NGOs: Friend or Foe?

27 11 2011

Foreign aid dependency is something I’ve been meaning to write about since training, but I’ve lacked the motivation to tackle such a complex issue. Then, this week I was a part of a conversation that triggered me to finally sit down and address it, at least on its surface.

Any discourse on foreign assistance is particularly pertinent to Cambodia, as it receives about one billion dollars of foreign assistance annually. While much of that is bilateral assistance—meaning that it is funding transferred directly from another government to the Royal Kingdom of Cambodia— a significant portion of it also comes through nongovernmental organizations. The number and scale of international or internationally-supported NGOs in Cambodia is truly mindboggling.

Although I personally find the micro-level discussion around aid dependency to be much more interesting (How do handouts affect a family or community’s future decision-making processes, psyche and ability to pull itself out of poverty?), the Cambodian students in our advanced English class hit one of the main points of the macro-level debate without any prompting.

When talking about Cambodian agriculture late last week, the following discussion took place.

Tim: How do you think agriculture will change in the future? How will it be different in the next 10 or 20 years?

Student #1: I think NGOs will continue to go to the fields and teach farmers things that will help them improve their yields so agriculture will continue to get better.

Me: What about the government? Does the Ministry of Agriculture help the farmers?

Student #2 (laughing nervously): The Minister has, uh, other priorities. Farmers come second. You see, there is a lot of corruption in Cambodia. So after the Minister… there isn’t much money left for the farmers.

Tim: So the government isn’t helping?

Students: No.

Tim: So what happens if all of the NGOs leave Cambodia?

Student #2 (without hesitation): We would have to go to our government and demand that it help us.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The strong NGO presence seems to be alleviating any pressure for Cambodians to demand basic support from their own government.

Granted, the Cambodian government works with a budget that could be considered miniscule (just over $2 billion, about a third of the budget of the Chicago Public School system), and truly may not have the ability to respond to such demands if they were made, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen to corruption levels— and just plain efficiency— if there was overwhelming public pressure. Would the government step up and begin to take responsibility for the welfare of its own people, no longer having the NGO community to rely on? Or would the corruption continue, leaving Cambodians to suffer yet again?

And, actually, I’d like to take it one step further: Would the Cambodian people actually demand their rights in the first place? Although our student understood immediately the importance of doing so, Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.

So, at the end of it, are NGOs protecting and promoting the welfare of Cambodians throughout the country? Are these organizations creating opportunities for the Cambodian people that they’d never demand themselves? Or, is the NGO community preventing a people from taking ownership of its own rights and engaging in what could potentially be an empowering and history-altering political process?

It’s an impossible question to answer, especially because of the mixed record of NGOs in this country, but it’s unbelievably important that all of us actors hoping to promote development in Cambodia never lose sight of these issues.





2 responses

11 12 2011

This has been lingering in the back of my mind until the int’l vol day event in PP last week where for the first time I heard about the increasing numbers of volunteers that are flooding Cambodia from western countries. It seems like Cambodians and volunteers often celebrate the amount of resources going into the country but one can’t help but wonder if we are adversely creating dependency on outside sources. This phenomenon was reflected in a working relationship with an NGO recently (which I’ll tell you more about soon :)) where my presence was seen as more of a means to an end versus creating sustainability w/in the organization…In the states, I remember having a few conversations in social work school about what the goal of social work should be: to not be needed anymore. Of course, those of us in the helping profession may not like the sound of that but having less of a need for social change might indicate that we are doing an okay job. :)

Thanks for bringing this up for discussion. So important to think about as aspiring vessels of change. :) And thanks to both of you for keeping your blog thoughtful and interesting.

11 12 2011

Oh, Christine. This is why you’re among my favorite people ever. Thanks for commenting. Cannot wait to see you!!

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