A foreign-funded NGO in Cambodia’s elections

During the years, and years and years, during which the Cambodian government consulted with NGOs about the provisions that should and should not be included in what eventually became the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), one of the issues in dispute was the requirement for NGOs to be politically neutral.

From the government standpoint, presumably, this was a central point. If NGOs funded by foreigners, whose officials usually earn many times the salaries of Cambodian government officials, were allowed to support one party or another, they would soon control Cambodian elections just by the weight of their finances.

The NGO objectors to the LANGO (which were always a fairly small minority of NGOs in the country) tried to portray the requirement of political neutrality as an undemocratic restriction on their right to campaign on issues of the day. And of course, they would not actually do anything to support one party or another in an election, would they? Would they? No, no, a thousand times, no!

To me, one of the greatest benefits of the internet is its serendipity – how it finds useful things you didn’t even know you wanted while you are looking for something else. Recently research on another topic brought my attention to an organisation I had never heard of, which seemed to be being promoted by Radio Free Asia.

The organisation is the Youth Resource Development Program. If you look at its web page, you will discover that YRDP aims to use good methods to train young people about good things, none of which are specified any more precisely than “thinking for themselves”. It could be anything. The only real fact I found on the site was that YRDP claims to provide training courses for 700 university students per year.

A funder of YRDP is the American Jewish World Service, which Wikipedia tells me is an “international development and human rights organization”.

The AJWS web site tells us that YRDP was firmly and actively on the side of the CNRP in the 2013 national election: “… many hoped the challenger – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – would shepherd in a new era of freedom and democracy.

“… Among those who turned out to vote were a large number of Cambodian youth involved with a key AJWS grantee: Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP).” A few paragraphs further on, the site adds:

“YRDP members and alumni exercised their right to vote in droves, served as election observers, and joined and staged peaceful demonstrations when the ruling party was re-elected despite strong indications of electoral irregularities.”

I presume that the reference to voting “in droves” doesn’t really mean that YRDP members voted more than once. But note AJWS’s assumption that YRDP members all mobilised in support of the opposition. What an amazing show of unanimity from people who had been taught to “think for themselves”!

Individuals are of course entitled to support whomever they like in elections. But as the AJWS makes clear, this was not a case of some individuals who happened to be attending YRDP courses deciding to vote for the CNRP. It was YRDP organising its “trainees” to be part of the CNRP campaign and then to try to overturn the election results when the CNRP lost.

YRDP also participated formally, as an organisation, in a substantial propaganda effort to discredit the 2013 election through something called the Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA). To all appearances, the ERA was organised shortly after the election by the US government-funded National Democratic Institute’s Cambodian branch.

In December 2013 the ERA produced a 64-page booklet, Joint-Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections (available at https://www.ndi.org/node/20970), the printing of which was paid for by the US government through the Agency for International Development.

If the AJWS’s reference to “strong indications of electoral irregularities”, quoted above, made you wonder why the accusation was so imprecise, the answer probably lies in the ERA report’s inability to find anything very convincing when it tried to be specific. Typical of the quality of the report was its complaint that, in provinces that elected only one member of the National Assembly, the winning party received 100% of that province’s representation with less than 100% of the vote. (My detailed examination of the ERA report is available at https://letters2pppapers.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/era-reply-pamphlet_final1.pdf)

The AJWS does not appear to be funded directly by the US government. However, it is indirectly supported in that it is classified as a charity, which means that Americans who donate to it are allowed a corresponding deduction from their US income tax.

So, to sum up the situation: An NGO that trains people to support the CNRP and that helps to organise demonstrations seeking to overturn the election result is directly funded by a US organisation and indirectly funded by the US government. And if you try to put an end to that situation, similarly funded NGOs will say you are trying to destroy Cambodians’ human rights.