By Peter Baxter, Director General of AusAID
Australia is supporting the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railways because we believe in protecting human rights and lifting people out of poverty.
AusAID has worked actively to advance human rights in Cambodia across all of our projects.
AusAID knew from the start in 2009 it would be difficult for the Government of Cambodia to manage a project affecting 4000 households along more than 600km of track. That’s why we have been continuously talking to the affected communities, the Cambodian Government, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Australian and Cambodian NGOs, to advocate for better conditions, work through problems and help people make the transition to owning their own land.
We have been advocating for resettlement to be implemented according to ADB standards, the basic principle of which is that no-one will be worse off as a result of the project.
AusAID has worked with the major funder of the program, the ADB, to ensure greater monitoring of resettlement and we have contributed more funding to help households who had been living as squatters along the railway line adjust to their new lives. Throughout this process AusAID has encouraged the important work of NGOs working on land issues in Cambodia, who have provided the project with important information about conditions on the ground. We followed through with an Oxfam Australia suggestion to bring on board a world-leading expert on resettlement from the Brookings Institution to work through problems.
Our aid program staff on the ground in Cambodia are dedicated and professional and are doing everything possible to assist vulnerable people.
We have travelled to communities living in resettlement sites in Poipet, Battambang, Pursat, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville as part of formal monitoring missions at least four times a year since 2010, and many more times on an informal basis, to identify problems and raise issues on their behalf with the Government. We have sat in on dozens of interviews and meetings with community members to hear grievances and work through them with the Government and ADB.
We have dedicated extra staff to monitor resettlement, including a full-time AusAID expert to work with the Cambodian Government and ADB on the complex issues of households who are experiencing debt. Together we are identifying the poorest and most vulnerable households. We are negotiating with the moneylenders to reduce interest rates and stop threats of eviction. We are helping to refinance loans and providing funds for training to help households understand how to manage their finances.
We put in place income restoration programs in 2010 because we recognised all along that people would struggle to re-establish their lives in new locations. Building a new life is not easy and takes time, which is why we committed a further $1 million in November 2011 to help families earn incomes from raising livestock or growing vegetables at their new homes, and to provide a range of training opportunities and low interest loans. We have since supplemented this support with an extra $1 million in 2012.
Conditions at resettlement sites are a considerable improvement on where people were previously living. Our involvement has helped ensure people have access to basic services at sites and employment, income and livelihood opportunities are assessed before families are relocated. Resettlement sites have been located as close as possible to where families were previously living and where land was available.
Our staff on the ground will continue to investigate cases where compensation has been inadequate. Last month we attended mediation sessions over seven days with 38 households and ensured that errors in compensation were corrected. AusAID knows that all projects involving resettlement of families are sensitive and difficult. Working in developing countries to save lives and create economic opportunities for the poor is enormously challenging; and not all projects turn out as planned. On balance, we believe Australia’s continued involvement makes this a better project with better outcomes for the Cambodian people.
About the author: Peter Baxter
Peter Baxter is an experienced senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio. He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1988. He has been on a number of overseas postings including Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vietnam. Mr Baxter’s most recent posting was as Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington from 2002 to 2005. In 2000 Mr Baxter was appointed as Special Envoy of the Foreign Minister to Solomon Islands.
In May 2010 Mr Baxter was appointed Director General at AusAID.
Prior to moving to AusAID, Mr Baxter headed DFAT’s Consular, Public Diplomacy and Parliamentary Affairs Division. His previous Canberra assignments have included senior management roles heading the Consular and Passports (2000), Corporate Management (2000 to 2001), Market Development (2001 to 2002) and North Asia (2005 to 2008) Divisions with DFAT.
Mr Baxter holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Australian National University.