NGOs, International Aid, and Mental Health in Cambodia

Type Thesis or Dissertation - Master of Arts in International Studies
Title NGOs, International Aid, and Mental Health in Cambodia
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2016
Research shows that there are enduringly high rates of trauma in Cambodia from the
Khmer Rouge genocide and current daily stressors including poverty and a corrupt government.
Additionally, Cambodia is a highly aid dependent country. There is strong international
involvement not only in providing aid to the government, but also in giving grants to local
NGOs. Despite this heavy international aid, mental health services in Cambodia are insufficient
to address the need. Cambodia is party to the International Convention on Economic, Social, and
Cultural Rights, meaning that Cambodia is legally obligated to ensure the right to the highest
attainable standard of health which includes mental health. Because Cambodia faces resource
and infrastructure limitations, the international community is legally obligated to assist
Cambodia’s efforts in ensuring the right to health, under the same convention. The fact that these
services are not being provided shows that both parties are failing in their obligation to the right
to health. The purpose of this thesis is to examine why this mental health gap is not being
addressed by international or local actors.
To gather data, interviews of local NGOs were conducted in Cambodia, along with
observations of meetings with international and local actors, and on-the-ground volunteering
experience with a local Cambodian NGO. Some document analysis was also conducted to gather
data about how these entities present their programs and goals. The findings from these different
sources of data were recorded and triangulated to find common themes and conclusions. This
research revealed five main conclusions about why mental health is not being addressed.
First, there is poor collaboration between international donors and local NGOs, as well as
poor participation with the recipient communities. Second, there is a tension between high
government corruption and a need for better regulation of the NGO sector. Third, local NGOs
have little autonomy in their programmatic priority setting. The international community has
more money and power to set the health agenda in Cambodia. Fourth, there is a disconnect
between the Western dominated international understanding of trauma and healing and the
culturally embedded Cambodian understanding of trauma and healing. Finally, there are
significant funding and infrastructure shortcomings that limit the ability of local NGOs to
function effectively. All of these conclusions negatively affect aspects of the right to the highest
attainable standard of health and have important implications for research and policy.

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