• Aid. In the national interest. (Part 4)

    Posted by Ben

    20 February, 2014

    In this final post, I simply want to highlight one case study that demonstrates some serious risks and tragic outcomes from an aid project that overemphasised national interest, and the funding of infrastructure to boost economic growth.

    To be very clear at the outset, the use of this case study is not a criticism of the current Government. In fact, the project in question, the Railway Rehabilitation Project in Cambodia was supported by AusAID from 2010 ($27 million over four years) under the previous Government.

    However, the aid project failed to protect the rights of poor communities affected by the railway upgrading and construction and, as a result, communities were plunged deeper into poverty and, shockingly, children even died as a direct result.

    This project was managed by the Asian Development Bank along with the Government of Cambodia, it was partly supported by the Australian aid program, and an Australian company, Toll Holdings (operating in partnership with a Cambodian consortium), had a multi-year contract to build and operate the railway. 

    It was intended to boost freight transport for trade and economic growth. Yet it led to more than 4,000 families being displaced and resettled without adequate provision for water and sanitation, decent housing or employment – deepening the impoverishment and marginalisation of these already poor families. The Asian Development Bank's own internal report found that the resettlement had caused "direct, adverse and material harm" to thousands of people.

    AidWatch's 2012 report on the project is a thorough and devastating critique, forensically examining the aid project's use as a privatisation tool and massive taxpayer subsidy to Australian construction companies, its failure to meaningfully target poverty reduction, the damage done to communities who were displaced by the project, and the silencing of Cambodian civil society.

    The most tragic result of this botched resettlement was the drowning deaths of two children, Hut Heap (aged 13) and her younger brother Hut Hoeub (aged 9) as the pair searched for water. Their family, along with many others, had been moved onto poor land with no piped water and horrifically inadequate services. As a result, families were forced either to draw water from a pond or from a chemically-polluted rice-field nearby. An elder brother of the children had no doubt that the resettlement was the cause of his sister's and brother's drowning deaths in the pond:

    "f there were people coming to install water and electricity before I moved to live here, my siblings would not have died. There is no water … that's why my siblings came here [to the pond] to get fresh water for dish-washing." 

    These are the risks when an aid program no longer puts people in poverty at the centre, and ensures that the voice and the rights of affected communities is at the heart of good aid. These are the risks when aid prioritises economic growth or infrastructure and places the commercial interests of the donor country above the lives and livelihoods of people in poverty.

    I hope and pray that these outcomes are never repeated. However, I have concerns when I hear Foreign Minister describe her priorities for the aid program in this way:

    "We are going to explore innovative models for private sector partnerships for development, moving away from the old way of doing things, the more traditional aid program approaches... This is what I mean by ‘economic diplomacy’ which I’ve placed at the heart of Australia’s interactions with the world. For Australian companies there will be opportunities to design and build bridges and railways and schools and ports – that is a significant economic opportunity, but we encourage them to of course partner with local companies." 

    Good aid works to save and improve lives. Bad aid can kill.

    I am not arguing that all infrastructure aid is bad. Infrastructure that genuinely serves the public good is vital. Nor am I arguing that aid targeting economic growth is bad. As long as it is ecologically sustainable (which, admittedly, can be a very big if) and ensures participation and inclusion of poor and marginalised groups, ensuring decent jobs and dignity (another very big if), it can be a very powerful tool for reducing poverty.

    However, our aid program must ensure that human rights, a healthy environment, and the lives, opportunity, dignity and voice of poor and marginalised communities are central. These things must not be displaced or undermined by prioritising "economic diplomacy" or Australian business opportunities to build large-scale infrastructure.

    Remember the names of the drowned Cambodian children. Hut Heap, a poor Cambodian girl barely into her teens, and her younger brother, Hut Hoeub.

    Remember them when you think about Australian aid can do. And what it must not do ever again.

    (This is the fourth of a 4-part mini blog series examining the role that "national interest" plays in shaping Australia's aid program. To view the other blogs click here.)


    Ben Thurley is the Political Engagement Coordinator of Micah Challenge Australia.