NGOs in Cambodia: It’s Complicated
Image Credit: REUTERS/Tran Quang Tuan

NGOs in Cambodia: It’s Complicated


A visitor to Cambodia very quickly notices the NGOs. It seems barely possible to walk for 10 minutes in downtown Phnom Penh and not come across the logo of one humanitarian organization or another. According to the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC) today there are about 3500 registered NGOs in Cambodia. Admittedly fewer than half are currently active, but that is still about one active NGO for every 10,000 Cambodians. In fact, it has the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world, after only Rwanda.

The NGO boom in Cambodia began in the early 1990s after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, marking the start of an era of development and democratic processes following more than fifty years of political turbulence. In fact, the very first NGOs – the International Rescue Committee, Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam GB – had been in Cambodia since as far back as the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Fearful of being drawn into the political struggle, however, other organizations stayed away. But once UN-sponsored elections took place, that hesitancy quickly disappeared. International NGOs flocked to Cambodia, while home-grown organizations also began to emerge.

As in many other developing countries, the scope of activities of both international and local NGOs is very broad and touches upon almost every sector of social development: the environment, civil and religious education, human rights, poverty alleviation, emergency relief and many others. Some NGOs specialize, others try to fulfill a very broad mission. In general, though, the NGOs seek to fill gaps in government social and economic policies.

According to the CCC’s 2012 report, between 20 and 30 percent of Cambodia’s population benefit directly from the activities of NGOs. Along with their long-term development programs, NGOs are often the first to respond to disasters and provide first aid to victims. Yet while there is widespread recognition of the significant contribution NGOs have made to Cambodia’s reconstruction and development, their role does occasionally attract controversy.

Lack of Structure

At first glance, the very large number of NGOs operating in Cambodia might suggest a degree of chaos. That impression would not be entirely inaccurate. Coordination and networking is thus an essential part of successfully working in the field and many NGOs build this into their action plans.

Caroline McCausland, vice chair of the CCC Executive Committee and ActionAid country director explains: “ActionAid works with local partners and has a comprehensive partnership policy which includes criteria on how well the local organization coordinates with others in the local area. ActionAid Cambodia is also an active member of a number of networks which coordinates work on issues such as education, disaster risk reduction, gender based violence and humanitarian response.”

However, the efforts of NGOs alone are not sufficient to enable comprehensive coordination. As McCausland notes, “It is the government’s responsibility to coordinate the actions of development organizations at the sub-national level through mechanisms such as ProCoCom (Provincial Cooperation Committee).” Unfortunately, the government is not always capable of doing this, leaving a risk of duplicated projects and programs as well as the absence of a common forum for sharing experiences, both positive and negative.

Commercializing Humanitarian Work

One side of effect of this lack of structure and regulation is the emergence of for-profit NGOs. More and more sources point to cases where NGOs have turned into for-profit structures. Tax exemptions and the absence of an effective regulatory system make it relatively easy to do business under the guise of humanitarian activities. There are numerous ways to do this, starting with the straight-out misuse of donor funds for private purposes and ending with more elaborate schemes, such as company owners setting up an NGO that uses the products their own company makes. Often, this is less malfeasance than simple ignorance. As McCausland tells The Diplomat, “There is in Cambodia a general misunderstanding on what is a non-profit and [what is a] for-profit organization.”

Some donors try to minimize the risks of dealing with “for-profit NGOs” by requiring the submission of an audit report by a credible audit firm as part of the grant application form. However, high audit fees make this requirement a serious challenge for local NGOs operating on tiny budgets.

Attempting to respond to these challenges, the Cambodian government drafted a law on associations and NGOs (known as LANGO), which sought to tighten registration requirements for NGOs and impose some measure of control. Although debate on the legislation started as early as September 2008, it has yet to be passed. LANGO has drawn staunch opposition from the NGO community, led by CCC, which argues that the law’s requirements are so vague as to allow the government to shut down any NGO without explanation. As a result of CCC efforts and criticism from the international community, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to delay adoption. A new round of the consultations between the government and the NGOs is expected to begin in January 2014.

Salary Trap

Another source of controversy surrounding NGOs in Cambodia is the comparatively high salaries received by their workers. For their expatriate staff, NGOs need to compete against commercial organizations in Western labor markets. To attract experienced professionals, that means offering their employees competitive (by Western standards) wages and career development prospects.

The average income in Cambodia is about 750 dollars a year. Local government officials at the commune and village level receive 37.50 a month, although this will rise next year to 75 dollars a month according to a government sub-decree. Salaries in Phnom Penh are higher, but still far short of Western standards.

Aside from the disparities, the salary issue also means that running costs for international NGOs programs can constitute a significant part of their budget, raising questions about the efficiency of resource allocation. Proud announcements of aid allocated through NGOs can be illusory, as only a portion of it actually reaches beneficiaries.

This salary competition also has a local dimension. Even though local staff at NGOs make less than their expat colleagues, they still do better than Cambodians working for government institutions. This can in turn encourage skilled professionals to leave state institutions for NGOs. Indeed, surveys have shown that most Cambodian graduates prefer to work either for a bank or an international organization, including an international NGO. Added to NGOs’ readiness to substitute for the government in areas where policies are still weak, this first pick of Cambodia’s best and brightest creates the risk that the government’s own capabilities will be compromised.

The positive impact that NGOs have on Cambodia and its people is clearly evident, but it is also clear that their presence has some unintended consequences. The NGOs and the government need to work together to address them.

Helena Domashneva is a freelance journalist.

December 16, 2013 at 02:25

As a former country director for a major international NGO in Cambodia, this debate pops up from time to time, without any real analysis of underling causes. Many times the narrative has a moral undertone rather factual which hides the structural causes for the situation.
First of all, it is important to say that the scene is changing and more and more international NGOs are led by Khmers. This is a positive development reflecting an increased number of experienced Cambodian managers and leaders. They will almost always be dealing more effectively with their counterparts in the government, rightfully giving more control to Cambodians over the Cambodian development.

The labour market in most countries, and especially Cambodia, are “free” markets. Given the requirements from funders in the donor countries there is a need to employ the most capable and experienced staff available. And that will cost as there are not many of them around. Actually the high salary levels are reflecting the professional demands on the work force in a developed country more than in Cambodia. Note that the other most attractive group of employers within the finance and banking sector that is also to a high degree requiring skills on an international level.
There is only one way to go and that is to reform the the private and government sector to be more competitive on the labour market. The government must make more effort to build an educational system from primary up to tertiary level.
The universities has improved in recent years but on the other hand, government universities are not independent, limiting their role in being platforms for debate and critical quality research on policy.

An important reason why foreigners are employed as managers is that they also need to be in touch with funders in the donor countries. Understanding of the political context in the donor countries is an important requirement for a country director. Regardless, the trend is that donors need to get used to talk to locally employed managers.

The role of most NGOs in developing countries is to substitute for government when government is too weak to deliver services. A smaller group of NGOs will focus on advocacy to strengthen for example human rights and gender equality. As the government gets stronger, being able to deliver basic social services, NGOs will be pushed out from service delivery. NGOs that survive will be more focused on advocacy and influencing policy, becoming part of the wider civil society movement. In other cases they might convert into more commercially oriented enterprises. This is happening today in Cambodia. I am not sure if this is a bad thing – it is a modernisation that will find its own path. This is in particular true in the unregulated Cambodian context. The LANGO should be understood in that context: it is not to control the NGOs, but to have control over the future development of the whole civil society.

Duncan Stuart
December 5, 2013 at 10:43

Good article. if anything it goes a little too easy on the NGO sector I feel. I’m involved with a small NGO near Siem Reap (a school) so that’s my perspective. I think you raise a great point in terms of salaries, but don’t ask the corollary question: why do so many NGOs employ foreigners when there are well-trained people with good local knowledge able to – surely – take the reigns.

When we set up the school (foreign funding) we had the choice of what the NGO should look like. Should it be foreign-run and adhere to western standards immediately – or should it be locally directed, with us funders as partners rather than directors? We chose the latter route for the simple reason that the future of Cambodia should be in the hands of Cambodians. Nine years later I’ve never had cause to question this decision.

It worries me that “foreign experts” safely ensconced in Phnom Penh are drawing salary resources that might go further, and more effectively if locals were employed instead.

Sure, us foreigners have our uses and our skills, but if would be refreshing to see a few of the large NGOs come out with a clear policy of “nationalisation” at the senior management level.

As for the pay rates for locals in NGOs, I agree that they can pay better than local non-NGO jobs. One area where NGOs may be setting the standard is in such areas as sick leave, bereavement leave, annual leave and recognition (through a gift to staff) of important holidays such as Pchum Ben. We don’t try to be the “highest payer” in our district (there’s never enough money for that!) but we do try to set an ethical standard.

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