PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Dressed all in black and chain-smoking beneath the canopy of street-side Khmer restaurant, Chris Minko looks more like a rock musician than a humanitarian volunteer. In fact, he is both.
Mr. Minko has worked in Cambodia since 1996, where he founded the country’s first national disabled volleyball league and helped establish the Cambodian Paralympic Committee. He is also songwriter and lead guitarist for the band Krom, playing an acoustic style of music he describes as the “Mekong Delta Blues” – which fuses folk music from Northeastern Thailand and rural Cambodia with the Delta Blues.
Mr. Minko has gained notoriety as a harsh critic of NGOs in Cambodia. He does not mince words. “I would describe the majority of expats working in aid and development as poverty vultures,” he says matter of factly. “They are actually making enormous amounts of money, from money that was allocated to assist the most disadvantaged and marginalized of society.”
Backing an Unpopular Law
International NGOs spend as much as 80 percent of donated funds on administration, Mr. Minko notes, adding that only a fraction of their budgets is spent helping Cambodian people.
He hopes that this misuse of funds will be corrected by the NGO Law, which will require organizations to file reports about their budgets and sources of funding. “I think that this law can certainly help to bring greater transparency, more efficiency, and hopefully reduce the competitiveness and duplication [of services],” he said.
The law, which passed the Senate despite a boycott by opposition lawmakers last Friday, has been criticized for imposing harsh restrictions on NGOs, and giving the government broad powers to shut down groups. Some NGOs have called it a blatant attempt by the government to silence its critics. Mr. Minko calls it an attempt to regulate the sector.
Mr. Minko’s support of the Law on Associations and NGOs – as well as a perception that he is chummy with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party – has made him vexing among some. He was shouted down twice when he defended the law during a panel discussion at Meta House last week. “Why do they describe themselves as civil society?” he asked in a gravelly laugh.
A Different Breed
As he leans down to pet his Chihuahua-Jack Russell Terrier mix named “Dog,” Mr. Minko says he is accustomed to taking flak for his views on the aid sector. Criticism does not faze him.
Many of the international NGOs in Cambodia have overstayed their welcome, he says, noting that many set up shop here more than 20 years ago. “NGOs have forgotten what they were by definition,” he says. “They’ve gone into trying to start businesses, influence politics… they should just be providing essential and emergency services to a country where the government is incapable of doing so, until the government can provide those services.”
“It is a known fact that on a number of occasions in the last 20 years, the US government has sought to undermine the authority of Hun Sen,” he says, “and part of it is by funding NGOs that oppose the government.”
He declined to provide specific examples of NGO funding of political opposition groups, but said it is “well-documented.” CPP members frequently point to Kem Sokha, vice-president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) as an example of this.
They say he used his position as the president of the USAID-funded Cambodia Center for Human Rights, from 2002 to 2007, to help build support for the Human Rights Party, which merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP.
“People working in NGOs feel that they have the right to tell the government what to do,” he said.
“But civil society means dialogue – polite and respectful dialogue,” he stressed.
$1,000 a Month
Mr. Minko also criticizes international NGOs for their lavish spending, noting the villas they rent for offices and their fetish for SUVs. He practices what he preaches, living on a salary of just $1,000 per month, and proudly says that his program for disabled athletes spent just 20 percent of its budget on administrative expenses.
While other NGOs employees drove SUVs, he and his coworkers would take the bus. “It sounds unimportant, but small things like that make all the difference,” he says. “I never came here with the objective of making lots of money.”
Instead of making money, Mr. Minko has invested himself in an array of projects. He introduced athletic programs for disabled Cambodians, starting the disabled volleyball league in 1996. Athletes injured by landmines and war were able to compete, winning bronze in the 2011 Volleyball World Cup. More recently, Mr. Minko started a wheelchair basketball program for women.
“At all times, we should remember we are guests in Cambodia,” he said. “Hopefully we’re here to provide advice and expertise on aid and development, but we’re not here to be political representatives.”