Both countries have changed greatly, with rapid economic growth and the emergence of an internationally integrated middle class. However, they both remain plagued by deep corruption, are far from reliable international partners for the West, and face major political problems despite large programs of Western aid engagement — why?
The basic tactical and strategic weakness of Western aid donors stems from fundamental problems with the way they organise interventions. Donors organise on the basis of the belief that they can link resource commitments to predictable outcomes (this is the ‘log frame’ that underpins projects — concretising the belief in evidentially based interventions). But the data shows that this approach is deeply flawed (see Fforde, Coping With Facts — A Skeptic’s Guide to the Problem of Development, Kumarian Press, 2009). One problem is that it engenders sectarianism — different donors have different beliefs, and there is no central authority figure who can knock heads together and say what the truth of the matter is. The basic lesson from Cambodia is that wise recipients quickly learn how to ‘divide and rule’. And one thing is for sure: the recipients learn this lesson faster than donors.
Research on the effectiveness of aid methods tends to reinforce the view of whoever paid for it (that is, specific donors), rather than accurately recording what is happening in the real world.
One fundamental problem lies in the issue of ‘capacity’, which is also linked to the problem of coordination. As donors begin to supply resources (technical assistance, money and so on), which they hope will lead to economic and social development, there will appear to be a link between the resources supplied and the development ‘achieved’. But this link is not crucial. Donors spend the early stages of engagement hurriedly looking for people to disburse their aid to who can comply with their requirements to write reports, proposals and evaluations. This involves chasing people and institutions with the capacity to comply — those people with language, technical and other ‘skills’. Then funds can be disbursed and the donor can generate the activity they need to report success to their governments. Since the number of people who fit the donor’s requirements (or the ‘capacity’ for dispersal) is initially small, the process is contested, prices get bid up, and donors tend to fail to select people who are suitable in the long term (because their focus is to disburse funds in the short term). Recipients learn fast, and after a few years the game is set, as those people selected initially to disburse aid will control the funds for a long time. Add to this corruption, links within elites, the arrival and creation of new elites, and the problems facing donors are obvious. Donors are not organised to think long term. Local elites are.
The emergence of internationally integrated local middle classes also inhibits donors from engaging with ordinary local people. In both Vietnam and Cambodia most people remain rather poor (though often far better off than they were), politically disempowered and ruled by corrupt regimes more or less disposed to use repression. Mass education is of low quality. Aid donors tend to access ordinary people through surveys (often of ‘poverty’), and use methods that easily channel issues in directions acceptable to donor and local elite politics. Access to the concerns of ordinary people is limited. Backpackers, anthropologists and others often startle donor officials with what they report.
Local NGOs rely heavily upon outside support; this can be a bad thing, or not. The contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia here is striking. In Vietnam, decisions taken in the 1990s meant that donor resources went into ‘safe’ hands — structures controlled by local elites. While these structures ostensibly ‘advocated’ for disadvantaged groups, in reality they didn’t take the risky steps necessary for real engagement in civil society. As a consequence structures that could really support workers, farmers and ethnic minorities were not created. In Cambodia, donors put major resources into local NGOs, and these now engage politically with hot issues such as land conflicts. So decisions taken early need to be re-examined, and they may not be. Donors are not organised to think politically. Local elites are.
Donors quite legitimately have political goals, but they are organised on the basis of false beliefs in predictability, which, in combination with their lack of effective and long-term organisation, helps explain why they lose.
Adam Fforde is Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University and Principal Fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne