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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How Cambodian NGOs try to deviate from the beaten track of funding

For NGOs working in Cambodia and functioning with institutional funds, funding applications are a recurring pain and invariably a source of stress. “Of course there are advantages in relying on institutional funding, especially when your activities do not make people cry”, a NGO director explains, anonymously. The drawbacks are all the procedures we have to respect – and they are quite heavy: accountancy, the need to follow actions which give some visibility to institutional partners. And then, we have to adapt to the particular way they speak and follow their line of argument, which varies depending on the trend: defending democracy and the rule of law, gender equality... Sometimes I think that if did all things perfectly, as I should, I wouldn’t have any time to establish the missions for which I tried to raise funds.” Parallel to this chameleon method, initiatives appear and generate modest funds and act as a safety valve for Cambodian NGOs. Here is a non-exhaustive review of some of them.

The doctor who plays the cello
Since 2000, Beat Richner, a paediatrician and cellist, has been giving concerts in Siem Reap twice a week. The goal is to raise money for the Kantha Bopha hospitals, for Cambodian children. In 2008, he directly raised USD200, 000 with his concerts. Indirectly, they generated donations made by tourists after their stay in Cambodia. “In the end, the spin-off is equivalent to 5 to 7 million dollars per year”, Beat Richner says. The artist Beatocello, the stage name chosen by the doctor, constitutes a rather important part of the annual budget for the functioning of the NGO (34 million dollars) on top of which come contributions made by Cambodia and Switzerland, each of them bringing in 2 million dollars. Kantha Bopha hospitals do not benefit from institutional funds but mainly depend on private donations, usually equivalent to less than USD500... This year, Beat Richner thinks ahead of the effects of the economic crisis through a support campaign launched among 90,000 reference donors: he is asking for 20 Swiss Francs (i.e. slightly more than 17 dollars) to ensure the functioning of hospitals. He is also preparing a series of concerts in his home country.

Selling bricks to buy walls
Apart from functioning problems, some NGOs are faced with nasty surprises. The organisation Mith Samlanh received a bad blow when in May 2006 the landlord announced that he intended to sell. The NGO, which looks after nearly 2,200 street children every day and tries to rehabilitate them in the state school system, in their own families or in society with a job, did not have any interest in leaving the premises, located in a tourist area where many street children live and work, and where the organisation’s restaurant welcomes customers (70% are tourists), and gives the NGO a large audience and good visibility. Their decision was made: they had to buy. But there’s the snag: finding 3 million dollars. ANZ bank surely gives out loans, but the interest rate, now as high as 10%, is prohibitive. Kerri Manika, who is in charge of communication for the organisation, had the idea of launching a campaign to sell bricks painted by the children of Mith Samlanh. In exchange for 50 dollars, payable via the Internet, donors see their names on the brick, which is then put on top of others, painted with the names of other supporters of the NGO. The result is a beautiful multicoloured wall. The campaign brought in some 25,000 dollars in 2008, according to land campaign fundraising manager Penny Tynan.

A thousand and one little initiatives launched by networks
At PSE Pour un Sourire d’Enfant , an NGO founded in 1993 by Christian and Marie-France des Pallières to help underprivileged children, the crisis has left its consequences. “Usually, we have 200 sponsorships to renew every year but in May 2008, we lost 500”, Pin Sarapich, director of PSE’s vocational training centre. The des Pallières couple, who drive all over France to find and encourage individual donations, had to double their efforts. Thanks to a method tested for years now, they managed to find strong back up from an organisation where many individual initiatives and unexpected donations come from. For example, Alex, an eleven-year old British boy, signed a contract with his parents, stipulating that he would receive a pound (1.4 dollar) every time he reads a book and sums it up for them. Between his reads and those of other students united in the project, Alex was able to gather up 11,000 pounds for PSE.

And there is also those who climb mountains in favour of the association, those who give the money they received as a wedding present… But initiatives also exist in Cambodia. While a Cambodian millionaire once offered a USD500 donation to PSE provided the moment was filmed on a camera, common people’s donations are more modest but are as efficient. PSE staff therefore decided to save some money every month for a year to help the NGO. Their efforts paid: they saved USD1, 200 every month. For their part, alumni organised evenings in aid of PSE. For the occasion, on April 10th this year, the Stung Meanchey PSE centre will turn into a massive night club and the money collected will fund the resettlement of families affected by the relocation of the municipal dump.

The trend is in auctions
In the wake of charity galas and concerts, auctions started appearing in Cambodia. The services of local and international artists are called upon and the money from their art works donated to an NGO. The Living Room Cafe, trying to stand out with its social role, was not a first-timer in that matter when on March 8th a cocktail party and an auction of artistic lamps were organised. Funds were donated to LICADHO in support of children living with their mothers in prison. The money will allow them to be in a safe place to receive education.


Different style but same good cause, SIPAR, an NGO which supports and encourages the creation of libraries in the country and develops the publishing of children’s books in Khmer, received nearly USD46,000 to open a big library and produce a documentary-book on the environment. The sum is the result of an internet auction. Indeed, IWC, the Swiss luxury watch-making company, has created with the collaboration of the Saint-Exupery Foundation, a series of watches to pay tribute to the works of author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A one-off luxury platinum edition is on auction and the money will then be donated to a project for children, selected by the Foundation for its good reputation. Limited editions of the watch will be sold to collectors and enthusiasts.

At the heart of all those initiatives, word of mouth is an essential part of NGOs’ work.

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Trial on trial

The latest revelations about alleged misconduct and corruption at the Khmer Rouge tribunal have startled even its most jaded critics. Indeed, the nature of this dirty laundry suggests that the UN-backed tribunal is so deeply flawed that its very existence needs to be reevaluated.

Corruption allegations are unfortunately nothing new at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC. Since 2006 there have been repeated calls by watchdog groups for an investigation into media reports that Cambodian staff and judges at the ECCC had to pay up to 30 percent of their salary to get and keep their job.

In 2008, several Cambodian whistle-blowers filed complaints with UN staff members alleging corruption at the tribunal. The UN carried out a review of these complaints, and in August 2008 sent a report directly to the Cambodian government. The UN has refused to make public the results of its review, and no details of the underlying allegations have been made public. The Cambodian government, predictably, dismissed the allegations out-of-hand as "unsubstantiated," and rejected the authority of the UN to investigate Cambodian nationals.

In January, the defense team representing Nuon Chea, "Brother No. 2," filed a complaint with the municipal court in Phnom Penh claiming that unresolved allegations of corruption violated their client's right to a fair trial. The complaint mentioned two senior Cambodian tribunal administrators - Keo Thyvuth, the former chief of personnel, and Sean Visoth, the head of administration. Predictably, the municipal court refused to act on the complaint.

The report of a delegation from the German Parliament that visited the tribunal in October 2008 raises serious new questions about the nature of the corruption, as well as what the UN knew and when.

In that report - available online at the Bundestag's Web site until apparently being removed on Feb. 25 - the delegates described a meeting with Knut Rosandhaug, deputy director of administration at the ECCC, during which he indicated that the UN had investigated Sean Visoth and "had come to the conclusion that he is guilty of corruption."

This is an extraordinary assertion, which, if true, goes to the very heart of the tribunal. Sean Visoth, director of the Office of Administration, is the most senior Cambodian administrator at the tribunal. In August 2008, he promised to resign if ever found guilty of corruption. He is currently on medical leave.

A presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of justice, and it would be inappropriate to rush to judgment on Sean and assume that the comments reportedly made by Rosandhaug - even if they were in fact made - are in fact accurate. The Bundestag report is hearsay and cannot be used as proof of the truth of the statements alleged to have been made by Rosandhaug.

Nevertheless, the allegations are extremely serious and must be addressed. To this point the Cambodian authorities have routinely dismissed as "unverified" all allegations of corruption that have been brought to their attention. But now the chief Cambodian administrator at the tribunal is implicated by name in the parliamentary report of a donor nation, and that requires clear, thorough and independent review by a competent investigative body.

One thing is clear: The recently agreed-upon mechanism to investigate corruption at the ECCC is woefully inadequate and falls far short of being the competent body required to instill confidence and adequately undertake this important task.

On Feb. 23, the UN and the Cambodian government announced that they had agreed upon parallel but autonomous national and international mechanisms to receive complaints regarding wrongdoing at the tribunal, which would apparently give the Cambodians power to veto any joint investigations of Cambodian staff or administrators.

A system where each side handles the complaints of its own staff has already been tried and has failed at the tribunal. The Open Society Justice Initiative, a nongovernmental organization, has criticized the new parallel mechanism as being merely a continuation of the failed current policy while doing "nothing to alter the de facto Cambodian government veto, which has stymied genuine investigations of corruption to date."

Can we trust Cambodian appointees to honestly investigate allegations of corrupt practices by senior Cambodian administrators? Surely not, given the perception of political influence and widespread corruption within the Cambodian judicial system.

What is urgently needed is a demonstrably trustworthy investigative mechanism - one free from possible manipulation by Cambodian appointees. Ideally such a mechanism should be independent, with judicial authority and with broad-ranging investigative powers. One option would be to hire an experienced auditing company to conduct a review, with a public report made to the tribunal's judges, containing recommendations for the filing of criminal charges in the municipal court if warranted.

The Bundestag report also suggests disturbing questions about what the UN knew and when, and raises the specter that the UN has once again been complicit in keeping secret the wrongdoings of senior Cambodian tribunal staff.

This would not be the first time that the UN has been accused of covering up evidence of Cambodian misdeeds at the ECCC. In 2007, the UN Development Program attempted, unsuccessfully, to keep secret the report of independent auditors that had found evidence of such serious flaws in the hiring practices at the tribunal that they recommended the wholesale firing of all Cambodian tribunal staff.

Given the history of allegations about corrupt practices at the tribunal and the level of skepticism and distrust evident amongst donors, civil society and monitors, surely a policy of full disclosure is called for? Leaked reports can seriously undermine credibility, and credibility is a commodity in short supply at the moment in Phnom Penh.

The problem is not so much the whiff of corruption but rather that the UN refuses to deal with it in a direct, transparent and credible way that enhances the credibility of the court.

John A. Hall, a professor at the Chapman University School of Law, in Orange, California, has carried out extensive human rights fieldwork in Cambodia.
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