Dilemmas of Foreign Aid

Dilemmas of Foreign Aid

Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley

Cambodia’s Curse:
The Modern History of a Troubled Land

by Joel Brinkley
Public Affairs, 2011, 416 pp.

In May 1992, deep in the forest of western Cambodia, two men bouncing along a dirt road in a jeep came upon a checkpoint. Actually, “checkpoint” is an exaggeration: what greeted them was a rail-thin teenager, Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, manning a single bamboo pole. The men halted and asked for permission to pass. The young guard refused.

The two men were Yasushi Akashi and John Sanderson, who were on their way to meet a contingent of Dutch soldiers arriving from nearby Thailand. As co-heads of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), at the time the largest peacekeeping and reconstruction effort in UN history, Akashi and Sanderson had roughly 20,000 international troops and $2 billion at their disposal. Their mission to bring peace and elections to war-torn Cambodia had the full backing of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The guard, on the other hand, was one of a few thousand remnants of the Khmer Rouge army, a formerly fearsome force that was now a rag-tag collection of bandits and gem smugglers conducting a half-hearted insurgency from bases along the Thai border.

The imbalance of power between the two sides must have been apparent, in particular to the truckload of journalists trailing behind to observe. But as Akashi and Sanderson tried to negotiate their way through, the boy refused to budge. Sheepishly, they gave up and turned around. When they arrived back at their headquarters in Phnom Penh, Akashi seethed. “We take this act quite seriously,” he said. He threatened to refer the incident to the Security Council. If Khmer Rouge fighters heard this message in their bases deep in the jungle, they didn’t much heed it. They went on to kidnap or kill dozens of aid workers and blue-helmeted soldiers, nearly sabotaging the entire UN mission.

According to Joel Brinkley, that encounter at the bamboo pole is crucial to understanding present-day Cambodia. Though it occurred nearly twenty years ago, it established a pattern that has proven difficult to break. Just as in the days of UNTAC, thousands of aid workers now populate Cambodia. And just as then, when these well-intentioned but naïve Westerners encounter problems—no longer bamboo checkpoints, but glaring cases of government corruption or abuse—they politely reason with the government to change. But the government ignores these concerns, the Westerners inevitably back down, and the status quo remains: corruption and abuse continue, and billions of dollars of aid money flow. Cambodia’s current donors are “every bit as toothless” as Akashi and Sanderson, writes Brinkley. But the victims of this cynical and predictable ritual are no longer UN officials and soldiers. Rather, they are the long-suffering Cambodian people, whom Brinkley calls the “most abused people in the world....


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