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Exasperating donors

We can all be exasperated or exasperating. Whistle-blowers of course encounter both.

I finished my overseas development career exactly as I started it – exasperated, out-of-step with some Foreign Aid donors, exasperating them in the process, and paying a not inconsiderable price for my sins. Mostly I express exasperation when I see failures impact on intended beneficiaries who end up disadvantaged by donor actions or inactions - contrary to original aims and sometimes claims otherwise. One of these is of course the failure to "localise" i.e. hand over to people in developing countries who are perfectly capable in most cases.

Here I talk about a few of my various exasperations.

Can't see the wood for the trees

Extracts from a long series of Tweets

I must confess my experience with one donor in particular – USAID – crops up with remarkable regularity, not just for me but many others.  Right now my Prey Lang Network friends are very exasperated by USAID and its contractors.* Local people have formed a community activist group trying to save their forest. [Note 1 below]  The US Ambassador leads claims to be on their side, boasting of USAID accomplishments. In practice the US is supporting authorities hostile to the community's interests. Authorities are complicit in land deals and wanton exploitation of natural resources, as verified not just by the Prey Lang group but by reputable international researchers and satellite evidence. Prey Lang Network has asked for corrections in an open letter. I have been blunt and open in my support for the community much earlier than them and since, one of my projects having been directly affected, explained below. [2]                          

* Please see important update below. Success: USAID has come to its senses!

From little things big things grow

My first exasperation with Foreign Aid donors was of course on St Helena in the 1980s with the UK's Foreign Office and its then development organisation the ODA.  One appeared not to know what the other was doing.  The Saint Helena Government and FCO/ODA officials resented me pointing it out although I did get some vindication years later. [3] ODA on the one hand wanted to develop the island's self-sufficiency and save on imports by establishing a dairy herd of cows and brand new state-of-art milking unit. Meanwhile the FCO supported a double-subsidy of imported canned milk that was cheaper than the new fresh milk, so ODA's expensive investment its dairy enterprise failed.

Fishy tale

USAID's Wooden Willies

My second exasperation was in Malawi with the World Bank who had funded a major community development project intended to complement and benefit my older one that was funded by the ODA. The bank's vastly bigger project was intended to assist womenfolk around Lake Malawi, a scaled-up version of our project, to diversify incomes and away from dependence on dwindling fish stocks. The outcome can be summarised perfectly. Not one measurable benefit accrued to any women's groups. By contrast an entire fleet of Mitsubishi Pajero SUVs issued to District Fishery Officers, all male, had been bought, distributed and disappeared.  It was my first of many "bilateral aid" projects, i.e. between a major donor and host government, to show the futility of donors relying solely on government officials.

Do as I say not as I do

My biggest exasperation to this day stems from 1998 to 2001. I was paid with USAID funds, to be the senior adviser to the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights (CIHR). I must therefore record my appreciation of that. However as narrated in this blog, the job came to an abrupt premature end when I was confronted with what Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia to this day still face: threats to their lives and those of their loved-ones for just doing their job. The difference in my case then from my human rights friends today is the threat to me, and to another expatriate colleague, was not from hostile authorities but from within our Human Rights NGO.

Our Human Rights NGO was worth saving but not at the cost of lives. I walked. My friend was pushed.

In theory USAID along with all CIHR's donors was fully supportive of his and my efforts to restore the NGO and its reputation after dramatic Christmas-time revelations of long-time systematic fraud. Corruption like the threats to us contradicted this Human Rights NGO's raison d'ĂȘtre, its professed universal principles and specific advocacy campaigns. However it had become abundantly clear to both of us that other factors, unstated, weighed far more heavily on the minds of our American friends, as played out in their real actions.  Little did I realise that whatever we had done to upset them would be held against me for years.  Now to be clear I was never the whistle-blower. [4] I was accused of it but it was not me. What I do admit to is that I would not agree to cover up or play down the severity of the crimes. I just wanted to put things right. The threats ended that and to be frank too many of the same things are still not right to this day.

Now USAID was the donor but its program was managed by the Asia Foundation. The US Embassy, successive US Ambassadors and USAID Country Mission Directors were all personally involved directly in our activities.  Later in life I look back on how monumental these personal experiences were. For instance I met King Sihanouk. I also had a long personal talk with US Senator John McCain who took a very close interest in Cambodia. I found him to be very knowledgeable and principled, hence a personal affinity when he stood for US President.

Principled is not a word I would use to describe the Asia Foundation.

Corrupt is how I'd describe the advice given to me by the Head of EU Delegation: "Why be an Island of Propriety in a Sea of Corruption?" 

Settling old scores (1)?

The Asia Foundation's first act after I had to leave the NGO was to insist that I hand over the passwords to my computer, as it was paid for by them. They sided with the people at CIHR who wanted to read my exchanges with donors and journalists. At first I refused. Now there is one Northern English attribute I've always followed – you should be prepared to say things to people to their face not just behind their back. So I was not concerned by what I had said but was concerned about what others had said to me and in confidence. After contacting as many of them as I could to warn them, I had to relent or risk more threats and penalties, one of which was imposed anyway.

That penalty was the Asia Foundation's second act. They refused to pay me the severance pay due at the end of my contract of continuous service of 4 full years. [5] The argument the Asia Foundation put was that the NGO was my employer, not them, and therefore I must pursue my claim with them – i.e. the same hostile forces who drove us out. It was a vacuous argument. They knew it as they paid for and dictated terms of all senior appointments. I was out-of-a-job and no income. Ironically some of those same hostile sources who admitted freely to the external auditor as being involved in the fraud did actually receive their severance pay when the NGO inevitably folded, thanks to the generosity of the US taxpayer. Such treatment brought one public rebuke from a sympathetic colleague that I value and appreciate to this day.

Fortunately my standing with other donors and human rights NGOs was such that I was offered work with short consultancy contracts. One NGO was immediately approached by Asia Foundation and told not to employ me - its third act towards me.  I also value and appreciate to this day that NGO's reaction. It refused point-blank to accept such interference. It is very rare for local NGOs to stand up to big donors. Money tends to talk and does all the talking.

The game of petty spirits

A few weeks later along came the Asia Foundation's third act against me.  I had joined the Cambodia Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, created by US lawyers but localised. I have good reasons for mentioning it by name because it denotes what can go wrong in even the best established of NGOs in Foreign Aid.  Its founders, the International Human Rights Group, had done a good job of establishing it. My main task, as ever, was to help with fund-raising and fortunately I was successful for them. They wanted to give me a longer contract but needed to use funds it had available from its USAID budget. The Asia Foundation refused to approve its use for my appointment.

I wonder to this day how dearly Asia Foundation's decision cost. [6] CDP lost a major award because of my absence. More pertinently with my professional skills in personnel management, today called human resources, I doubt if it would have made the mistake of employing an escaped alleged paedophile on-the-run.

I vowed never to work with or for the Asia Foundation again. There's only one winner with them.

Pastures new, same old issues

Soon after I was asked to take on a new project with poor disabled people in Kampong Chhnang Cambodia.  It was also to prove to be a highly successful project that also raised profound issues of ethics, governance, donor conduct and regulatory responsibility. This must be read as a separate issue in its own right.

Children know best!

Here I wish to add an Australian dimension, another important donor in Cambodia, one of the recipients too of the Christmas revelation letter and victim of the fraud.  It was the first of several issues over the years I encountered with the Australian Embassy and the then official Foreign Aid organisation AUSAID.  One was when I reported one of its Cambodian staff soliciting a bribe. There was another where a third party interfered in one of our funding applications, supposed to be a scrupulous process, to harm our chances.  The third, however, was the most peculiar.  I ended up declared persona non-grata for whistle-blowing a conflict of interests. As with USAID I was cast forever as not a good player in the game. (7)

"One time I most certainly did blow the whistle, but it was not well-received by either the donor commissioning the report or the "culprit". I had received a copy of an "independent" evaluation of 10 NGOs. However the author was the founder of one of the 10 NGOs and still on its Board. This little fact was not declared although he singled out his NGO for praise no less than three times in his executive summary."

Before I close on this chapter of my life, let me put down one marker to come back to later. "The Club Owner biker with a gun at Restaurant Srei Khieu" in Kampong Chhnang Town. We'd met him at his club. Obvioulsy he'd upset someone, showing us the bullet-holes on his motor-bike.

Settling old scores (2)?

Then in 2008 fate delivered its deadly hand to my vow never to work again with the Asia Foundation.  I'd helped my localised NGO Ockenden to win two good grants from UK-DfID and DANIDA, the Danish Aid Agency). We were the only winning local NGO as the rest of the awards went to INGOs the “usual culprits” OXFAM, WCS, etc. 

Unfortunately for me, DfID/DANIDA in their wisdom contracted out the overall co-ordination of the programme to..... the Asia Foundation.

Asia Foundation's final bite of the bum
Coincidence or not but what did the Asia Foundation do on renewing its well-remembered acquaintance with me?  Yes, its fourth and final act to punish me.  For our Kampong Speu project plan we had to seek and provide extra clarifications Those were reasonable and we expected them, in fact all grantees had some to do. As with all such funding releases the process had been by open competitive tender. We had competed with Fauna and Flora International and other NGOs in the bidding process and they understandably hadn't at that stage wanted to share their local knowledge and best information.  However once they missed out, they were good to their word and shared it with me. The clarifications were drafted but before we knew it Asia Foundation arbitrarily cancelled the award and gave it in a closed-process to their hand-picked compatriot INGO “CRS”.  We complained to them, DfID; DANIDA, and to the Ambassadors. The UK Ambassador told me that unfortunately the wording in the management contract with Asia Foundation did allow them to do this. The only way they could force a change would be by cancelling the entire contract with them.  As the programme was already running more than a year late, DfID and DANIDA had decided "reluctantly" that they could not do that. Hard luck! One person at the Asia Foundation was delighted and made no secret of it. An old Khmer phrase proved true. (8)

During this stint in my Foreign Aid career, I had two bizarre encounters.  First what I at first thought was a chance encounter is I came across our "Biker with a Gun" friend at a restaurant in Sisophon, Banteay Meanchey.  The bike was the same but not the attire. Any way our eyes met in mutual recognition but he quickly shuffled out.

It must have been all of two years later at a staff retreat in Sihanoukville where we had our third and I think final encounter, although I can't be sure. Although we were paying for spouses of Cambodian staff to stay at the hotel, one decided he'd prefer the more luxurious then new salubrious Sokha Hotel to our cheaper offering, so not with his wife. However they met for breakfast, by chance at the sane place where we also went.  My employee called me over to meet her husband, by now a very respectable business-type man, but unmistakably him. Neither of us said a word.  It was not hard to uncover who he was working for!

Full-circle, back to where we started.

My blog here began with the sad fate that befell my first NGO in Cambodia 20 years ago back in 1998-2002. In 2011, I attained the age of 60, took my small UK private pension, enabling me to work voluntarily or on small pay and expenses for French NGO Nomad RSI which had limited funding. My main job was of course again to help put that right and we did manage just about to raise enough funds to keep it going and eventually to localise it too. Every dollar, however, mattered.

It became quickly obvious to me and confirmed by external audits that there were weaknesses in financial control and governance issues. The Board of Directors and Management demonstrated amenability to correcting them and we made a lot of progress. One early finding troubled me. The most senior Cambodian manager, and his brother-in-law the Finance Director, were not only full-time Nomad RSI employees but also serving government officials. This familial connection and dual employment was common in Cambodia, sometimes secret, but more often accepted and in some cases officially approved. I raised the conflict of interests with the Board but as the members had worked with the two from the outset of the NGO in Cambodia – and trusted them implicitly – they decided to give them the benefit of doubt and leave things be.

Further doubts however kept cropping up in the course of my inspections, by auditors, and by a volunteer consultant I had engaged to work on the financial management. One most compelling suspicion came to light. 

The devil is in the detail if he leaves an audit trail and someone makes a point of looking for it.

Funds requisitioned for community group grants had been posted to “per diems” the budget head for personal travel and meals allowances. Was this simply a coding error or something more sinister? The only way to get to the bottom of it was to arrange for a random external audit, to invite the auditor to return who had highlighted control weaknesses and also provided technical training.   We had funds we had saved in one donor budget. I asked the donor to approve their use for the special audit. To my surprise the donor refused. [9]  However my request had sown the seed of doubt for that donor with good reason not to award further funding.

Community self-help group managing their money

Needless to say our two senior colleagues insisted that it was a coding error and the funds had been used for the community groups, an important distinction from going to them and used by them. We had to leave it at that for now.  Other suspicions cropped up from time to time, not always money not accounted for but in one case sitting as cash in the safe unspent. (That was contrary to our rules.) 

Meanwhile excellent work with our beneficiaries, poor indigenous people, was pressing ahead. As with two of my previous INGOs, we were also able to localise operations, with the network community groups established as a local NGO with its own elected Board of Directors and Director. 

The change of management soon revealed there was indeed serious financial misconduct. Two senior staff had yet again drawn funds to go to community groups but had pocketed the cash. One admitted his misconduct and paid back. The other, his boss and the same alleged culprit as earlier, claimed that he had merely borrowed the money with the permission of the community groups concerned. To this day, as far as I know, he has not repaid at least US$ 3,700*. (We did compensate the groups but the money could only come from one source, funds intended to cover my expenses that I had not yet drawn.)

*An earlier figure of US$4,600 was identified as missing in the financial records.
$3,700 was later reported to me by a member of the localised Board of Directors. 

The Sting in the Tail

And finally.... My final executive as opposed to advisory responsibility for NGO work in Cambodia was with a US organisation in a purely voluntary capacity.  The President asked me to help in view of the fact that their Cambodia Country Manager was unsupervised and unsupported in-country. Their Board Members were all in US and due to his illness he was unable to make regular visits. My grandiose job title was "Advisor and Auditor" and as requested I conducted checks on bills submitted - travel and accommodation costs and procurement of goods and services for clients as well as other irregularities in relation to official formalities. Indeed there was clear fraud. The findings were presented. The organisation decided to take no action as "We've factored in his corruption when fixing his salary".

How do people sleep at night?

Trying to do the right thing cam mean paying a heavy personal cost. I am not bitter. No need to cry over spilled milk. It does give me some moral authority based on empirical evidence to campaign for better ethics in NGOs and charities through strengthened governance and regulatory frame-works.  Not many people have such first-hand experience and evidence over several decades. Even fewer are prepared to reveal them. We have a long way to go before they will.

For me, despite the angst, if I did not try my best to do the right thing I would be unable to sleep at night. Things would prey on my mind. My conscience would be pricked. I just wonder why too many others don't have the same problem.

If there is one thing not yet done in Foreign Aid, my unfulfilled ambition, to begin to change the culture of abuse-of-power with impunity, it is to see donors and regulators to adopt random unannounced independent inspections. Nothing will change if people wager they'll get way with misconduct and it remains too easy for them to do so.


9 August 2022

A good report by Devex about "Localising" Foreign Aid development and the lack of progresss in that direction.

26 August 2021

Same theme as in my previous update highlighting that someone's not been telling the truth in reports back home, justifying how well money has been spent.  The same bunch have become quickly unstuck in Cambodia.  The "CambodiaCheck" initiative was as predictable as the US Ambassador's charm offensive as proving to be ill-thought out and bound to fail.  I can't resist another "I told you all so!

18 August 2021

A day of reckoning arrived abruptly for all those responsible for external interventions in foreign countries and in particular for the United States. It does not matter if the intervention was led for military or natural disaster purposes, and if it becomes humanitarian and “nation-building”.

The lesson to be learned is exactly as people like me expound. You must be very careful to engender a genuine local commitment to the change you want to bring about, not just in leaderships but also your “beneficiaries” and in particular in the local people you engage and entrust who act in-between them for you. You must be "SMART"* about the change with a clear handover exit plan.

Afghanistan has now shown brutally in a macro-way how unreal and artificial your efforts are where you have not established that genuine mass local commitment to your change. It is however in essence the same as the multiple micro-lessons that ought to be learned from countries like Cambodia. It is one with the largest, longest, most expensive external intervention. Numerous, almost every major project, has failed in terms of the sustainable changes expected to be accomplished.

My own area of good governance is one, as I explain in blogs. There was never a genuine full commitment to embrace the concepts we thought would be good for all Cambodians. Many poor and vulnerable people did want changes but not the people in charge nor I argue are many of the people we relied on as go-betweens. Indeed as I narrate in my blogs, too many of those are in it for their own reasons. This is best exemplified by the true story I tell about one champion of democracy and human rights in whom our American friends placed so much trust and invested so much money.

The Name of the Game is “Sustainability” but Does the Last Player Count?

*SMART - specifc, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

17 June 2021

Not often do human rights advocacy campaigns succeed so they must be celebrated when they do. I have been familiar with USAID's misguided intervention in environmental issues since 2012 when they ended our project in Mondulkiri after just one year not the 3-5 planned.  Even during that one year we experienced fundamental errors on their part. They left us to start a new project in Prey Lang where local communities were also facing land-grabbing and deforestation. USAID made the decision to invest in and cooperate with the Ministry of Environment and local authorities rather than local people. It has taken years for USAID and the US Ambassador to recognise the error of their ways but now it has done so.


The problem will be that the officials who have lost face and who benefited financially from the project will be looking for revenge and their ire will be taken out on the same local community activists. USAID must ensure that this does not occur by funding them and human rights organisations who can go to their assistance.


Monks bless the Community Forest in the hope that it will protect it from powerful forces

1   The first time I personally witnessed industrial-sized logging in Cambodia was in 1998 in Mondulkiri, a story I tell in an early blog. I was then personally responsible for my NGO Ockenden's efforts to promote and protect community forests in NW Cambodia. It was then that I met the late Chut Wutty a most prominent fearless advocate for Prey Lang Forest who was assassinated in 2012.

2     Foreign Aid  - Chasing the money or the money chasing trendy causes?  The first USAID contractor to begin work in Prey Lang was Winrock International.  My NGO in Cambodia had won USAID funding via Winrock in 2014 to support indigenous community groups to improve and diversify livelihoods, having lost their traditional lands to loggers, agro-industrial developers and speculators. It was to be a program of at least 3 years but was cancelled after just one.  Community development of self-help groups is an arduous process requiring sustained support over several years. Our work with up to 20 groups and their co-ordinating network was halted dealing a fatal blow to some.

3     Vindication. I met the ODA Minister in Rwanda. To my surprise she knew exactly who I was. “The St Helena Milkman”.

4   Whistle-blowing. The whistle was blown by the NGO's Finance Officer. That was clear by the letter he sent to donors but it was not common knowledge. The story then broke in the local English-speaking newspapers, the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily, with yours truly accused of the dastardly deed. This allegation was given credence because I refused offers to play down the issue and try to persuade donors to do likewise.. I was aware that two donors in particular, Forum Syd (Sweden) and CIDA ( Canada) regarded the issue much more seriously than USAID.

A special procedures investigation carried out by auditors Price Waterhouse and Coopers (PWC) and a complementary exercise my colleague was conducting were revealing what had gone wrong and what needed to be put right. My colleague's task was to investigate charges of nepotism and cronyism as PWC would only examine finances. We were astonished as to how many staff were in fact related or connected to the Director or Deputy Director. One more conflict of interests became apparent. Those ties extended to Asia Foundation employees responsible for supervising the NGO on behalf of USAID and seeing that its rules and regulations were obeyed. It was at this point that the rug was pulled from under our feet.

Other donors and NGOs were not as complacent and supported a scheme we worked on to address the issues raised by the demise of CIHR. The NGO Governance and Professional Practice scheme still in force today. While it has helped to improve standards, it lacks impartial non-partisan credentials of an independent regulator. I observed closely two NGOs. One with the highest ethical standards failed to be registered, while the other had no such problem. It allied with government authorities, as required by some donors, whereas the first kept its distance for good reasons. Those reasons reappeared after the demise of the multi-donor World Bank led Land Management Administration Project (LMAP).

[5]    Severance pay was due as part of the terminal benefits of my contract. The calculation was based on 5% of actual earning during the period of continuous employment in my case of four years. I should have been paid $5,000. The Asia Foundation's Vice President did send me a very complimentary letter attesting to my good work but still refused to have my contract honoured. Such treatment brought forth a public rebuke that was studiously ignored.

[6]  CDP - counting the true cost of its loss? An EU project proposal I'd worked on failed at the very last hurdle, highly unlikely if I had been there.  The Director, who was always very busy, and I don't think he'll be offended by me saying this, he wasn't well-organised, overlooked supplying one essential supporting paper requested by the EU. It was on his desk to endorse. Had I been there the EU would have asked me for it and I would have pinned him down. CDP lost a large grant that would have set it up for years. Instead it continued to struggle for funds. Having said that my "partner-in-crime" at CIHR as far as the Asia Foundation was concerned, the one who had to leave alongside me,  also went on to work with and for CDP to do a good job in fundraising.

Now the other part of my role was to improve management and administration, especially in recruitment and control of staff. It was not just financial fraud endemic in my previous NGO but nepotism and cronyism. The key to eradicating them was due diligence checking – precisely the disciplines and skills of my professional training and first 12 years of post-graduate employment.

Due diligence had not been conducted properly by CDP despite its formation by reputable US human rights lawyers. Its senior legal adviser, Stuart Coghill, was discovered to have evaded charges of child abuse in New Zealand by escaping abroad. Elementary checks had not been carried out, references not taken-up or queried. This was not the first nor the last time I was to encounter such failures.

(7)    Although Cambodia has enjoyed massive international assistance since the Paris Peace Accords with the largest-ever UN-led collection of agencies and organisations, Phnom Penh is actually quite a small inner-circle of them. Diplomats, Administrators, Country Directors, Evaluators, Auditors, Scholars tend to mic with each other and frequent the same haunts. So it does not take long for chat to be exchanged. "If you're not with us, you're against us" doesn't belong only to Cambodia's ruling party. It was around this time that I failed the test to stay on the British Embassy's Queen's Birthday invitation list.

(8)   Pleased with themselves. It doesn't take long for some people to gloat, proving one Khmer warning to be correct. Basically it says retribution doesn't come "when the blood is still warm".  It will come later when it's cold.

[9]   Donor reactions to potential misuse of their funds. Most donors, like NGOs, prefer not to know.  They should of course accept that human nature being what it is there will always be transgressions and be prepared to support efforts to deal with them. Unfortunately fear-of-publicity and criticism of poor judgement means that if issues come in to the open, the usual reaction is to cut-off funds.  (It's why NGOs will go to some lengths to cover-up - as this terrible case illustrates.)  Cutting off a new grant was the result here, the second blow on top of USAID/Winrock's ending of its contract.  Fortunately other donors have stayed with the NGO and its survives to this day but clearly much smaller than it would have been.  They've left their mark on the entire movement for indigenous people's rights.

For another USAD Winrock idiosyncrasy, please go here and read on to the Water Tower in Africa. That cost me $500.

Fundraising is never easy and it's become harder especially for local NGOs in recent years. The system of open tendering involves competition and much wasted effort as most applications fail. Many donors try to keep core costs to a minimum, so their money is seen to go mainly to beneficiaries, a story they like to tell. This is despite the fact that the practice seriously challenges NGOs who have pay salaried and bills. It's worsened by short contracts, sometimes of just one year, so strategic plans cannot be made. Donors like to switch funds. In some cases it's because of a new fad or a knee-jerk reaction to a development. Some donors are late to make payments and renew contracts.

I tell all this because there is a thin dividing line legally juggling figures to maintain cash-flow -, switching fund allowed between approved budget-lines – and unauthorised illegal virement even if intended as temporary to solve an immediate problem. I am not alone in using my own money to keep my NGOs going, but donors must accept that some responsibility for why desperate NGO leaders without my means commit dishonest acts. It is just as easy for them to resort to them for good purposes as for sinister. The temptation should be removed.

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