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.

Rugby at a French NGO in Phnom Penh. Click image to expand.
Rugby at a French NGO in Phnom Penh

On a typically warm, muggy evening in Phnom Penh earlier this year, I asked a twentysomething British woman for directions to Titanic, a restaurant overlooking the Tonle Sap River.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because I heard the food was good," I said, somewhat confused.

Advertisement

"Oh, because there's a massive party there tonight for the Westerners!" she breathlessly replied.

Yes, it's always a fine time to be an expatriate aid worker in Cambodia, where several thousand NGOs and aid organizations operate. By day, swarms of foreign do-gooders clog the streets of Phnom Penh in their company-provided SUVs, and by night they fill bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Collectively, NGO workers represent a privileged caste, isolated and detached from the people who serve as the objects of their benevolence. It's all reminiscent of those clueless young GOP zealots sent to staff the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, except the NGO workers in Cambodia aren't peddling Republican philosophy and the American way, but rather the ideology of altruism.

Scan the world's hot spots and disaster areas, and you'll invariably find NGOs and advocacy groups living high off the hog from donor money and hyping their causes with artfully presented information designed to prompt people to reach for their checkbooks. Nonprofits rushed in after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but one survey of 60 U.S. relief organizations found that they had spent less than 40 percent of the $1.4 billion they raised during the first year. Many major projects are still stalled, and around 1 million Haitians live in squalid tent settlements.

Many of the billions of dollars allocated to USAID to rebuild Afghanistan never made it to the country, because about half of all funds were handed out to U.S. companies. Meanwhile, USA Today reported that four chief executives of nonprofit corporations delivering U.S. foreign assistance to Afghanistan earned more than $500,000 in 2007.

A few years back, a charity called Christian Solidarity International raised huge sums of money (from American schoolchildren, among others) by allegedly freeing Christians in Sudan who were "trafficked" by Arab slavers. The story was largely a fiction. A former CSI staffer told 60 Minutes that a rebel group working closely with the charity rounded up ordinary village children ("instant slaves," he dubbed them) who CSI then bought at mass "redemptions." The Save Darfur movement exaggerated the already egregious crimes of the Sudanese government in the hopes of prompting an international military intervention that would have made the current Libyan quagmire look like a picnic.

The point here is not that every seemingly good cause is a fraud and that all international aid groups are poverty pimps (though some certainly are). It's that people should bring the same degree of scrutiny to NGOs as they do to corporations and governments (and the media for that matter). And nowhere is a jaundiced eye more warranted than in examining the do-gooder community of Cambodia.

Many billions of dollars of international aid have flowed into Cambodia since the U.N.-organized elections held in 1993, after a long civil war that followed the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The large sums provided by the United States and other Western donors is delivered through and controlled by international aid agencies and NGOs.

Over the years, NGOs in Cambodia have cleared landmines and implemented programs to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS. There are many excellent international and local NGOs working in Cambodia, among them LICADHO, a civil and political rights group, the Worker Rights Consortium, and Human Rights Watch. London-based Global Witness got kicked out of Cambodia for issuing a series of reports exposing governmental corruption. (Disclosure: I've written investigative reports for two of these groups, on topics unrelated to Cambodia, and am friends with people at all four.)

Prime Minister Hun Sen's regime has put forth a draft law that would require NGOs working in Cambodia to complete a complex registration process and "gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve or deny registration applications," according to Jeff Vize of LICADHO. Human rights groups and Western governments are up in arms about the law, as they should be. Hun Sen has said it is needed to keep terrorists from setting up shop in Cambodia "under the guise of NGOs," but his government clearly wants to use it against the relatively small number of groups that criticize his government.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Culturebox
Sept. 18 2014 4:00 PM When The Cosby Show Got “Very Special” Why were The Cosby Show’s Very Special Episodes so much better than every other ’80s sitcom’s?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 2:39 PM Here's How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.