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Swiss doctor defends Cambodian hospital record

Beat Richner at work in one of his Cambodian hospitals

(Keystone)

A Swiss doctor has lashed out at the government for freezing SFr2.75 million in funding for three children’s hospitals he runs in Cambodia.

Swiss development aid officials say they will no longer support Beat Richner’s hospitals until he signs formal contracts with the Cambodian authorities.

Harry Sivec, spokesman for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said the government could not support the Swiss paediatrician’s work without such contracts.

“Hospitals should be integrated into local or regional health systems,” Sivec told swissinfo, “and as I understand it he has… no intention of signing a contract.”

But in a letter to the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, Richner defended his decision not to cooperate more closely with the Cambodian authorities.

He said concerns about corruption in Cambodia had made it impossible to sign any contracts with the government.

Corruption concerns

“The health ministry is corrupt… and it is incumbent on our foundation not to sign a contract which would see the money we receive flowing through the hands of ministry officials,” he said.

“So the request [from Bern] is completely absurd and sounds very much like bureaucratic bullying,” he added.

But the head of the SDC, Walter Fust, maintains that all projects which receive funding from the Swiss government must fulfil certain criteria.

“All the programmes the SDC supports around the world play by the rules – except Richner’s,” Fust said in an interview published on Wednesday with the Swiss newspaper, “Blick”.

“We can’t use taxpayers’ money if the long-term viability of the hospitals isn’t legally secured,” said Fust.

Charity work

Richner was named “Swiss of the Year” in 2003 in recognition of his work operating children’s hospitals in Cambodia, a year after German-speaking Switzerland awarded him the same honour.

The hospitals, along with a maternity ward for HIV patients, are mainly funded through private donations.

Richner raises money through his work as a cellist. Twice a year he travels home to Switzerland to perform in concerts and drum up support for his hospitals.

Over the past ten years, Richner’s concerts have brought in over $100 million (SFr125 million), mostly from Swiss donors.

Richner opened his first hospital in Cambodia in 1993 and is currently seeking additional funding for a new SFr20 million facility.

swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen

In brief

The government has blocked SFr2.75 million in funding for three private children’s hospitals in Cambodia run by Swiss doctor Beat Richner.

It has called on Richner to sign formal contracts with the Cambodian authorities.

Richner says he will not sign such contracts because the health ministry in Cambodia “is corrupt”.

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Key facts

Switzerland spent SFr1.74 billion on official development assistance (ODA) in 2003.
It sponsored 1,000 projects involving 1,450 people, including 900 locally-employed staff in partner countries.
Development aid was focused mainly on 17 priority countries.
ODA in 2003 represented 0.38% of gross national income.

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