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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May, 2005, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Cambodia aims to shake off aid dependency
By Guy De Launey
BBC correspondent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Riding a motorcycle around Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh - where drivers play fast and loose with an already pretty slack traffic law - you stand a reasonable chance of being run into a gutter by a white Landcruiser.

Family on motorcycle in Phnom Penh
Life is hazardous in Cambodia

Many of the 4x4s in Phnom Penh are owned by aid organisations - a symptom, say some, of the way Cambodia has become addicted to foreign aid.

Already, more than half of the national budget comes from such contributions.

And over the next three years Cambodia will receive a further $1.5bn from donor countries.

Developed infrastructure

In some cases the positive results of aid are obvious.

The main river crossing in Phnom Penh is officially known as the Chroy Changvar Bridge, but it's better known by its nickname, the Japanese Bridge.

That's in tribute to the source of the aid that restored the structure more than two decades after the Khmer Rouge destroyed it.

Just about the only person who was unhappy with Japan was the ferryman the new bridge put out of a job.

Other countries have also contributed to infrastructure development.

It is now possible to contemplate road travel around Cambodia without needing to spend days recovering from pothole-induced injuries.

Donor countries to blame

But despite the cash flowing in to the country, Cambodians are still among the world's poorest people.

Around a third of the population live on less than a dollar a day, and the vast majority live without electricity or mains water.

Keshav Gautam
Cambodia needs Cambodian expertise says Mr Gautam

The infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, and HIV/Aids is a major health concern.

The charity Action Aid believe that donor countries themselves are partly to blame for the plight of Cambodia's people.

They say that almost half the amount of aid goes on 'technical assistance', and that the 700 or so international consultants working in the country earn more than Cambodia's 160,000 civil servants put together.

Inappropriate expertise

A report just released by Action Aid claims that consultants in Cambodia are not doing enough to justify their wages.

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.

"International experts bring in international expertise," says Action Aid's country director in Cambodia, Keshav Gautam.

"What Cambodia needs is Cambodian expertise, people who understand, know the politics and the economy, who can breathe and feel this country.

"That's what Cambodia needs, not an international expertise that has no relevance to this country."

Difficult balance

The challenge is how to build that expertise after three decades of conflict that saw many of Cambodia's most talented people flee the country, or get killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh
Poverty remains rife in Phnom Penh and across Cambodia

Briton David Wilkinson has worked as a consultant in Cambodia's healthcare sector for the past five years.

He thinks the country will need technical assistance for some years to come, but he acknowledges it's not always easy for foreign experts to give Cambodians the training they need.

"There's always a difficult balance between getting the job done in the shortest time and, at the other end of the spectrum, simply building capacity," he says.

"Quite often the dictates of the government and the donor are to get the job done, so you've got to work as effectively and efficiently as you can, and provide value for money."

Taking responsibility

Value for money is often the key for donor countries.

They want to make sure their tax payers' cash is well spent.

Worries over corruption in Cambodia mean they're keen to keep control over how funds are used.

Officials at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the government agency that deals with donors, say the country is now mature enough to take responsibility for its own affairs.

They would like more aid to come in the form of investment, rather than technical assistance.

However, with an anti-corruption law still being drafted, the donors are unlikely to be convinced.

Nonetheless, Mr Gautam hopes the donors will make a leap of faith, and put a greater emphasis on Cambodian-run projects that would help to rebuild the country from within.

"We need to strike a balance between strong cooperation and a belief that third world people and governments have the capacity to take their countries forward," he says.

With the European Union's commitment to double its donations to developing countries, and aid likely to figure prominently at July's G8 meeting, the debate over how the money should be spent is set to heat up.

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Timeline: Cambodia
30 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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