The central government will need to hand more power to local authorities if it hopes to reverse a decade of rising inequality, development workers and experts said yesterday at the launch of a UN report on local development.
UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Broderick said the development outlook prepared by the UN Capital Development Fund “aims at providing a tool to improve our understanding of why development occurs in some places and not in others, and what can be done about it.”
Emphasizing the widening gap between rich and poor in Cambodia in a decade of rapid economic growth, and between the country’s rural and urban residents, the report released yesterday highlighted the “unexploited potential” of local communities to reverse the trend.
The report, Mr Broderick said, identifies places of potential benefit, such as historical sites, protected areas and mineral deposits, information that “will help shape strategies that can transform this into benefits for residents of these areas.”
For all its world-famous temples, said Nicola Crosta, the development fund’s chief technical adviser in Cambodia, Siem Reap province remains one of the poorest in the country.
“What is very clear…is there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “A lot of that potential is not going to stay there forever…some of it is under threat.”
To highlight the scope of the challenge the country faces in decentralizing, Mr Crosta pointed out that a mere six percent of government expenditures are spent below the national level, none of it by districts.
Finance Ministry Secretary-General Hang Chuon Naron warned against reading too much into the figure.
“Even though the national development [budget] is big, we focus on local development,” he said.
Leonard Romeo, former principal technical advisor for local development planning at the development fund, insisted that local development meant more than simply spending money on local projects.
“If you envision local planning as just the localization of national plans…you cannot reap the benefits of decentralization,” said Mr Romeo, which he said ranged from the regional knowledge of local authorities to the ability of local communities to mobilize their own resources.
“You have created the local authorities but you have not yet given specific function to the local authorities,” he said. “Without autonomy, you will not reap the benefits of decentralization.”
Mr Romeo also stressed that local authorities were not just a means for the government to reach into communities, but for communities to reach the government.
“If we only look at local authorities as the agents of the government, we are cutting [off] one of their hands,” he said.
Mey Kalyan, an economist with the Council of Ministers, said decentralizing would take more than plans and the will to carry them out.
“We need a lot of capacity building in doing this, not only theory,” he said, stressing the need to move gradually.
“Too much decentralization would not be good, because we don’t have the people to manage it,” he said. “Too much decentralization could be harmful.”
The Council of Ministers in May adopted a national program to support sub-national democratic development.