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.
"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.