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Adjournment Debate on Cambodia – 4 February 2016

Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (19:05): Last month I had the extraordinary privilege of spending a week in Cambodia with five of my parliamentary colleagues from the House of Representatives. The visit was designed for us to visit a wide range of development programs funded by Australian aid. The visit was organised by Save the Children Australia, funded by the Gates foundation and supported by DFAT. It was my first visit to this amazing nation and it was both a rewarding and an inspiring one on so many levels. We visited a wide range of urban and rural programs being delivered by many different international organisations, all of which are funded by Australian aid. They included World Vision, CARE, PLAN, Hagar, ChildFund and of course our hosts, Save the Children.

Cambodia endured incomprehensible atrocities under the Khmer Rouge regime, which deconstructed their entire society and massacred millions of their citizens. After Pol Pot’s victory, cities and towns were abandoned, religion was suppressed and the entire urban population were sent to the countryside to work as farmers. Agriculture was collectivised, and the surviving parts of the industrial base were either abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia had neither a currency nor a banking system. So it is utterly astonishing that this country is rebuilding itself so quickly and harmoniously given not only the anger, bitterness and trauma experienced by those who survived the Pol Pot regime but also the fact that millions of children grew up working on farms, malnourished, without the love, care and support of families and of parents and they received little or no formal education or trade training. But most amazingly it is this traumatised but forgiving and highly determined generation that is now working hard for reconciliation and to ensure their children are educated and are reconciled with their communities in order to completely rebuild their nation. It would have been so understandable and so much easier for this generation to have perpetuated and fostered hatred, fostered bitterness and fostered a desire for revenge in the next generation. Instead, this most extraordinary generation of Cambodians, who survived the most unimaginable horrors, are focusing on educating their own children, on rebuilding their families, on their local communities and most of all on building a new nation. It is an absolutely wonderful reminder of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horrors.

Today, the sustained annual growth—currently 7.1 per cent per annum—is clearly evident in the rapid rate of development in Phnom Penh, the proliferation of building sites, the traffic gridlock all over the city, such things as the universality of mobile phones and the proliferation of the most inventive and ingenious motorbike based industries. But, like many countries facing significant rebuilding challenges, it is a country of contrasts. While there are many positive aspects to Cambodia’s transformation, politically and socially the nation is struggling with corruption—as evidenced by Cambodia’s ranking as 150th in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year. Political freedoms are also restricted, as evidenced by the fact that the leader of the opposition, and other opposition members, are currently in voluntary exile overseas.

Similarly in other areas of contrast, at the same time that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, more and more Cambodians are being progressively elevated out of poverty. Encouragingly, more and more children are receiving and completing formal education. Public health campaigns such those on important things like immunisation, family planning and HIV-AIDS are making significant inroads right across the country. But there is still so much more to be done.

As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade I was impressed, and I was greatly heartened, by what I saw as a seismic shift in Australia’s approach to the delivery of aid. Gone were the last vestiges of paternalism, of Australia perceiving a problem in a poor community overseas and then imposing on it what we think is the right solution for them. In the place of paternalism we saw genuine mutual respect, consultation, friendships and collaboration between government, the community and the agencies all working together with a common goal of empowering individuals and communities. And most pleasing of all was to see that they all had their final aim as making the programs themselves redundant.

By all parties working together, the results across all of the programs we had a look at were very clear to see. Right across Cambodia we met many extraordinary and inspirational young men and women, often from the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, who were all working hard in their own ways, in their own fields, to educate themselves, to learn trades and then to seek employment. They were not looking for handouts. They really were just looking for that hand-up to get them to school, to technical college or to university and to find a job in a safe workplace not only so that they could look after themselves but also now to support their extended families.

For example, Australian aid supports hundreds of youth groups in rural communities in which young Cambodians are not only forging new relationships with each other and their own families but also rebonding local communities. In fact, this generation is now using what they learn to educate and support their parents on issues their parents never had the opportunity to learn under the Pol Pot regime and post-regime—things such as new farming practices, the perils of domestic violence and why domestic violence is wrong, the importance of hygiene and rubbish collection, and indeed civic pride itself. Young Cambodians are also very well represented on local commune councils, which prioritise local community councils and allocate funds to them. In these projects and in these communes, young Cambodians genuinely have a voice.

One disturbing aspect for me—perhaps the most disturbing aspect for me on this trip—was that, while Australian government aid programs have shaken off a well-intentioned but very paternalistic approach to aid and have transitioned to empowerment projects, unfortunately it was very clear that this shift has not fully transitioned to the well-meaning but often counterproductive aid support provided by Australians who travel there to help in orphanages and do other residential care based programs. It is a really puzzling thing, because the negative impact of residential care on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people is very well known. We have known that here for many years in Australia through royal commissions et cetera. We know that residential care always has to be the last option for young children, so it is puzzling as to why so many Australians go over to Cambodia and other countries to help perpetuate residential care away from children’s parents and their communities.

Overseas donors are the main funders of residential care for children in Cambodia, where a wide range of community based care programs supported by the government and reputable aid agencies are available and are far preferable alternatives. Sadly, too many of the children in these so-called orphanages are exploited by the operators to emotionally manipulate donors into funding what is now a big business. I am sure it would horrify most Australians who support these so-called orphanages that in fact three out of four of the children in these facilities are not orphans at all. They actually have at least one living parent. Instead, these operators, as a big business, now con, cajole, pay or blackmail parents into releasing their children to these facilities, and often parents believe these promises of education. They become part of what UNICEF has called ‘voluntourism’ that attracts well-intentioned and compassionate travellers. The message from the ChildSafe campaign is very stark: children are not and should never be tourist attractions. We know the damage it can do, and I would ask that any individual, group or community group going to Cambodia do their due diligence and look for community based alternatives that support families and communities in situ in their local communities.

My sincere thanks to Save the Children—who organised and delivered a wonderfully educational and eye-opening program—for inviting me to participate. Thanks to my colleagues, whose company I greatly enjoyed, and a heartfelt thanks to Bill and Melinda Gates who funded this program through the Gates Foundation. Finally, my thanks to DFAT and our wonderful ambassador Alison Burrows, who did an exceptional job. (Time expired)

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