This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.
By Morgan Macdonald
It may not be surprising to hear that an infrastructure project in a country known for extreme poverty, reckless financial opportunism and heavy handedness by government and other powerful elite has resulted in displacement and the violation of people’s land rights. What is surprising, however, is when these projects are financed and managed by the organisations whose stated purposes are to work to improve the lives of world’s poorest and most vulnerable. This article looks at the case of a project part financed by Australia’s aid agency, AusAID: the Cambodian railway rehabilitation project. It questions whether its failure is a problem of poor planning and financing for human rights, or a symptom of a harmful privatisation/neo-liberal mindset, which puts the human rights of the poor and marginalised peripheral to economic growth.
AusAID’s partial funding of the rehabilitation of a country-wide railway system aligns with its aid strategy in Cambodia. The “Australian- Cambodia Joint Aid Program Strategy 2010- 2015” paper identifies five strategic goals, including to build sustainable economic development, which the Railway Rehabilitation Project in Cambodia factsheet , released in March this year, says will be achieved through savings from reduced transportation costs, increase in the speed of transportation, and savings in road maintenance.
The railway, which has fallen into a state of dilapidation and disuse since the Khmer Rouge’s failed attempt to create a utopian collectivist society, will link Cambodians up with each other and neighbouring countries. The completed rail project may well improve links to regional markets and reduce transportation costs. That could give Cambodians access to new markets and a way out of poverty.
AusAID provides 15 per cent of the financing for the project (the major financers being the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Royal Government of Cambodia) which impacts on over 4000 families living alongside the railway in places including Phnom Penh, Poipet and the popular beachside tourist destination, with Cambodia’s deep-water port, Sihanoukville.
Despite years of monitoring, research, lobby and advocacy by Cambodian and Australian non-government organisations, there continues to be a failing of community consultation, inadequate compensation offered to affected households, and severe problems at resettlement sites including inadequate basic infrastructure and services, a dearth of jobs and significant increases in household debt.
The resettlement and compensation processes were lambasted by Cambodian NGOs, who claim AusAID (and other project duty-bearers), as a duty bearer, is failing in its obligations to ensure that the resettlement doesn’t result in a retrogression of the ability of affected families to enjoy their human rights. These are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, communities AusAID themselves have identified as living in “often squalid conditions” , and people who could stand to greatly benefit from the opportunity this project provides to improve their situation.
On March 4 of 2012, Right Now attended the launch of a report called “DERAILED: A Study on the Resettlement Process and Impacts of the Rehabilitation of the Cambodian Railway”. The report is the result of 20 months of research into the resettlement process and its impacts. Specifically it looks at the processes of community consultation, household valuation, compensation, access to legal remedies and conditions at relocation sites. It found that those living in “affected households” in the rehabilitation project’s “corridor of impact” (an area extending 3.5 to 5 meters from the centreline of the tracks) have faced “significant and on-going non-compliance” with key human rights obligations and the ADB’s own involuntary resettlement safeguard policies , including: the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms Discrimination Against Women. The report and a statement at the launch by Adam McBeth, Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law , argue that the Australian Government/AusAID has duties to those affected and is bound by extra-territorial human rights law obligations.
“According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, when interpreting Article 2 of the ICCPR, human rights obligations extend to ‘anyone within the power or effective control of [a] State Party”. In the context of this project, ‘it is fair to say AusAID has a substantial influence over the [resettlement] process” and is therefore accountable for the aspects of the project within their influence and control.”
Although AusAID announced in November 2011 that it would put an extra AU$1 million to improve the resettlement process, primarily through income restoration and literacy programs, a report released last month by Cambodian NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut has found that families in Phnom Penh who regularly reside in the Trapeang Anhchanh resettlement site continue to face unemployment, indebtedness and a lack of basic services, such as schools and hospitals. STT cite “significant flaws in the Project’s resettlement plans and processes” and recommend “significantly more extensive support to be provided”.
Eang Vuthy, Executive Director of Equitable Cambodia, has explained that other communities living along the railway are also facing these same problems.
“We are working very closely with the people that are still on site, people that are still living on the railway tracks and the people that have already moved, so for the people that have already been resettled there are the same problems. AusAID has provided more support through financial literacy enhanced income restoration programs, but for people these initiatives have not been effective in addressing their problems.”
The main problems, he says, continue to be processes of consultation, financing and resettlement. Relocations sites are still really far from city centre (and jobs), have inadequate service and infrastructure, and updated housing valuation, that haven’t been adjust for inflation, or are plainly wrong, are forcing families into debt to private lenders who charge exorbitant levels of interest that suck up what income families do make so they can rebuild homes in resettlement sites.
“The main problems they are facing are inadequate local infrastructure, a lack of access to public services, and there are no jobs… In Sihanoukville very few people who moved to resettlement sites now live there permanently. In Poitpet, Battambang and Phnom Penh most families have moved to resettlement sites and they are facing the same problems as the families in Sihanoukville. There is no infrastructure, no jobs, the sites are very remote and there are no public services. Why would people want to move there?”
Vuthy says that that AusAID have been acting evasively when asked by NGOs to work harder.
“They refuse responsibility, or ignore the problem… they just brought one full-time resettlement specialist as a consultant, and this one person deals with thousands of families. I don’t think this is something that one person can address. We raise a lot of issues.”
A report on the railway project published by Aid/Watch , an organisation that scrutinises the aid program of the Australian government, says the problem lies with the privatisation/ neo-liberal agenda, which pursues economic development far more enthusiastically than human development. This point is startlingly demonstrated with the revelation that the aid project’s preliminary documents do not mention how the project will benefit Cambodia’s poor, but on how it will improve access to markets.
According to Matt Hilton of Aid/Watch, the project “concept note provided by AusAID shows how much AusAID’s ideological underpinnings, to promote privatisation and neo-liberal policies, have influenced the project… We also think that the involvement of AusAID is due to the significant involvement of an Australian company (Toll Holdings) in running the railways.”
According to the report Australian companies stand to make huge profits from the project. Toll Holdings’ commitment to the project was conditional on agreement of USD $145 million of investment from the international community. In June 2009 Toll Royal Railways, a consortium of Toll Holdings of Australia and the Royal Group of Cambodia, were awarded a 30-year monopoly concession of Cambodia’s railways after having been in negotiations since its selection as concessionary in 2007. Subsequently AusAID agreed to contribute substantial funding to the project and the ADB extended extra credit.
Like Vuthy, Matt points to the inadequacies of the resettlement planning, which he says are “overly reliant on outside consultants and the systems of its partners (in this case, the ADB and government of Cambodia). Both partners have shown to be negligent in resettlement in the past and clearly in this case as well”.
Despite this, both Vuthy and Matt emphasise the opportunities that AusAID has to work to remedy the problems facing communities.
Matt says “There are no barriers to financing resettlement except the willingness and commitment of the donors. It seems perverse to us that AusAID is paying its own staff and consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars to solve a problem that could have been avoided if the project had treated poor people fairly… but the lesson is unless civil society is involved, not just foreign NGOs, there will never be a meaningful process to engage the people who will be most affected by the project.”
Eang Vuthy says that “AusAID is now trying to improve the situation, but I think it’s not enough. You have to really work harder. They say AusAID will continue to monitor the situation very closely, but people need an urgent solution, [and they have] been waiting for many years already.”
Hopefully AusAID will take effective action to address communities’ concerns in a manner which respects the seriousness of the rights of the affected communities. It might also be a good opportunity for AusAID to deeply reflect on why this project has collided with the human rights of poor Cambodians, and what role neoliberal and economic-growth focused policies have played in that. An important lesson for AusAID from this experience must be that human rights and community consultation have to play a central role throughout planning and implementation of its projects. In this case, improved planning and financing could and still can turn this project from a disaster for affected communities into an opportunity with the potential to improve the conditions for thousands of poor and marginalised families living alongside the railway.
As Vuthy noted at the seminar launch for Derailed “Cambodian people appreciate international development assistance, but we want to see it prioritising the poor and most vulnerable in society”.