Asian Development Bank

Cambodia: Asian Development Bank fails fishermen

Marwann Macan-Markar – Inter Press Service
April 19, 2007

A planned survey to check the economic pulse of fishing communities

A planned survey to check the economic pulse of fishing communities living on the banks of Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake – the
Tonle Sap – threatens to expose serious shortcomings in an Asian
Development Bank (ADB) anti-poverty initiative.

The survey, to commence in late April, stems out of the critical view a
Cambodian NGO, Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), has of a
“development” project that the Manila-based ADB launched in October
2002. The five-year-long Tonle Sap Initiative (TSI) set out, among
other things, to improve the lives of the communities that depend on
the lake’s fish for their livelihood.

But four years later, the
ADB’s flagship “pro-poor development initiative” in one of the region’s
poorest countries is still stuck in the mud of basic details.
“Most of the people living around the Tonle Sap still don’t know what
this project is really about. Some only have heard of it by name,”
says Raingsey Pen, project leader of Tonle Sap Watch at the Phnom
Penh-based FACT.

This ignorance is due to a lack of participation by the people from the beginning of this project, he said in an interview.
“NGOs who have been monitoring this initiative have complained to the
ADB that most of the documents have not been translated into the local
language and are only available in English.”

The information gulf between the bank and the Tonle Sap’s poor has been noted by Oxfam, the international development agency.

“There
is a general lack of awareness about the TSI,” says Jessica Rosien,
who wrote a study on the Tonle Sap lake last year for Oxfam’s Australia
office. ”Can the ADB save the Tonle Sap from poverty? There has been
too little involvement of the people who were supposed to benefit,”
she told IPS.

The ADB concedes that some of the criticisms by NGOs are relevant.
“We have heard some of the concerns by NGOs and they are valid,”
Mahfuz Ahmed, senior agriculture economist at the bank, said in an
interview from Manila. “Running this project from Phnom Penh is not
easy. People’s participation is a core feature of this project. We have
got to be more aggressive.”

Even at a formal meeting this
month in Phnom Penh between the regional bank and Cambodian government
officials, the ADB let slip the difficulty it was facing in being more
inclusive just as the TSI enters its final year.

“There is a
risk that some of the poor and marginalized could be increasingly left
behind,” Urooj Malik, director of the agriculture, environment and
natural resources division at the bank, said during the mid-March
forum. “It is vital to involve them more in the process of formulating
policies designed to improve their conditions.”

The Tonle
Sap, which receives water from the Mekong river, plays a central part
in feeding Cambodia, with its rich supply of freshwater fish. Fishing
on this lake, which expands from 2,500 square kilometers to 13,000 km2
during the May-October flood season, provides food and incomes to about
one million Cambodians. The poor living along the banks of the Tonle
Sap are part of the nearly 40 percent of Cambodia’s 13.8 million
population living below the poverty line.

These were the
communities that the bank hoped to aid as part of the TSI. This
initiative aimed to be “a partnership of organizations and people
working to meet the poverty and environment challenges of the Tonle
Sap,” states the ADB on its website.
In July 2003, the bank
added the “Tonle Sap Basin Strategy” to the TSI as part of its broader
Cambodia country program to meet a 2007 deadline. This was deemed
“consistent with ADB’s water policy and worldwide trend towards
managing land, water and biotic resources within a framework of basin
units,” the bank says.

In fact, the second pillar of the TSI
was singled out as the “Tonle Sap Sustainable Livelihoods Project,”
which was estimated to cost $19.7 million, with $15 million coming from
the Asian Development Fund and $4.7 million from the Finnish
government. The project aimed to improve the economy of the fishing
communities by assuring the locals a role in choosing, planning and
managing small programs for their benefit.

Yet, as the Oxfam
report revealed, public participation is “low in proportion to the
number of projects of the ADB’s Tonle Sap Basin portfolio.” Further,
it is also “difficult to trace whether and how the recommendations from
community members were or were not incorporated into the final project
design.”

And for ADB watchdogs like FACT, nothing conveys the
bank’s distance from its intended beneficiaries more than the departure
from its original promise of creating new fishing communities in
addition to strengthening existing ones.

“The project sought
to improve the fishing communities by establishing 500 more around the
Tonle Sap,” Pen says. ”But until now we have not seen a new fishing
community that was promised.” -IPS.

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