|Volume 9, Issue 2||Spring 1999|
9th Annual Forum Conference in Phnom Penh a Huge Success
by Amanda Hickman
After 8 years of holding the Conference of the Forum on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the US, the Conference was held in Indochina for the first time, and the response was very positive. What follows is a summary of the presentations given in plenary sessions at the conference. Readers may want to keep in mind that many of the issues in the forefront of people's minds in Cambodia in January have been resolved, at least to some degree, by the time of this writing. Cambodia was accepted into ASEAN on April 30. The Consultative Group met in Japan and pledged $470 million in assistance.
Introduction and Welcome
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng opened the conference and welcomed everyone to Phnom Penh with an overview of the current political situation in Cambodia. He observed that ninety percent of the population participated in the July elections, and that in August, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed that the election was democratic. The government formed by Hun Sen in November complies with the Cambodian constitution. For two decades, he noted, the civil war has destroyed Cambodia's infrastructure and devastated the Cambodian people. The process of building a democracy and rehabilitating the country is still young, only five years old, but is progressing.
The new government is confident that it can strengthen peace and stability in Cambodia while continuing to respect human rights. Socio-economic development requires that the country improve confidence in the legal system, the army and police, and government administration. This will allow the country to raise Cambodia's standard of living and alleviate poverty. The Royal Government, he explained, is also committed to demining lands and expanding farming opportunities for destitute Cambodians. The government welcomes and congratulates NGOs, who are integral to the country's development and rehabilitation. New NGO laws in the works will make NGOs more effective in partnership with the government.
Minister Sar Kheng also emphasized that membership in ASEAN is very important to Cambodia both politically and economically, and that Cambodia intends to meet criterion that ASEAN has set for the nation's membership.
Lessons for Transitional Economies from the Asian Economic Crisis
R. Natarajan, Chief Liaison Officer, World Bank Cambodia
In 1993, soon after the formation of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the government was committed to moving macroeconomic priorities away from a command approach. Their efforts were met by substantial investment and aid which fueled remarkable growth. In 1990, GDP growth was maybe 1% but by 1994 it was 7% per year. Per capita income grew, inflation was contained, the riel stabilized - all encouraging patterns of development. Growth was a boom for urban centers, but rural areas did not feel the benefits as quickly. Agriculture and service related sectors were expanding faster than manufacturing.
We arrive at July 1997: July 2 the baht is devalued, July 5 the Cambodian political crisis unfolds and substantially reduces the inflow of foreign investment and aid. No one can tell which factor was subordinate because they arrived together. The crises exacerbated one another and made it difficult for the economy to overcome either one. Investment in Cambodia was coming primarily from countries affected by the economic crisis, and because the economy relies heavily on the dollar, the country was not in a position to take advantage of the declining currency. Hotel rooms priced in dollars cost 2-3 times what the same room would cost in Bangkok, which took an extra toll on tourism. The country scraped through '97 without much inflation, but jobs were lost. The fall in Indonesia and Thailand was steeper because they started higher, but hardship increased in Cambodia as well.
In many senses, the economic crisis is a disaster, but it forces everyone to look for more substantial, people centered development paradigms. It presents us with a golden opportunity to rethink development paradigms.
Some thoughts on what we might do, or at least, what we might consider more closely:
William Pearson, Cambodia Mission Director, USAID
Country Plenary: Cambodia
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Co-Minister of Defense
In addition to being overstaffed, the armed forces do not have barracks - soldiers carry their weapons home every night. Military arms, then, are used in personal disputes, and contribute to the over armament of the Cambodian population as a whole. Building barracks must be a priority of the military reform plan.
In January, after exploring examples set in Nicaragua, Mozambique and El Salvador all countries that went through effective demobilization programsPrime Minister Hun Sen announced a plan to get rid of 55,000 soldiers and 24,000 police over the next 4 ½ years. The government needs help making the program work. The plan calls for an initial outlay of $25 million from outside agencies in addition to the national budget allotted to the army, to build barracks and restructure the army. Soldiers will be demobilized in phases and provided with some money to help make the transition smoothly to civilian life. An important part of this process will be depoliticizing the army - helping soldiers and civilians understand that the army does not serve a political party, but rather, the Cambodian people.
Cham Prasidh, Minister of Commerce
Prasidh then turned to the question of whether Cambodia will try the Khmer Rouge. Prasidh lost his parents, grandparents, and 84 family members in total to the Khmer Rouge, and millions of Cambodians faced the same fate. The government has heard widespread objection to the welcome afforded to Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, but argues that a state welcome was a necessary part of their surrender, and that the two would not have come forward if they had not been allowed to surrender. Perhaps they deserve to be tried, and as a victim, he wants to see them tried, but as a politician his responsibility is to the people of Cambodia and their security.
Chea and Samphan's surrender brought peace with which Cambodia can develop. 1975 was the time to look for justice but the world was quiet. Their surrender was linked to their reincorporation into society as ordinary citizens. Everyone who surrendered before and with them has blood on their hands and would be threatened by a trial. Those who are raising their voices now are hypocrites because they did not do anything when Cambodia needed help. Now that Cambodia has a chance at peace, it is hypocritical to insist on a trial that will threaten that peace. The country should take its military budget and spend it on the people. There are regions of the country that INGOs are now working in that were shut off for years. Those people are desperately in need and INGOs can serve them now. If a trial is held, farmers may be safe during the day, but they cannot be protected at night. If we don't want peace, why is the Forum here, he asked. Anyone who will take responsibility for all future civil war in Cambodia may continue to call for a trial, otherwise they should support the peace we have.
David Elder opened the questions by thanking Minister Prasidh for his unusual candor. In the question and answer period, the issue of deforestation was also addressed. Sirirath reiterated that restructuring the army and demobilizing many soldiers will make it easier to demand transparency of the rest so that timber poaching can be curtailed.
Questions focussed on the logistics of demilitarization, especially related to land reform and soldiers living on contested land, which both Sirirath and Prasidh acknowledge may prove problematic. The demobilization plan includes $1200 for each demobilized soldier to prevent unrest, and the government has been working on projects to resettle squatters with land and some credit to help get people back on their feet. One question challenged Prasidh's position on the Khmer Rouge, arguing that peace may be necessary, but the country needs a trial to prevent a second genocide. Prasidh's response was that healing the wounds left from the Khmer Rouge will bridge social divisions that might otherwise give rise to a second genocide.
Country Plenary: Laos
Mme. Khempeng Pholsena, Vice Minister in Charge of Foreign Economic Cooperation
Laos is primarily rural. Though other sectors increasingly contributed more to the GDP than agriculture, 85% of the population continues to make their living off of the land. Attempts to reduce poverty, then, necessarily focus on rural poor. Some of the significant problems include lack of access to quality education, especially for girls, and lack of access to quality health care. Poor access to health care, especially, is aggravated by poor nutrition and poor sanitation. The nation's infrastructure remains underdeveloped, and Unexploded Ordinace (UXO) are a continuing threat.
The Asian economic crisis has only exacerbated problems further. Government response to the crisis has tried to take into account the particular character of Laos. It has identified a set of priority programs to direct aid toward the country's most immediate needs. The priorities include:
The goal of development strategies is first and foremost to eradicate mass rural poverty in Lao PDR by the year 2020 through a multisectoral approach that can build a framework for sustained economic security. This encompasses on and off farm income generating activities, rural credit and finance, institutional strengthening to improve participatory planning, irrigation, education (both formal and non-formal), community forestry, sanitation and health care. The government has also constructed an anti-crisis plan focused on food production, commodity production and service development that will improve food security as well as economic stability.
Mme Khempeng stressed a number of other elements of the country's efforts to recover from and prevent a recurrence of the crisis in the future. These include screening investment priorities with respect to their impact on poverty alleviation (i.e. a hydropower project that should or is expected to generate money that can be directed toward poverty alleviation programs while providing for future needs with environmental impact in mind); macro-economic management and a continued commitment to regional integration as a source of strength both for Laos and the region.
The National Poverty Alleviation Action Plan, the National Plan of Action for Nutrition and the National Program of Action for Children each provide immediate opportunities for cooperation between the Lao government and NGOs. These action plans all call for substantial capacity building, especially human resource development, and are in need of support and involvement. Capacity building should aim to upgrade individual skills and knowledge, fortify those institutions that must facilitate social change, and reach out to the ultimate beneficiaries of social programs. Participation of NGOs and help with capacity building and institutional strengthening will allow mass organizations already in place - the Lao Women's Union and the Lao Youth Organization, etc. - to meet the country's needs and goals.
One of the biggest challenges facing Laos is the transition from top-down to participatory planning. This transition can make the country stronger in the long run but needs the support of NGOs in making the people capable of taking on the responsibility of participatory planning.
Country Plenary: Vietnam
Vu Xuan Hong, Executive Vice President, Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations
Vietnam today receives substantial international support for poverty alleviation and development programs. Official development assistance commitments came to US$ 2.7 billion for 1999, and INGOs have bugeted US$ 126 million for more than fifteen hundred projects in Vietnam. However, INGO aid is not evenly distributed, and impoverished rural provinces receive proportionately less aid than big cites like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam has an established institutional mechanism that regulates INGOs working in Vietnam. In 1996 the government established a concrete set of rules and organizations to coordinate NGo activity in Vietnam. (This system is described briefly in the plenary on cooperation, which follows.)
The Sixth Consultative Group meeting in Vietnam discussed strategies for overcoming the economic regression seen since the Asian economic crisis began. Vietnam is taking steps to foster structural reforms which emphasize reforming state owned enterprises and the banking system and developing the private sector. In addition, Vietnam has formulated seven national target programs to meet the country's development and poverty alleviation needs, with special attention paid to agriculture and rural development in all cases.
These programs are:
Vietnam is doing her best to effectively cooperate with international institutions, INGOs in particular. Vietnam encourages INGOs to work directly at the grass roots levels to help the poorest of the poor. With the great strides that have been made towards fully normalizing relations between Vietnam and the United States, there is still much to be done to address the wounds of the war and look to the future and Vietnam thanks INGOs for all of the valuable work that they do in the country.
Cooperation between International Non Profit Organizations and Host Governments
Each speaker expressed the importance of effective communication in fueling cooperation, and the importance of cooperation in reaching development goals. International NGOs, local NGOs and the government share an ultimate goal, to work together to improve the lives of people in the country in a sustainable and equitable manner.
Pres Manola, Undersecretary of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Cambodia)
Manola noted that the RGC is considerate of INGOs as partners in development and welcomes their participation, especially in human resource development. In any developing country, NGOs and the government must be partners, working together.
Chacky Boudtavong , Chief of NGOs Division, Department of International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Lao PDR)
At past conferences, the Lao delegation has tried to clarify their position: the Lao government is guided by principles of sovereignty and welcomes NGOs working to meet the country's development needs in cooperation with government agencies. NGOs need to consider the unique culture of the region they are working in, however, and should create appropriate projects and refrain from proselytizing.
Effective cooperation needs sincere contributions and a sense of reciprocity from both sidesNGOs and host countries. Laos wants to see people enjoying NGO assistance and wants NGOs to strengthen the unity of the Lao people.
Nguyen Van Kien, Deputy Director, PACCOM (Vietnam)
Poverty alleviation in Vietnam requires the mobilization of all available internal and external resources - no one body can accomplish it alone. Therefore, the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations was designated to be a focal point for NGO operation in Vietnam, with PACCOM as its main functional body. PACCOM works to facilitate relations between INGOs and local officials and recommends activities. INGOs must work through government officials, which may appear at first to hinder them, but in the long run it allows them to do more.
Carol Strickler, Cooperation Committee of Cambodia
Open communication, open exchange and access to information are fundamental to a good working relationship with the government, as is a clear and transparent regulatory system. In Cambodia, though there are many groups working to improve communication and coordination between governments and NGOs, Strickler identified a need for more coordination, as well as better sharing of information and clear guidelines and procedures. She suggested that defining a working relationship in the future will require a clear understanding of the role of NGOs in the future of Cambodia that reflects the complimentary relationship between the government and NGOs working in the country.
Russel Peterson, NGO Forum on Cambodia
NGO Forum is a network of 60 national and local NGOs. Peterson focused his talk on the role of NGOs in doing advocacy - working to convince others of the usefulness of an idea so that the idea can be put into action. NGOs working closely with the poor have a unique vantage point, which often allows them to recognize problems NGOs cannot solve alone. The government and international bodies are in a more powerful position to improve the lives of a poor, but NGOs can act as advocates for the problems they identify. In Cambodia, this advocacy is directed either at the international community, the Royal Government of Cambodia or at other
NGOs and institutions of ordinary Cambodian people. Peterson identified the primary advocacy issues for the NGO Forum as:
The NGO Forum formed during the international aid embargo to advocate an end to the embargo and restoration of international aid. During the embargo, INGOs took on infrastructure projects normally left to bilateral and multilateral donors. The Paris talks in 1991 set the way for restoration of aid and international recognition, and NGOs returned to working on community development projects. Local NGOs grew rapidly, but found they had a harder time getting access to the government. There were too many for the government to maintain good relations with and the government was necessarily focused on negotiating the bi- and multi-lateral agencies, embassies and investors that came with the restoration of international recognition.
Peterson complimented the RGC for their willingness to draw on NGOs' knowledge and experience. The government's openness benefits both government and people because it allows planners to take up ideas from NGOs working in individual communities and integrate ideas such as community forestry, participatory village government, and bottom up development approaches into national planning. He also observed, though, that some in the government who welcome the work of NGOs on most issues are less enthusiastic of work of human rights organizations. As human rights NGOs get involved in election education and monitoring programs, they contribute to the success of the electoral process and improve their relationship with the government administration.
All NGOs, Peterson said, need to help the process of reconciliation in Cambodia, and avoid advocating decisions that might refuel the conflict. The NGO Forum and the CCC were very vocal in condemning the 1997 violence, and the Forum over the last ten years has been advocating a Tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, believing that is what the people wanted. Still, Peterson stressed the importance of assessing possible repercussions of a trial and respecting divergent opinions on the subject.
Peterson concluded by reiterating that the RGC is open to dialog and provides a good environment, and that NGOs are honored to be partners in development with the government. NGOs he said, must be open to the people and to the government, just as government must be open to NGOs.
Hollyn Green, Quaker Service Lao
NGOs work side by side with government counterparts at all levels, which means that they are laying the groundwork for greater sustainability because projects can eventually be passed from the NGO to local people who can carry them forward on their own. NGOs as a group provide only 12% of the international aid that goes into Laos. The vast majority of aid comes from the World Bank, the IMF and other international loans and grants.
Green identified a number of challenges to work in Lao PDR. Large donors, she noted, should work closely with NGOs implementing projects. The recent influx of donor money is often a source of confusion when money comes with its own methodology and pre-established development goals formulated outside of Laos that do not take into account the particular lessons and experience of Laos. Budget allocations and working methodology have to be navigated together, and donors have to understand the importance of being flexible. International NGOs, as well, should remember that they are guests of Lao PDR and its people and should keep that in mind in their work.
Another challenge is that Laos has developed far-reaching plans and policies for rural development, but NGOs are often unfamiliar with the numerous polices which impact their work. Green suggested that to meet these challenges, NGOs would benefit from workshops with bilateral donor agencies and legal experts in which they exchange information and experiences and construct better long range strategy as well as clear operating guidelines for NGOs.
Development work in Laos should encourage and expand capacity building - a long term and professional change within the country, but one that will be important to the sustainability of any development work.
Green concluded with the observation that the Lao government and NGOs need to find ways to understand each other better, because both are working towards sustainable development for Laos and both have to work in tandem.
Michelle Brown, NGO Resource Center in Hanoi
The NGO Resource Center in Hanoi is an example of development cooperation. INGOs have been supporting Vietnam's development for years: sectors include Health, Education and Training, Natural Resource Management, Income Generation and more. INGOs in Vietnam work in partnerships with government agencies.
Brown observed that the nature of an INGO can be its strength - they do not carry the predetermined interests of government systems. That they are small, swift and flexible means that they can
take work where others cannot. INGOs make substantial investments in human resource development, from project beneficiaries to INGO staff to government officials. They are in a position to influence policy dialogs and get involved in projects with government and donors.
Vietnam has established a concrete framework to facilitate communication between NGOs and the government. There are important channels open that should not be taken lightly, but there is always room for improvement. Cooperation is paramount to the success and sustainability of development.
David Elder, Forum Convener
The Asian Economic Crisis has unseated the kings of development and reopened the discussion about what should actually happen. In Indochina, most of the poor still have access to land - there are not rural slums. The government accepts the priority of working to improve the lot of the poor. Poverty alleviation programs are not suspect as they are in other countries. The Conference began ten years ago at a time when US foreign policy was one of the most important factors in the region. That the conference can be held in Cambodia instead of Pennsylvania is a mark of how much has changed, not only politically but technologically as well. Email means that genuine consultation and decision making across wide gulfs is possible where it wasn't before. Moreover, wider English proficiency makes direct communication possible because it can happen in a common language.
Lu Lay Sreng, Minister of Information
On the stability situation, the Khmer Rouge are still there, but they are close to a conclusion. Political stability is a goal as well. The government welcomes political opposition, which is necessary to check and question the government, but the opposition must be good willed.
Sok An, Minister of the Council of Ministers
Finally, Minister Sok An gave his profuse thanks to all who shared their ideas, experiences, lessons and goals with the conference. After a decade of war, Cambodia is left with little other than poverty. Poverty Alleviation is a priority for the government - they have instituted a program to resettle squatters on 2 hectares of land with a small house that will allow them to begin to rebuild their lives, and the government has identified priorities for a poverty alleviation strategy:
John McAuliff, Forum Coordinator
John spoke briefly on the changing role of international NGOs as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam improve their relationships with Europe, the US, Australia, Japan and other sources of international aid.
In 1975 there were only a handful of NGOs working in the region, most of whom had come to Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam as partners, working to open new paths and communication. Today, there are hundreds of NGOs, many who come as professionals, with multi-country experience as aid givers and donors. These NGOs bring
governments and public opinion, and should act to some degree as advocates for their host country. They have to work with businesses and business needs because private investment is necessary to continued economic development. These are new roles to play, both for INGOs that have been working in Indochina since the seventies and those who arrived in the nineties.
In the interest of space, this report covers only Plenary sessions from the conference, and the next issue, due out this summer, will contain the remainder of the report.
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