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Overseas aid benefits whom?

by Stephen Hesse

PHNOM PENH CAMBODIA — Despite widespread awareness and censure of human rights violations, Japan, the United States and member nations of the European Union continue to give aid to governments that use the money to enrich themselves while ravaging ecosystems and brutalizing their own citizens. China is now a major donor, too, but China doesn’t claim to care about human rights.

It is particularly troubling that Japan, which has its own environmental and human-rights tragedies — such as the Minamata Disease mercury-poisonings and the ongoing World War II “comfort women” atrocity — effectively encourages similar abuses in other nations by giving loans and grants to governments that blithely commit crimes against nature and humanity.

In 2007, Japan distributed Overseas Development Aid (ODA) totaling more than $7.7 billion ($13.6 billion if loan repayments are not deducted), according to the OECD.

Compounding the problem, environmental and human-rights abuses no longer occur in isolation. With the world’s human population climbing toward 7 billion, environmental destruction and human-rights abuses come in tandem. Resource extraction, industrial agriculture and energy infrastructure are particularly destructive, but local development projects can have sweeping impacts on the lives of thousands as well.

A good example is Boeung Kak, one of seven natural lakes in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The lake plays an important role in urban life, providing recreation and serving as an essential natural reservoir for excess rainwater during the six-month monsoon season. It is also home to thousands of marginalized poor families who live along its shores.

Boeung Kak was long ignored by Phnom Penh’s powerful elite — until recently, when they found a way to profit. In February 2007, the city entered into a 99-year lease agreement with Shukaku, Inc., a private domestic firm with close links to local politicians and Chinese developers. For a mere $79 million, Shukaku now controls 133 hectares, including Boeung Kak and surrounding land.

The plan is to fill in 90 percent of the lake and turn the area into “pleasant, trade, and service places for domestic and international tourists.” The problem is what to do with annual floodwaters and the 20,000 lakeside residents.

“This contract, which threatens to displace at least 4,252 families, was negotiated in a shroud of secrecy without even the pretense of participation from the tens of thousands of people who will be directly affected,” says David Pred, Cambodia Country Director of Bridges Across Borders (BAB), a member of the Cambodian Housing Rights Task Force. “If these families are forcibly removed from their homes, this would mark the largest single displacement of people in Cambodia since the privatization of land in 1989.”

A drainage and flooding assessment released earlier this month by an Australian team warns against the project.

“It should be recognized that not only will flood levels increase, but the frequency of flooding will also increase (in the Boeung Kak Area). The combined effluent and stormwater drainage system in Phnom Penh means that any flooding will have serious water-quality and public-health implications,” the report states.

Other groups, too, are outraged that lakeside residents have not been informed about the development scheme, and are simply being told that they will be compensated and moved.

“The development will lead to evictions, despite many of the affected families having strong legal claims to the land under the Land Law. . . . (A)ffected communities are currently being made nonnegotiable offers of compensation or houses in a relocation site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The compensation offered is insufficient for families to obtain comparable alternative housing, and housing at the relocation site is inadequate: infrastructure is poor, basic amenities, including clean water, are lacking, and access to work opportunities is very limited given the distance from the city. Moreover, offers include no formal security of tenure for those agreeing to move,” says a statement released this month by organizations working on human-rights and housing issues in Cambodia.

The authors include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

Life has not been easy in Cambodia for decades, even at the best of times. In recent years, the government has struggled to staff offices and provide public services. “In many cases, this was achieved through delegation of de facto power to existing local authorities, creating layers of bureaucracy that the government could not afford to pay,” explains COHRE in a November 2008 report titled, ” Title Through Possession or Title Through Position?”

“This led to a revival of traditional Cambodian practices in which public servants buy their offices from more powerful patrons. In order to pay their debts — and make ends meet — officials are then tacitly expected to skim public proceeds and impose unofficial fees for services,” notes the COHRE paper.

“The prevalence of corruption in contemporary Cambodia dictates that many essential public services . . . tend to be contingent on the payment of bribes often unaffordable to the poor,” adds the report.

Pred, of Bridges Across Borders, points out that lawlessness is another problem.

“The lease agreement that Shukaku Inc. signed with the Municipality of Phnom Penh violates numerous provisions of Cambodian Land Law that protect natural resources, such as lakes, from commercial development and destruction. The lease calls for the filling of Boueng Kak Lake — a crucial natural reservoir for excess rainwater, but it also deprives the city of one of its last remaining open spaces and landscape amenities. An environmental impact assessment — required by law before the commencement of any major development project — has not been made public or approved by the Ministry of Environment, yet the filling of the lake has already begun,” he explains.

Filling began in August, and local residents’ houses are already collapsing, one by one, into the sodden shoreline. Meanwhile, as aid money continues to pour in, the Cambodian government is not the least bit sheepish about such flagrant violations of law and human rights.

This month, Cambodia announced that aid pledges for 2009 already total $951.5 million, up almost 30 percent from 2008′s $690 million. China has promised the most ($256.7 million), followed by the EU ($214 million) and Japan ($112.3 million). U.S. aid will be announced after the new president takes office.

While government officials are smug, civil society groups have voiced concern about growing Chinese influence and “urge Western governments to be less complacent about corruption,” according to an article by Kay Kimsong in the Phnom Penh Post (Dec. 8).

“Despite worries about the kingdom’s endemic corruption, government officials have interpreted the unsolicited donations as a unanimous vote of confidence for the (Cambodian) government,” she writes.

“We (are) a train running on the right tracks,” Minister of Finance Keat Chhon told the media.

“We have put on a good performance. If we had not, (donors) would have canceled their aid,” Kimsong writes.

Civil-society groups and some politicians are more honest.

“Opposition leaders have lashed out at the pledges, questioning both the philanthropic intentions behind the aid and how far the kingdom is set to benefit from such a vast injection of cash,” explains Kimsong.

Japanese Ambassador Katsuhiro Shinohara is reported to have said that Japan is delighted to see the achievements of the Cambodian government and continues to support development of the economy and poverty alleviation. But if Japan truly wishes to see poverty reduction, will it look the other way as urban ecosystems are compromised and tens of thousands of Cambodians are made homeless?

On paper, at least, Japan professes concern for promoting “human security” in aid-recipient countries. “It is important to protect people who face various threats in developing countries, and to help them to acquire the capacity to deal with those threats themselves,” says Japan’s Official Development Assistance White Paper for 2007.

Without economic power or political influence, the rule of law is the only hope for displaced families to defend their “human security” from greedy speculators. Yet the White Paper admits that “rule of law remains an issue” in Cambodia.

That the phrase “remains an issue” is an understatement. As one local resident said, the privileged and powerful of Cambodia are conspiring together to “eat the kingdom.”

Transparency International is a Germany-based nonprofit organization that “measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among a country’s public officials and politicians.” It defines corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain.”

The situation in Cambodia is so bad that, in 2006, TI rated it 162nd out of 180 countries for perceived government corruption. Since then, aid has increased, while in 2008, Cambodia’s TI rating dropped further to 166 out of 180. Cambodia shares its lowly rank with two other prominent recipients of Japanese aid — Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan.

At the other end of the TI rankings, Denmark sits on top, with Germany at 14, and Japan and the U.S. at 18. China is 72nd.

Japan, the U.S., and the EU have a choice: They can follow China to the bottom, giving millions in aid to corrupt, crony politicians; or, they can raise the bar and establish more ethical approaches to helping the world’s neediest achieve human security.

This Christmas 2008, I’d like to believe the latter is within our reach.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com