In a high-ceilinged room within the newly created National Audit Authority, dozens of staff members examine documents and scan their computer screens, busily conducting the first-ever independent audits of government business.
This is where corruption dies, in theory. The workers here are charged with no less a task than ferreting out government slush funds, revealing a ministry’s cooked books or correcting false accounting meant to hide the pilfering of donors’ funds.
How does a government official earning a few hundred dollars a month purchase a $100,000 Land Rover? The National Audit Authority might know.
A staff of 80 now works at the Street 240 offices, with another 20 workers scheduled for hire, said Auditor General Uth Chhorn, a CPP member who has run the authority since it opened in January.
“This is a difficult job, but we have our staff,” he said. “We have the possibility to do a quality job. We have to do the audits according to international standards.”
Soon the authority is expected to deliver its first audit to the National Assembly: A review of the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s operations in 2001.
“We are working hard to complete the report,” said Uth Chhorn.
After that should come a special audit requested by the Finance Ministry on a tangle of payments discovered earlier this year between loggers and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
To be successful, the auditor will simultaneously need political support and distance from the government, said an observer.
“The auditor will require a lot of independence,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, an NGO that has studied corruption in Cambodia.
Even with independence, it’s difficult to imagine the National Audit Authority stamping out bribery, Chea Vannath said.
“On the one hand, the government encourages corruption, and on the other hand, the government has the responsibility to fight against corruption,” she said. “It’s a mixed result.”
Many government employees have lifestyles that require more money than what they get from their salary, only reinforcing the need for dishonesty, Chea Vannath said.
“It’s just the common sense that it’s impossible for people not to do corruption,” she said.
No one is denying the difficult task that lies ahead for the auditors. Corruption is so pervasive in Cambodia that a survey conducted by the Center for Social Development in 1997 found that 84 percent of adults believed corruption was a normal way of doing business.
The wealthier and more powerful people are, the survey found, the more they are considered to have risen to the top through corruption. But the survey also found that more than half of the people interviewed believe corruption hinders the country’s development.
Where does the money go in Cambodia? The logging companies were supposed to deliver some $100 million in logging revenues annually for Cambodia when they were first allowed into the country. That number has fallen off to about $10 million or less.
Millions more in profits are taken in by the government’s tourism operations in Siem Reap. The Audit Authority, like the US government’s General Accounting Office, has the authority to track down every dollar left by tourists passing through the Angkor temples.
The authority has its critics already. Not everyone believes it will be independent. Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said he doubts that the auditors will actually reveal wrongdoing that would embarrass a powerful ministry.
The test may be in the authority’s reports.
The authority’s findings are to be passed on to the Assembly. The authority does not have the power to arrest or fire government officials for wrongdoing. Those decisions will be left to the politicians.
But underpinning the auditors’ work is a requirement that their reports be made public. The added scrutiny of public disclosure is intended to make it difficult for the findings to be ignored.
Created by the Assembly, the audit authority was established with the 2000 passage of the Law on the Audit. Delays-including a prolonged debate over who the Assembly should appoint for the authority’s top three positions-slowed the opening of the office until early this year.
Training has also slowed the office, even with the support of an Asian Development Bank technical adviser and $25,000 in computers from the ADB.
There are no statistics on the number of qualified professional accountants in Cambodia, according to the ADB, but the creation of a National Audit Authority required an immediate infusion of Cambodian accountants.
Though Cambodia lacks a culture of accounting, three of the five largest international accounting firms in the world have offices in Phnom Penh: Ernst & Young International, KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Generally staffed by expatriates, these auditors work primarily in the private sector.
Before the creation of the National Audit Authority, the public sector in Cambodia had three “auditors,” though none are considered independent: The Ministry of National Assembly and Senatorial Relation and Inspection works within the legislative branch of the government; the Council of Ministers has an
inspection office; and the General Inspectorate within the Ministry of Economy and Finance conducts regular inspections of sub-ministerial entities.
None of these offices satisfied the demands of international aid agencies for an independent auditor, and at the donors’ meeting in June 2001, the
international community pressed for the creation of one.
Officials at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund did not return several phone calls seeking comment on the National Audit Authority.
The law establishing the authority says it is “responsible for executing the external auditing function of the government. The Auditor-General shall be empowered to conduct an audit of transactions, accounts, systems, controls, operations and programs of government institutions.”
But will the public in five years’ time look to the National Audit Authority and credit it with turning the tide of government corruption?
“Our role is to decide these things objectively,” said Uth Chhorn. “We have our code of conduct. If people within the Audit Authority choose to be corrupt [and ignore problems within the government], the public will not rely on us.”