Has spending billions of dollars in foreign aid to Cambodia over the course of decades done more harm than good? Dr. Sophal Ear, author of the book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, thinks so.
In his recent presentation at The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Ear looked at failed land-titling campaigns spear-headed by the World Bank, the injustice of the Khmer Rouge tribunals, and limited success in garment-sector reform to evaluate the effectiveness of development policy in Cambodia.
Dr. Ear contends that land-titling campaigns resulted in displacement of tens of thousands of Cambodians rather than in greater respect for property rights.
According to panelist and former Ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Sichan Siv, “The Khmer Rouge tribunal is a joke.” With only one conviction to its name, the court is riddled with corruption and is failing to deliver justice to the people of Cambodia.
Garment-sector reform, though a success, was limited in delivering promised results. According to Dr. Ear, the garment sector in Cambodia took off in 1999 due to a unique agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia to link best labor practices to trade. Employing the United Nations as a third-party mechanism for accountability, Cambodia increased exports and provided over 620,000 jobs in the garment sector, says Dr. Ear.
Despite these successes, however, labor problems persist in Cambodia, with many factories not up to fire and safety codes. While aid from the U.N. and trade assistance from the U.S. provided mechanisms for accountability, they were not able to stave off abuse occurring in factories.
Dr. Ear and panelist Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation, noted that exorbitant flows of foreign aid coming from China, the EU, and Japan have vastly outstripped the government’s revenue stream and diluted the Cambodian people’s ability to hold their government accountable through taxpayer contributions.
Accountability is essential in Cambodia, where the ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for over 28 years. Hun Sen’s policies have stifled the voices of the Cambodian people, and limited their voice in virtually all major media outlets. Reliance on international donors has additionally shielded the government from accountability to taxpayers.
While the U.S. gives relatively little in foreign assistance to Cambodia, roughly $74.1 million, it can communicate its priorities by conditioning assistance on government accountability and encouraging other signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement to do the same.