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.
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.' "
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."
"There is a percentage of families that are not very keen on agriculture," Gauntlett acknowledged to the Post. "You can bring the cow to water, but you can't drink for it."
WA has protested development projects that have had a direct impact on its programs in Cambodia, including the above-mentioned titanium project in Koh Kong, which Hun Sen canceled two months ago. Gauntlett issued a statement hailing the prime minister for having "looked so deeply into this proposed titanium mine and taken the effort to weigh the consequences that this project would have on the rainforest and the local people."
Gauntlett declined to comment for this story, but WA provided a general response: "The blame game doesn't work for groups like us inside Cambodia. We have to be careful and build alliances that are sometimes uncomfortable. It's delicate because the government can shut down an NGO whenever it wants. But we work on the inside, quietly, and get things done. We've been able to get things done and reverse concessions by working quietly inside the government and reminding it of its own legal obligations."
I spent two days in Sihanoukville, a seedy but gorgeous coastal town whose beaches and islands have been sold off by the government to developers allegedly planning eco-friendly luxury hotel and condominium projects. "Those who lived or worked there were turfed out—some jailed, others beaten, virtually all denied meaningful compensation," said a 2008 story in the Guardian. The newspaper quoted a British property developer, Marty Kaye, who said, "Nowhere else in the world could you create your own kingdom from scratch. … It's fantastically exciting, the opportunity to zone [a] whole island, to see where the luxury exclusive villa plots will be, for the Brad Pitts, etc."
The developers need green consultants to navigate the local scene and to write environmental-impact assessments that are supposed to ensure that their projects are eco-friendly. International NGOs have been happy to oblige, among them Fauna and Flora International, which has "built strong relationships" with the Cambodian government. FFI's website says that its activities have served to protect the environment "whilst building good governance and alleviating poverty."
In 2008, a Hong Kong-based investment company called Lime Tree Capital was awarded a 99-year lease on an island near Sihanoukville called Koh Rung Sangleum, which it plans to fully develop with resorts and hotels. The only problem was that the island was home to a fishing village with 92 families, which was a nuisance for Lime Tree.
Lime Tree hired FFI as its eco-consultant, and the NGO dispatched several staffers to the island (where they spent a large part of their time snorkeling with a local diving company, sources told me). FFI apparently provided Lime Tree with a development-friendly report, because the company subsequently filed a master plan saying there was little biodiversity on the island and hence not much to conserve. According to a story in the Phnom Penh Post, FFI staffers made a later trip to the island and told villagers they would be restricted to a tiny 12.3-hectare piece of land and ordered them to immediately stop cutting down trees and constructing any new buildings.
Villagers complained to the local government about Lime Tree's plans, leading the company to rethink its initial proposal and offer a better deal to local people. Eighty villagers signed a document (with their thumbprints) demanding the removal of FFI's lead staffer on the project, saying he had lied to them about how much forest and village land would be conserved under Lime Tree's proposal.
Ally Catterick of FFI said in an email that her group takes "a practical approach to engagement and work with a diverse range of organisations, including some sectors and companies that have traditionally had a significant impact on biodiversity but have committed to improving." She said FFI's objective in the island project was "to conserve the biodiversity" and "assist local communities to use the natural resources of the ecosystems sustainably." Catterick declined to disclose how much FFI was paid by Lime Tree, saying it "cannot disclose contractual remuneration for our services without the agreement of the contractor."
The complicity of the greens is matched by NGOs operating in other areas, including anti-poverty outfits. "The NGOs desperately want access and the basic equation is that the government grants it to them in exchange for their silence about corruption or anything else remotely controversial," says the Western expatriate who has worked on land issues. "At a certain point you have to ask yourself, 'Where is this going, and what are we accomplishing?' "