With questions arising over the focus of US developmental assistance, officials and analysts say US involvement in Cambodia can help the country stay on a democratic path and respect human rights.
Oxfam America issued a report in June saying US assistance in Cambodia needed clarity of purpose and guarantees it was reaching those it was meant to help.
The report comes amid improving bilateral relations between the two, with the US lifting of a ban on direct aid in 2007 and the recent removal of Cambodia from a US list of Marxist-Leninist countries.
Cambodia says the aid has come with clear objectives that match the government’s development priorities, especially in the social sector.
“US aid has so far fit with what Cambodia wants,” Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said by phone last week. “For example, assistance in the health sector that the US focuses on is in infectious diseases, maternal health, and, recently, the flu.”
Oxfam acknowledged a positive impact from US aid in protecting citizens’ rights through legal advocacy, improving income and active participation in community work. But the report also highlighted doubts over a policy shift, with civil society concerned that democracy and human rights were no longer a US priority.
“Cambodia still has problems related to the respect for human rights and democracy,” Yeng Virak, executive director of Community Legal Education Centre, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview. “We think it is still a priority…and we need support from America.”
US assistance to Cambodia averaged $41.55 million between 2002 and 2007, with its focus mainly on health, especially in HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention. Some of the money went to strengthening the rule of law, human rights, good governance and civil society.
“We’ve had a long history of working on specific areas with the government and civil society, and in general we try to seek a coordinated approach,” US Embassy spokesman John Johnson told VOA Khmer recently. “And so on all the issues that come up, whether human rights or rule of law, we work in cooperation with the Royal Government of Cambodia and with our partners in civil society and the NGO community.”
Hang Chhuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Finance, said most US development is executed by civil society.
“There is still confusion, that once the US improves its relations with Cambodia, it will stay away from civil society,” he said. “This is impossible.”
Development needs remain: post-war Cambodia is plagued by corruption, repressed freedoms, impunity and exploitation.
The country must improve if its leaders expect outside support to continue, said Sam Rainsy, the head of the opposition, whose officials often point out to donors where their money is being spent.
“US policy is very broad,” Sam Rainsy said. “It has helped civil society, and now it has extended its assistance to strengthen better management of our country.”
“If we don’t improve, [the US] won’t help,” he said. On the other hand, “unless it provides assistance, it won’t have access to improving what it deems bad activities within the government.”