Civil society in Cambodia is typically a highly contentious issue. As a past volunteer with an NGO based in Southeast Asia, I’m fully aware of the ambivalence associated with civil societal organizations. It’s a subject that has been well chronicled as commentators have attempted to reconcile diverging opinions by highlighting the urgent need for NGOs in the developing world, while recognising that many of these institutions are victims of their own benevolence.
The problem, of course, is rooted in greed, an issue that transcends national borders. There are myriad NGOs promoting very worthy causes in the developing world, such as gender equality, poverty reduction and securing access for the most at risk segments of the population to basic human rights. But if there’s no money to be made – for both individuals and organizations – what incentive is there to devote time and resources to such causes?
The latest contribution to the discussion comes from The New York Times’ Elizabeth Becker who, in a recent article, laments the new law under consideration by Phnom Penh designed to force NGOs operating in the country to adhere to stricter regulations and ‘win (the) approval’ of the government. As she takes some not-so-subtle jabs at Cambodia’s ruling party, Becker bemoans the revenue to be lost and, as a member of the Board of Directors at Oxfam America, naturally claims that the poor will be the ones who suffer the most.
Her position has some merit. Cambodia wouldn’t be the first country in the world to use the democratic process to curtail democracy. While such efforts usually manifest themselves in referendums on term limits or laws designed to limit press freedom, it’s highly doubtful civil society would be permitted to retain much autonomy in Cambodia if the government had the final say on its projects.
The very point of a non-governmental organization is that it is non-governmental. As Virak Ou, the president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights recently said, ‘Ultimately, the fear is that the law may be used as a legislative weapon to stifle grassroots democracy and freedom of expression and association in Cambodia, in violation of the Constitution and the principle of the rule of law.’
Some point out that Cambodia doesn’t have nearly enough oversight of civil society at present. High maintenance costs, and the salaries and benefits of the expatriate staff of Cambodia’s two thousand or so NGOs, haven’t resulted in many tangible benefits for the impoverished segment of the population that civil society is supposed to be helping. Ken Silverstein’s brilliant analysis is particularly helpful on this:
‘After arriving to provide immediate relief, they gradually transform themselves into survival-focused grant-proposal-writing shops chasing dollars and holding PowerPoint-heavy workshops on “empowerment,” “governance,” “capacity-building.”’
The proposed NGO law’s core demand is to have organizations register with the government so that Phnom Penh could be kept informed of potential projects. If a nonprofit wants to build a new road, would it be an outrageous request to inform the government of their plan to do so?
All this begs the question: would a country like Cambodia be better off without the influx of western institutions? Despite the deficiencies, there’s still a strong argument for NGOs. One needs only to look at Burma. The military junta there prohibits any type of outside influence; they even initially barred relief agencies from distributing humanitarian aid after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 130,000 people in 2008.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is surely politicizing the NGO issue to his benefit, despite claims to the contrary. And nonprofits operating within the country shouldn’t be immune to standard regulatory checks to ensure that these institutions are in compliance with state laws. But none of this should stop NGOs from having a positive impact if they remain true to their ultimate objective of helping those in need and find ways of working with host governments.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.