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Response To A Request From Janice


Is Donor Driven NGO Culture Hindering The Growth Of Democracy In Cambodia?

I'm sharing another personal post from my blog located over at since Janice, PulseWire's Community Director, invited me to do so.

She also asked me to share some photography links with you so in that light here is a link to a small selection of photographs that I'm continually updating, my Photoshelter Archive Homepage


The second link is to a small collection of photos at,


a part of the Mondofragilis Group ( I'll be adding about 500 soon.

Mondofragilis Group supplies the UN and partners with agencies. For example, their "Women are Leading Change" film on women and AIDS was co-produced with the World YWCA and UNAIDS, and their documentary "40 First Ladies" with UNAIDS and the Clinton Foundation.

Lastly, a link to Gaia Photos ( Gaia Photos is a global group of photojournalists individually hand picked by our Nepal based director to collaborate. We focus on social, humanitarian, environmental, cultural, health and education issues, as well as general news. Further, many of our members have done commissioned work for World Pulse partners such as CARE and the UN.

Ok, enough of the shameless self promotion. In the posted photograph a Khmer senior citizen is selling flowers on the riverfront promenade in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In August, 2008 a ceremony marking the dedication of infrastructure improvements along the river shoreline was held here. During the event, Cambodian government officials handed underprivileged adults 5000 riels each while poverty afflicted children in attendance were given 500 riels. Policeman providing security at the affair also received cash. ($1.00 USD = 4100 riels, April 2009).

Donor driven culture in Cambodia is decades old and the issue is very complex. Assistance takes on many forms in Cambodia, and some charitable entities receive direct funding or tax breaks from their respective governments yet admittedly are seemingly indispensable.

The William Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontières / MSF), Pour un sourire d’Enfant, (Association “For a child’s smile”) Cambodia and The Cambodia Daily Newspaper, Phnom Penh, Cambodia are all well known and internationally recognized for their good work.

Others, such as a Vietnamese born former Associated Press (AP) photojournalist who documented the war in Indochina and now works in a warehouse in California, USA help on their own dime. He delivered two tons of rice awhile back to Vietnamese people living at the Tonle Sap's infamous "Floating Village of Misery" all by himself!

The philanthropists I've mentioned seem to realize that the achievement of a fully self-sustainable country requires their help, but are sensitive to the fact that Cambodia won't establish true independence unless Cambodians can eventually "do for themselves".

This dilemma isn't unique to Cambodia. Gaia Photos photojournalist Bear Guerra recently remarked in his photo reportage concerning Haiti, "But herein lies one of the nation’s biggest dilemmas: Haitians depend on international aid to survive, but this assistance prevents the country from growing beyond a state of dependence."

The bulk of foreign aid dollars currently flowing into Haiti is coming from France, Canada and America. What prompted me to think about this issue to begin with? That's easy. I simply read a passage on page 18 of a 96-page report prepared by Global Witness entitled "Cambodia’s Family Trees" that quoted UN Secretary General Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia Yash Ghai. According to the report he remarked in 2006:

“If it is indeed true that donor agencies are not mindful of human rights or democracy, but just wish to build a cozy relationship with the government, then it seems to me that they are not only failing the people of Cambodia, but also their own domestic taxpayers as well, who approve these grants in the expectation that these countries will be the beneficiaries.”

Just in case you don't feel like wading through 96 pages at the moment, the report continues,

"In private, ministers describe the donors as ‘dunces’ who will continue to bankroll the government no matter how much of their taxpayers’ money is misappropriated [49]. In public they present the aid the government receives as a sign of the international community’s approval of their actions [50]."

In developed nations, people want their governments to provide social services. You Americans DO want Social Security benefits when you retire don't you? And who will you complain to if you get cut off? Whereas America is a democracy, you'll probably start with Uncle Sam. Thirty years from now, who will Cambodians grumble to if government services aren't provided and all the NGOs now picking up the tab have left town?

Here it is:

Is Donor Driven NGO Culture Hindering The Growth Of Democracy In Cambodia?

This year, foreign donors will contribute about 900 million USD to the Kingdom of Cambodia. If voluntary charitable man/woman hours put in by numerous foreigners were added, that figure would climb to over one billion USD. What are the ideas behind such generosity?

Article 51 of the Kingdom of Cambodia's constitution states, "Cambodian people are masters of their own country. All powers belong to the people. The people exercise their power through the National Assembly, the Senate, the Royal Government, and the Courts". In other words, Cambodia is a DEMOCRACY!

Well if you are a working stiff in the western world and have been hit up by an institution or foundation whose name resembles a bowl of alphabet soup, you've probably been told your donation will go towards improving the "health, education and welfare" of people who are living in one of the poorest countries in the world and you're helping to build a democracy too. That would be a good thing you may tell yourself. However, as you're about to pull a few crumpled bills from your soon to be empty pockets, you may want to look deeper inside the issue of donor driven cultures.

It's a bit strange when some entities in Cambodia identify themselves NGO's because many of them receive money from governments. Take the case of a now defunct NGO, KGTO (Khmer Ghvith Thmei Organization), that was operating in Kampong Cham, Cambodia before being shut down for corruption. (Please see related story, Corruption Is Not A Crime In Cambodia). KGTO was operating with funds issued by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through Pact. KGTO's motorcycles even wore the stickers to prove it. Where does USAID get their money? If you are living in America, it comes from that other pocket you're now reaching into (aka US tax dollars). Nothing "non-governmental" about that.

While you were reaching into one pocket and Uncle Sam had his hand in the other, what was KGTO supposed to be doing after they shouted, "show me the money"? According to their mission statement, "The organization is dedicated to poverty reduction and to the promotion of good governance and human rights. Its principal areas of program emphasis include training, support for the Volunteer Youths for Development and Peace Network (VYDAPN), and good-governance/anti-corruption.

Now I don't know what the term "good-governance" is supposed to mean but there were many brochures around their office that explained what democracy was all about, you know, the Jeffersonian brand. Apparently, these publications were to be distributed to groups of people who were learning about this form of government as outlined in Article 51 of Cambodia's constitution.

So who is in charge here? Did the USA grant your money to KGTO through Pact because they were supposed to promote the American flavor of democracy? What about the Cambodian government? Shouldn't they have a hand in explaining to their citizens what their concept of democracy is? After all, Cambodians are "masters of their own country."

Would the USA grant your money to a country that has other ideas about how people should be governed or is this just part of a big advertising campaign promoting American/Western ideals?

Let's take education and health care, two social services that according to Article 51 are in the hands of Cambodia's people. The education and health care areas in Cambodia are in shambles. The alphabet soup boys come to NGO Land with your money in their pockets to try to patch things up and now you're eating your own new brand of soup too. You've just become the newest member of The Order Of Empty Pockets (OOEP).

What has happened of course is that the alphabet soup boys have just let one of the most corrupt men in the world, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and his majority Cambodia People's Party (CPP) off the hook regarding the health and education of its citizens. Why should he allocate money from the nation's treasury to improve the quality of the country's education and health care systems when the NGO boys, funded by your government, are willing to do it for him? Hun Sen is a busy person and he needs time to spend with his family!

Where has 30 billion USD gone during the past 30 years in Cambodia? We know it wasn't flushed down the toilet since 10 million Khmer people (66% of the population) have no toilet facilities and are relegated to defecating in open fields. Let's eat some more soup and get someone in here to dig a few holes. How about Organized People's Potties, (OPP) where have they been? Well that's an easy one.

Large institutions and foundations have set up camp with the money your government has granted them in outposts such as Ghana, the former Yugoslavia, and current NGO Land hotspot Haiti. Batter up! Next stop Afghanistan!

If you live in Canada surf on over to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and see what projects their money is going towards and where they are getting it. That's what the Professional Money Chasers of Cambodia (PMCC) do. You want to know who's about to dig through your pockets next don't you?

Is the corrupt government ruling Cambodia being properly incentivized to promote democracy and provide basic services for the people of this land if NGO's have usurped government responsibility in the eyes of the people? If you are one of the lucky Khmers who receives honest to goodness help from an honest outfit I suppose you're happy and may not worry too much about how the money that is helping you got here, or why it was donated in the first place. After all, the man in the moon may have sent it along.

What future does Cambodia have if the present day Hun Sen led government fails to inform them? Do Khmers realize that in its failure to educate them (and eliminate bribery in the education sector) and keep them healthy, Hun Sen will be able to plunder Cambodia's human and physical resources all the more?

Hun Sen realizes that it's a bit easier to rule a nation whose citizenry is uneducated, impoverished, weak and tired. Sound familiar? Further, he recognizes that after 30 years, NGO's have failed to take up the slack no matter how well meaning some of their intentions have been.

The private sector may do a better job of educating people in the future as their demand for cheaper labor to manufacture more sophisticated products grows.

Currently, firms such as Australia's British American Tobacco Company (BATC) do a good job producing large quantities of glossy work safety manuals (in Khmer with good illustration and color) and planting trees, but they have a poor record when it comes to sending tobacco picker's children to school and printing school books. After all, who would be left to harvest tobacco tomorrow if suddenly every Khmer school aged kid eventually received a 12th grade education and knew how to read?

Hun Sen could have said to John Nelson of BATC, "Want some tobacco? Build me some new schools and print school books." Nevertheless, Cambodians need to push these types of agendas themselves. The citizenry shouldn't look to NGO's receiving foreign government funding for help because in the words of the Global Witness Report, "Donor representatives and diplomats on the ground know they will not be rewarded by their head offices for rocking the boat and putting Cambodia back on a crowded foreign policy agenda. They keep heads down and the money flowing."

Cambodian's fear their "democratic" government because many can see the mask of communism their leaders are wearing. They also glimpse a puppeteer in the background pulling strings and he's wearing an olive green uniform offset by a big red star (as one would see on a Vietnamese flag).

The masked people fear the Khmer citizens more than Cambodian's fear them however as the people adorned with the masks grasp that the gap between the haves and the have nots is growing wider each day. In ten or fifteen years, there may be "trouble in river city" say some observers.

So what time is it? It's time for Cambodian's to realize that they are among the most ill treated people in the world. It's time for Cambodian's to understand that THEY are in charge here, not some foreign power pushing an ideology through varied concoctions of alphabet soup. It's time for Cambodian's to hold their government and business titans from within and without accountable for their actions and inaction.

After all, isn't that what democracy and Article 51 is all about?

Elitus Kleptocraticus / n: Only responds to asset freeze. Normal habitat includes lavish property developments, but often also found in spas, banks and casinos in prominent luxury locations such as Zurich, London, Paris, Geneva, Monaco, New York, Singapore, and increasingly, Beijing. Unfortunately, behavioral problems usually ignored by species Donorus pedestriensis - Global Witness

OK, that was it. Enjoy your coffee. As usual, I'll leave you with a quote:

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas." - George Bernard Shaw

John Brown Photojournalist Cambodia


[49] Comment by a government minister quoted in Steve Heder, ‘Political Theatre in Cambodia: State, Democracy, Conciliation’, unpublished draft,
May 2004.

[50] Charles McDermid and Vong Sokheng, ‘RGC counts $601 million blessings’, Phnom Penh Post, March 10-23 2006.


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