AusAID’s involvement in the Cambodian railways project has come under fire from local groups alleging human rights abuses. Is aid always a good thing? AID/WATCH’s Matt Hilton on the need for transparency

Article originally appeared in New Matilda

By Matt Hilton

Recently, something ground-breaking in the world of aid happened. After years of attempting to engage with AusAID, the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Cambodia, two organisations — Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International — submitted a formal complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The complaint was filed on behalf of 30 affected families, and is important because it alleges that AusAID breached the Australian Government’s human rights obligations during the Cambodian Railways Project.

Days after the complaint was filed, AusAID responded. Director General Peter Baxter claimed that all of its programs in Cambodia are in fact human rights programs, including the troubled railways project, which Australia is supporting “because we believe in protecting human rights”. However, if AusAID believes laying railway sleepers equals human rights, it certainly didn’t make that known in the design phase when it was choosing whether to engage with the project.

AID/WATCH, along with many other organisations, have drawn attention to the ongoing serious human rights violations of this project. Starting in 2009, the project has been implicated in serious abuses relating to the resettlement of around 4000 households who lived along, or in some cases above, the dilapidated railway line. AusAID is contributing an estimated $25 million towards the $138 million dollar project, managed by the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Cambodia to rehabilitate the railway lines of Cambodia.

Reports from AID/WATCH, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut and Equitable Cambodia have detailed the threats, intimidation, lack of consultation, lack of compensation and the inadequate relocation sites, all in breach of AusAID‘s own resettlement guidelines.

Many households are now unsustainably indebted due to suffering the double indignity of losing their homes then having to borrow money from loansharks to build new ones. Two children drowned in 2010 at one of the resettlement sites while searching for clean water which was supposed to be supplied. The AHRC complaint also alleges that in 2011, another child was killed and another seriously injured while walking the four kilometres to get to the nearest school — the families were told prior to moving that the resettlement site was to have a primary school attached.

Baxter continues, noting that AusAID always knew this was going to be difficult. The design documents show that indeed AusAID was aware that resettlement may be an issue, but that the ADB and Government of Cambodia are well experienced in this field. This is the tragedy of the issue — both the ADB and the Government of Cambodia have long histories of being involved in botched relocations and yet AusAID still wanted to be “inside the tent”.

Baxter argues that things would have been even worse without AusAID’s investment, but this begs the question: at what point would AusAID walk away and how complicit is it in the abuses that did occur?

Baxter claims that AusAID involved “a world-leading expert on resettlement from the Brookings Institution to work through problems”, but we may never know what this expert will actually achieve. AusAID is still refusing to release the reports of the first resettlement advisor involved in the project, citing the potential to “damage diplomatic relations between Australia and the Cambodian Government”.

Baxter similarly glosses over AusAID’s response to the series of reports, informal dialogues and news reports that have drawn attention to the abuses to highlight their support to those affected, including negotiating with money lenders, refinancing loans and financial literacy training. What he fails to mention is that it is the project itself that is responsible for this indebtedness; these families would not have been in serious debt if they had been given fair compensation for their land, houses and livelihoods.

While AusAID is indeed making some moves towards rectifying the problem, it is still unable to admit its culpability. AusAID’s main response to the human rights abuses under the project is to offer another project, the income restoration program (IRP). While IRP has been welcomed by groups on the ground, it is in fact an essential component of what should have been in place from the start, as mandated by AusAID and the ADB’s own resettlement guidelines.

This is the tragedy of the aid mentality, the belief that any aid is good aid and that aid must by definition be helping poor people. As AID/WATCH has too often revealed, it is often the poor that bear the brunt of the costs of development which is carried out in their name.

That is why the complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission is vital to forcing AusAID to deal with the consequences of its actions beyond patronising media releases. AusAID needs to concede that its aid projects, in fact all aid projects, have the potential to hurt. AusAID needs to become about accountability and transparency.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, AusAID is still playing the saviour to Cambodia’s poor, even those whose lives have been made demonstrably worse by the project it is supporting. The AHRC must respond to the plaintiffs and ask AusAID to make meaningful compensation.

Matt Hilton is from AID/WATCH, the independent monitor of Australia’s aid and trade.