teenage boys and hold them for ransom (on government approved grounds that soldiers may conscript whomever they wish into the army)? Should the international community pay the ransom for the bankrupted families?

Actually, 'holding for ransom' is precisely the term for what the government is doing. We have a situation in which the Hun Sen regime is saying, "Yes, we have needy people whom we are not going to lift a finger to help, and we are even increasing their poverty, but if you foreigners want to save them, give us a cut and we will 'allow' you to help them." This attitude is dangerously close to that of a government holding its own people hostage: "We have forced these people into life-threatening situations and we are going to let these people die unless you pay us a bribe." If dollars can be converted into lives, say at $100 as the average cost for saving a starving baby's life, and if the foreign aid donor then diverts $1000 into bribes (or 'import duty') for the privilige of saving the babies, then paying that $1000 bribe represents a conscious sacrifice of 10 lives, that is, 10 murders.

Or what should the international community do when its demining projects end up turning over most of the land to greedy generals and government officials instead of the intended peasants who originally lived there? The demining has clearly benefited the generals and harmed the peasants. Is this to be classified as 'humanitarian aid'?

No, I am afraid that in the aid projects which I witnessed in Cambodia in the latter half of 1997, it was impossible to isolate the aid from the politics. In every case, the project had to be approved by the Cambodian government, and the government officials first took their cut, and then did their best to get their hands on the lion's share of the pie. At the very least, foreign money spent in Cambodia has a trickle down (or really, 'trickle up') effect. NGO's are paying high rents for their luxury villas, and who, I ask, owns those villas? Why, government and military officials, of course. So the NGO money goes straight into the pockets of the corrupt politicians, while the expat renters of those villas claim to be 'separating their aid from politics.'

The only semi-valid argument I hear is that the very presence of foreigners in Cambodia makes the soldiers think twice before shooting, raping, or robbing innocent victims. But in practice, I think it makes little difference. These crimes take place every day in broad daylight in the presence of many foreigners. At present, the military are so out of control, they act with impunity even with hundreds of foreigners as witnesses, for example, the grenade murders at a political rally on March 30, 1997, in broad daylight in the presence of the foreign press. Hun Sen's brazen response to those murders was that the opposition politician holding the rally should himself be arrested and held responsible for the deaths because he, the politician, placed persons in a position for soldiers to shoot them.

I believe that it is still true that no CPP-allied soldier has ever been jailed for any crime (well, I remember one who was jailed for blowing the whistle on some other generals for selling government land for their own profit). In a country where soldiers shoot, steal, and rape with impunity, no amount of foreign aid, humanitarian or otherwise, is going to keep people from being oppressed. In fact, to tell the soldiers to "go ahead and rob people; we'll give them some more food and clothing for you to steal," actually encourages the soldiers in their evil deeds. And where there is foreign aid money, the vultures and hyenas will circle to get their share of it.

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