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Cambodia's wobbly aid yardstick

Difficulty in measuring effectiveness of foreign aid complicatesdecisions on how to use the carrot.

A little more than a decade ago, the mostly Western nations that call themselves the international commu-nity considered Cambodia a pariah state and its leader, Hun Sen, the puppet of a Communist neighbor.

Times do change. Last week in Tokyo representatives of those same nations came together, listened earnestly to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and promised Cambodia $470 million in aid and assistance.

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In exchange Hun Sen promised a number of reforms and later announced he would resign within two years if unsuccessful. The donor nations said they would watch more carefully than ever to ensure that their money is not misspent.

The theory operating here is that aid gives donor nations some leverage to make good things happen in poor, troubled countries. But in the case of Cambodia, opinions differ over whether the fount of money really amounts to much influence.

The country's leading opposition politician, Sam Rainsy, says that donor countries are too divided to make their leverage count. Japanese diplomats, whose country is Cambodia's leading donor, insist that when they speak, Hun Sen listens.

A Western diplomat acknowledges that previous promises from Cambodia have gone unfulfilled. But he says that last week his government and others saw fit to give Cambodia a second chance, partly because of a new spirit of openness and cooperation on the part of Hun Sen and other officials.

It seems fair to say that Cambodia deserves more than one chance. During the past two centuries, the country has been attacked by its neighbors, colonized by the French, and bombed and invaded by the Americans. In 1975 came the Khmer Rouge, a group of Mao-inspired Cambodians whose radical and brutal policies resulted in the deaths of more than a million people.

At the end of 1978, the Vietnamese invaded, installing a more benign Communist regime that Hun Sen came to lead. In the early 1990s an internationally brokered peace deal ended decades of civil strife and the United Nations conducted elections in 1993 that were supposed to establish a basis for peace and prosperity.

When Hun Sen and his erstwhile Communists lost that contest, they threatened a civil war if they were not included in the government. That ultimatum produced an uneasy arrangement that splintered in July 1997, when open fighting broke out between the two halves of the coalition.

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After some international prodding, the Cambodians organized elections on their own last year, which Hun Sen and his party won. Japan points to this period as evidence of its role. Japanese officials told Hun Sen in November 1997 to take steps to prepare a fair election or risk alienating Japan, according to one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Without Japan's support, adds the official, Hun Sen understands that Cambodia couldn't continue its development program. (Over the next year, Japan will provide aid worth approximately $100 million and declare Cambodia eligible for low-cost yen loans.)

Despite stamps of approval from international observers over the outcome of elections held last July, Mr. Rainsy and other opponents cited election irregularities and took to the streets in protest. After more international prodding and compromises brokered by Cambodia's monarch, King Norodom Sihanouk, a semblance of peace and stability has returned, with Hun Sen firmly in control of the government.

In the meantime, however, the aid from Western nations and multilateral organizations seems to have had a limited impact. Rainsy, who once served as his country's finance minister, estimates that the country has received approximately $2 billion since the election in 1993, but adds that many indicators of development have declined. Independent researchers say poverty has worsened lately, especially in rural areas.

Cambodia is a paradox, Rainsy says. The more money you pour into the country, the poorer the people become.

In 1996, during a previous Tokyo meeting of Cambodia's donor countries, their dominant concern was the degradation of the country's forests. Cambodia's woodlands have been denuded rapidly by illegal logging that the government has seemed unable or unwilling to stop. Experts told the government recently that the forests would be completely gone by 2003 if present trends continue.

After the earlier Tokyo meeting, says Simon Taylor, a member of a British group called Global Witness that has monitored logging in Cambodia, the pace of degradation increased, despite government promises to the contrary.

The political turmoil of 1997, which caused some countries to stop or slow their aid, only increased the need for Cambodia to make money by felling trees.

The recent election campaign of Hun Sen's party was very much financed by logging revenue, Mr. Taylor says.

The Japanese diplomat acknowledges that his country's leverage seems to count for more in political matters - where Hun Sen can decide things by himself, the official says - than in addressing complex issues such as illegal logging. Many members of the military and police, key supporters of the prime minister, need the income from the sale of wood, which makes it hard to crack down on the trade.

Opposition leader Rainsy says he wishes that international leverage really worked. He argues that the individual countries are too concerned with their own competing interests to be able to act in concert.

France, for example, wants to regain some of its lost colonial-era influence in Southeast Asia. Japan wants to play a leading role. Australia, too, wants strong ties in Asia. These interests mean that the countries do not want to be the bad guy and actually use the most powerful leverage involved in giving aid - the right to stop giving it. If they cannot agree, they generally do not act alone, in order not to counter their own interests.

Since they do not speak in one voice, their leverage is not proportionate to the amount of money given, Rainsy says.

Even so, at the Tokyo meeting last week, diplomats and observers repeatedly made the point that donors were unified in their messages to Cambodian officials. In the words of one participant: Everyone is saying the same thing.

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