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Opening the Can of Worms

Hard questions about aid

by Jonathan Cornford

In March last year I sat on an island in the Mekong River in Cambodia's Sambor district, talking to some of the fisherfolk and farmers who live there - people whose lives work to a rhythm of farming rice in the wet season, vegetables in the dry season and fishing all year round, as well as raising some livestock (chickens, buffalos, cows and some pigs).

To Australian eyes, these were poor people - they know nothing of the consumer conveniences and luxuries which we take for granted. Indeed, some of them do live in real hardship - especially the elderly who have no family support, and the households of single mothers. But most live with dignity and some satisfaction with their lifestyle of fishing and farming (they also have their complaints), and would not necessarily think of themselves as 'poor'.

There were a number of villages on this island who had received assistance through a project from an international non-government aid organisation (NGO). The project used what is called an 'integrated community development' approach, providing assistance with things as diverse as building schools, vaccinating livestock, setting up community self-help groups such as rice banks and women's savings groups, and assisting the community to prepare for natural disasters (especially floods). A central principle of this approach is that villagers themselves play a key role in managing and implementing the project.

The villagers I talked to considered that they had experienced some modest but real improvements in their standard of living thanks to the assistance they had received, especially the poorer households who benefited from an extra 'safety net' buffer from projects such as rice banks (which store some of the community's surplus rice from good years, which can be loaned at no interest in time of need) designed to give them a fall-back in the lean months. In short, they had benefited from international aid, some of it given directly by people like yourselves through non-government aid organisations, and some of it funded by your tax dollars through the Australian Government's aid program.

However the villagers I talked to that day were worried that their lives would soon be turned upside down. The Cambodian Government has given rights to a Chinese company to develop a massive hydropower dam just downstream from their village. The power would be sold to the energy-hungry economies of Thailand or Vietnam.

One woman, Mrs Som, tells me she does not know much about dams, "but if it is built, everything will be lost." Certainly the local impacts of the dam would be significant. It would force the resettlement of  thousands of people from the area, in a context where there is already escalating conflicts over land. Where would they go? However the impacts of the dam would extend far further: situated on the Mekong river between Cambodia's Great Lake (the Tonle Sap) and its largest tributary system, it will block the migration of fish in what is the second most productive inland fishery in the world - people here depend on fish. This would affect millions in Cambodia and probably Laos as well.

The irony is that this project, although privately financed, is in many ways also the product of international aid money. For a couple of decades now, hundreds of millions of aid dollars have been spent in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, promoting hydropower projects just like this. Likewise the land conflicts mentioned above are a result of the rapid rise of commercial agribusiness in Cambodia - things like rubber and coconut plantations. This too is something that has long been encouraged and facilitated through aid money.

This sort of aid comes largely through the big international aid organisations like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, but also through country-to-country aid such as the Australian Government's aid program. Just like the rice banks and women's self-help groups in Sambor, building massive hydropower dams and encouraging agribusiness are considered to be part of  'development', and therefore something to be supported by aid (the technical term for aid is 'official development assistance' or ODA).

This illustrates some of the deep complexities and contradictions in the world of aid and development. The unfortunate reality is that, although given with humanitarian intentions, aid projects can harm people as well as help them.

Facing up to this reality puts us in a difficult position. If you are like me, you probably consider that our Government (and probably each of us individually as well) has a moral responsibility to provide assistance to poorer countries. We want to support overseas aid in principle, but how do we make sure that it isn't sometimes part of the problem?

Ultimately, like in so many other things, we have to come to terms with the fact that money does not solve things. Obviously, used well it can have enormous benefits, however this is dependent on it being accompanied by careful, compassionate, insightful and humble human action. It is the human element that makes all the difference. The presence of large sums of money without this element can be enormously destructive.

Over the course of this column we will explore questions of what makes good and bad aid, and we will be asking how the Australian Government's aid program stacks up. This will require us to look for the causes of poverty, and to ask what sort of things need to be done to address these. Much of the discussion will lead us to think about the meaning of that catch-all word 'development' that we are meant to support. This is in turn will inevitably lead us to thinking about our own lives and the ways in which they relate to these complex issues overseas.

There are few easy answers and we will not attempt to supply any here. However there is much we can learn, and much we need to begin to understand.

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