Cambodian catch-22

28 January 2003

The World Bank is considering withholding funds from Cambodia in response to government moves against an independent monitor of the forestry sector.

On 5 December, Global Witness, a UK-based NGO, reported that community representatives were “threatened and beaten” while waiting to speak with forestry officials. Despite verification by both the UN and Human Rights Watch, the government has denied the report, and is threatening to sue for defamation. Global Witness rejects the government’s counter-accusations that it instigated the protests. At the time of writing, the NGO had yet to be notified of any formal proceedings taken against it.

Community representatives from affected areas had gathered outside the Forestry offices to demand a workshop on recently completed Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, carried out by the corporate owners of forest concessions. Bank funding had been made conditional on the presence of an independent monitor, the findings of the impact assessments, and the need for community consultation. After the deadline for the assessments had been postponed by the government for over a year, companies finally submitted the documents on 11 November. Rosie Sharpe of Global Witness described the reports as “shockingly bad”, citing examples where sections of text relating to one part of the country have been copied directly into text about another part. Bank spokesperson Peter Stephens called the assessments “mixed”.

Gross mishandling of the process by the government has lead to a storm of criticism. An initial deadline for consultation was set for 30 November, allowing a mere 19 days for what would normally take three to six months. The Bank’s lead forestry advisor, Bill Magrath, agreed that 19 days was “inadequate”, but said that people who had a problem with this should “take their complaints to the government.” The Bank’s responsibility, according to Magrath, was limited to “delivering advice, resources and a framework”.

Cambodian officials pointed a finger back at the Bank, saying that “in the law it states there is public participation, but it doesn’t mean our job is to distribute these documents. The World Bank agreed [the forestry department] would be unable to distribute the documents. We don’t have the money to copy.” Well it seems neither does the Bank. When forestry officials referred community representatives to the Bank, the Bank shut its gates claiming it did not have sufficient capacity to make photocopies. Stephens said this was a human mistake: “we weren’t properly prepared for it.”

Cambodia enjoys considerable financial support from the Bank. Global Witness is calling on the Bank to withhold the second payment of $15m of a $30m structural adjustment credit, as well as cancel extension of a $5m Learning and Innovation Loan which funds forestry reform. The Bank had already decided that the government was not in compliance with the terms of the adjustment credit and had downgraded the smaller forestry loan to ‘unsatisfactory’, meaning that it could not be extended. According to Stephens, a bad situation was simply made worse by actions taken against Global Witness.

There is suspicion that Cambodian officials may be manipulating the review process in hopes of squeezing money from the forestry companies to support election campaigns which loom in July. One of the only ways to pressure the Cambodian government is through threatened suspension of international funds. The independent monitor finds itself in a catch-22; only now that they have been threatened with expulsion has sufficient international attention been brought to bear on the government.

Global Witness

Ian Porter, Country Director Southeast Asia & Mongolia, World Bank