USAID has provided over $800 million in support of Cambodia’s development since 1992. The current USAID program in Cambodia traces its roots to humanitarian assistance activities in support of Cambodian non-communist resistance groups beginning in 1986. U.S. assistance to Cambodia accelerated sharply after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, which in turn led to the re-opening of the USAID mission in 1992.
With the establishment of a full-scale mission, USAID shifted to a more strategic, long-term approach to reflect the development needs of Cambodia. While the initial focus was on meeting basic human needs, USAID also developed programs to support the UN-sponsored move to establish a freely elected government. Improved health and education services also emerged as key concerns. From the outset, USAID funding was primarily delivered through contracts and grants to private voluntary organizations or international organizations, a pattern that continues to this day. In order to ensure sustainability, USAID increased the number of Cambodian-run organizations it has worked with over the years, with many going on to become some of the leading local NGOs in the country.
The early years were dominated by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the organizational embodiment of the 1991 Paris Peace Conference. UNTAC’s main task was to provide essential security and administrative support in the country long enough to conduct national elections. UNTAC was the most complex – and, at $1.9 billion over two years, the most expensive – peacekeeping operation in the UN’s history, involving 22,000 civilian and military peacekeepers from 46 countries. Its prime mission was to create conditions for “free, fair and open” national elections to choose a new government.
The first election was successfully held in May 1993 and involved significant participation among all segments of the Cambodian population. This was followed by adoption of a new constitution, the seating of a National Assembly, and the coronation of King Sihanouk in September 1993. National reconciliation was incomplete, however, in part because the disarming and demobilization of the various military forces did not take place as planned.
Having financed a large share of the UNTAC operation, the United States had a significant stake in preserving the fragile peace and democracy that prevailed from the time of the elections in 1993 up to the factional fighting in 1997. During that period, and based on strong economic growth and a continuing fragile peace, USAID shifted to a more sustainable and long-term development program. The United States was the second-largest bilateral donor in Cambodia throughout much of this period, trailing only Japan.
When Second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted his coalition partner First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in factional fighting in early July 1997, the result was a dramatic shift and setback for the evolving USAID development program. The United States temporarily suspended two-thirds of its $37 million program until the government made measurable progress toward free and fair elections. The only activities left in place were those that were demonstrably humanitarian in nature or promoted the democratic process.
In this climate, preparations began for new national elections. USAID helped by providing support to three indigenous election monitoring organizations that worked to raise voter awareness. The groups also fielded over 22,000 monitors countrywide for the national elections, held on July 26, 1998. More than 93% of all registered voters participated. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the majority of votes. However, it failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to form a new government.
Tensions remained high and sporadic political violence occurred throughout a four-month deadlock. Then, on November 30, 1998, Hun Sen’s CPP party and Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party formed a coalition government. The National Assembly and a newly formed Senate began operating; other donors returned to respond to Cambodia’s request for development assistance; and the Cambodian government announced its intentions of embarking on a path toward reform. Subsequent elections in July 2003 also resulted in a political deadlock, this one taking almost a year to resolve. Once again, the CPP emerged with the most seats in the National Assembly but had to rely on FUINCINPEC to form a viable government.
National Assembly elections in 2008 were freer than any previously held in Cambodia, with the vast majority of Cambodia’s registered voters able to express their choice in an atmosphere more open than any time in the country’s history. USAID programs designed to engage women in the democratic process had a visible impact: women filled 15% of the National Assembly seats, reflecting a trend of steady increases over previous elections, and women candidates were selected for a newly created deputy prime minister position and 24 deputy provincial governor positions.
USAID programs in Cambodia have evolved over time, with U.S. government policy and legislative parameters continuing to have an important impact. In 2000, USAID was authorized to engage directly with the Government of Cambodia on issues related to HIV/AIDS. In 2002, this authority was extended to include programs related to basic education and trafficking as well. In 2007, Congress lifted restrictions barring most direct U.S. assistance to the Cambodian government. Following this change, the United States now has bilateral agreements with Cambodia in health, education and economic growth.
Still, the USAID program is largely implemented through partnerships with a variety of non-governmental organizations, with an emphasis on helping Cambodian-run organizations grow and become more sustainable. Forty-two percent of USAID’s current budget goes directly and indirectly to Cambodian-run NGOs, reflecting USAID’s commitment to building a vital civil society in Cambodia.
USAID’s current program reaches all 24 provinces in Cambodia and has an FY 2010 budget of $69 million, a more than 300% increase over the previous 10 years. The mission has a staff of 65, two thirds of whom are Cambodian, and its portfolio is expanding into new program areas, including food security and climate change. USAID’s current health programs promote improved services in areas such as infectious disease including HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and maternal and child mortality; its general development efforts are increasing private-sector competitiveness, promoting human rights and the rule of law, and reducing corruption; and its education activities are improving the quality, relevance and accessibility of basic education.
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