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Helping ‘Till It Hurts

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Helping ‘Till It Hurts

Aid Dependence In Cambodia:

How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy

By Sophal Ear

New York: Columbia University Press, 2012|208pp|$50(Hardback)|ISBN: 978-0-231-16112-1

Reviewed by John Wilcox

Whether deliberate or accidental, the inappropriate or misdirected contribution of foreign aid can be as debilitating to a nation as the conflict, disease, and poverty they are designed to address.  In the wake of natural disasters like the recent super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines, it is vital to the long-term interests of impacted populations that aid organizations consider the results of their efforts compared to their intended goals.  Professor of National Security Affairs Sophal Ear’s logical, yet personal account of the impact that international foreign aid has on Cambodia, the country of his birth, should cause the entire aid community to reflect inwardly.

It is rare one gets a ringside seat to one of the worst examples of genocide in modern history.  As a child, Sophal Ear endured this horrific experience during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody sweep through Cambodia in the mid-1970s.  During this time, millions were killed and buried in mass graves known as “Killing Fields,” which was later depicted in the 1984 film of the same name.  Ear and his family lost nearly everything, including the family home and his father and brother.    By force of will, Ear’s mother endured the hardships and escaped the bloodshed, eventually bringing her surviving children to America. By the time Sophal Ear was a student at Berkeley, he had already written editorials on the political and social unrest in his home country.  His academic and fact-based review of the effects and results of poorly executed foreign aid in Cambodia is an even-handed look at the struggling nation.

The real impact of foreign aid is a subject of increasing importance in an era where western nations like the United States often define, the success of their foreign policies and diplomatic efforts by the size and scope of their aid programs. Ear’s well-researched account explores the toll that over thirty years of poorly planned foreign aid has had on Cambodia. Despite some positive economic indicators such as growth in garment production, the country’s economic growth is built on a weak industrial and agricultural foundation.  No agency is left blameless, but the United Nations undergoes intense scrutiny by the author.  In one instance, the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N., Yasushi Akashi, tells reporters who ask about U.N. peacekeepers’ regular visits to local brothels, “boys will be boys.”  Underscoring his ineffectiveness, he later is turned away from performing his duties when a bamboo pole set across a road by a lone Khmer Rouge teenager blocked his vehicle’s path.  Akashi would later face investigation for failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 men and boys during his tenure in the Balkans. 

Even though aid organizations and international programs usually have the best intentions, the impact of the aid they provide can have an unintended deleterious effect.  Ear cites examples of the “Dutch disease.” This refers to the influx of foreign currency in the Netherlands in 1959 and through the 1960s, which damaged the Dutch industry and economy.  In the same way, in the late 1990s to early 2000s aid to Cambodia slowly took over roles where government should retain primacy, especially in health, education, and infrastructure.  His case study of the response to the bird flu epidemic in the mid-2000s reiterates the extent to which donors and the Cambodian government were unprepared to provide people the services they really needed, especially in an emergency.  After years of missteps and corruption, foreign aid to Cambodia may have expended its utility. 

According to Ear, the Cambodian government is equally complicit, as it engages in grand and petty corruption and blocks reform. Cambodia seems to have shed communism, but taken on a corrupt governing body that is representative in appearance but autocratic in application.  Neither the Cambodian government nor the donor community has an incentive to change.  International donors have no reason to change their behavior because success would mean the end of a system designed to perpetuate itself.  That is, the donors presume that the aid they contribute is impactful and is therefore justified.  The Cambodian Government has no incentive to change because international donors have assumed the role of government in key areas, ergo the government no longer needs to concern itself with such areas, nor with the people’s will.  As a result, maternal mortality and inequality have actually increased over time despite the involvement of extensive international aid programs.

The solutions to this problem are as complex as the problem itself, but Ear makes a few broad recommendations.  First, aid must be targeted to meet the needs of the population to avoid its usurpation.  This is more easily said than done.  Because aid is usually at its highest demand in places where security is lacking, aid workers cannot always be so precise with where and how they apply money or resources.  Second, policy Makers need to impose punishments for corruption, recognize the importance of collective action, and strengthen civil society as a counterweight to corruption. Given the evidence Ear presents, aid provided without a program to generate a functioning government is likely to fall short of its goals.  Promoting governance, mitigating corruption, and precise planning and execution for aid is essential for aid to have tangible effect. Moreover, aligning aid with domestic revenue performance is essential.

It is important to note that Ear takes a comprehensive look only at the shortcomings in aid in Cambodia, and his lessons may not be transferrable to other countries or cultures.  The confluence of Cambodia’s history and the nature of foreign aid in the Asia-Pacific region may produce results unique to that country.  Even so, there is sufficient evidence in Ear’s book to raise concern in the nations and organizations that fund and implement aid programs.  The toll by the collective failures of donors and the Cambodian government have taken on the population is significant, and should be a cautionary tale to other nations or donors.

The picture painted by Ear is a bleak one.  Neither donors nor the Cambodian government are likely to change without modifications similar to Ear’s recommendations.  This, in turn, will likely lead to another thirty years of aid while the country remains what Ear terms a “kleptocracy cum thugocracy.”  Using Cambodia as an example, both independent and national donors and program directors would be wise to heed the warnings in Aid Dependence in Cambodia.  From a military perspective, the reliance on programs like the commander’s emergency relief program (CERP) to support military activity remains important.  The danger is that poorly planned, but well-intentioned development and aid programs can lead to short-term tactical successes, but long-term strategic failures.  Certainly, aid has a role in public diplomacy and international cooperation.  However, aid must be applied judiciously, lest the lessons of Cambodia are lost in the well-intentioned effort by well-meaning donors to “make a difference.”

About the Author(s)

Major John Wilcox is a United States Army Civil Affairs Officer and a student at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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