NGOs in Cambodia: Accommodation with the regime can be very profitable.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 20 2011 12:40 PM

Silence of the Lambs

For do-gooder NGOs in Cambodia, accommodation with the regime is very profitable.

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But a terrible draft law doesn't turn charity workers into saints. Many Cambodian NGOs have followed a path familiar to observers in other parts of the world. After arriving to provide immediate relief, they gradually transform themselves into survival-focused grant-proposal-writing shops chasing dollars and holding PowerPoint-heavy workshops on "empowerment," "governance," "capacity-building," and other empty buzz phrases.

Meanwhile, a 2006 story in the Australian charged that a great deal of Australia's aid to Cambodia was wasted, because as much as 80 percent of it "goes straight out again in the form of high expatriate salary packages and running costs." The story said that country directors of prominent international charities in Cambodia received compensation packages worth as much as $250,000, which included large villas in Phnom Penh's upscale "NGO-ville" area, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and an assortment of other perks. A 2005 report by Action Aid said that in a single year, 700 top international consultants in Cambodia were paid an average of around $100,000. Their combined haul was roughly as much as the entire annual wage bill for 160,000 Cambodian civil servants. "Instead of transferring skills to Cambodian staff, their time is spent writing reports or doing jobs which they should be training local staff to carry out," the report said.

Lower-level NGO staffers, who often rotate through on short postings and spend a good chunk of their time partying, also do reasonably well. "Aid work is often much less about noble self-sacrifice and much more about getting hooked up with a dank salary and some pretty sweet perks," says a post at a website called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. "By 'dank salary,' we are talking by Western standards. By local standards, we might just call that a 'small fortune.' "

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Among the more prominent (and best-paying) NGOs in Cambodia are the mainstream green organizations. They are also among the most powerful because government ministries dealing with environmental issues are typically underbudgeted and understaffed, so NGOs effectively fund and manage key agencies.

During recent years, the Cambodian government has sold off vast swaths of land, some publicly owned, including protected areas, and some seized from the urban and rural poor. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from their homes. These deals have been a goldmine for Cambodian oligarchs and foreign investors, who have bought up some of the country's most beautiful areas and prime urban real estate.

You'd expect that international green groups might have a lot to say about this tragedy. You'd be wrong. "The major environmental organizations have kept a near absolute silence over the ongoing land crisis, both in terms of human impact and impact on the protected areas they are working in," says a longtime consultant in Cambodia.

Conservation International lauds the Cambodian government on its website for "invest[ing] in research and monitoring of protected areas." The site also highlights a 2007 mission during which CI helicoptered a team of scientists into Virachey National Park, where they spent 15 days merrily traipsing about while cataloging species of ants and katydids. This was about the same time that Hun Sen's regime was awarding an Australian mining company exploratory rights to more than half of the park, one of Cambodia's two ASEAN Heritage Parks. Earlier this year, the government awarded another chunk of the park to a private company for a rubber plantation.

In February, the government awarded a big concession in an environmentally sensitive area of Koh Kong province to a private company exploring for titanium. "Realistically, if it's economically really valuable, we should support it and make it happen in the best way possible," David Emmett, CI's regional director, told the local press about the deal.

Wildlife Alliance also works closely with the government. In 2004, Hun Sen bestowed a gold medal on its CEO, Suwanna Gauntlett, for her devotion to endangered species and biodiversity.

WA says on its website that it works with villagers who "once were forced to roam the forest as hunters and loggers, diminishing Cambodia's environmental heritage, [and who] now have legal jobs as guides and operators of sustainable trekking, mountain-biking, and river boat tours."

In other words, people who once lived in the forest now hold low-paid jobs serving at the beck and call of foreign tourists who float down waterways and hike in woods that the villagers have long called home. "The wholesale destruction of Cambodia's environment is an important issue, but hunting and poaching by people eking out an existence in the forest isn't the problem," says a Western expatriate with extensive experience in land issues. "The primary causes are the government issuing massive land concessions to developers and wide-scale logging." (According to Global Witness, the country's most powerful logging syndicate is led by relatives of Hun Sen and other senior officials.)

Another WA mission involves protecting the rain forest of the Southern Cardamom Mountain Range. As part of that effort, the group's staffers have swooped in by helicopter with Forestry Administration officials who kick out destitute peasants living in the woods and in some cases dismantle and burn their homes, according to the Phnom Penh Post. "They are not people-friendly," the longtime consultant says of WA, "but the trees and animals are all safe."

WA has herded peasants into community agriculture projects linked to its ecotourism ventures. Peasants at one community called Sovanna Baitong benefited with access to education and health care, but some told the Post they felt "trapped in a state of indentured servitude" and had been threatened with expulsion if they refused to work on plots they had been allocated. "I experienced three years and eight months of the Khmer Rouge regime, and this is similar because they ordered us to work like we are in a totalitarian state," said one. "It is really miserable to live there."

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