Education Minister Im Sethy on Wednesday accused the Ministry of Economy and Finance of consistently failing to disburse sufficient funds to the education sector, forcing it to rely heavily on foreign aid to achieve reforms.
Eschewing a prepared speech during an education workshop hosted by the European Union (E.U.) at the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Mr. Sethy said the Ministry of Education has received a smaller proportion of the government’s total budget every year since 2007—funds essential to increasing student enrollment and raising teachers’ low salaries.
“To be blunt…now the proportion [of education spending] is decreasing, so the Ministry of Economy and Finance needs to take this into account,” Mr. Sethy said in a speech to the workshop.
“The Finance Ministry doesn’t know how to make policy at all,” the minister continued, turning from the crowd and angrily pointing a finger at Chou Kimleng, undersecretary of state at the Finance Ministry, who was seated onstage near Mr. Sethy and who had just given the opening remarks at the workshop.
“As we can see, reform can’t be deadlocked by a deadlocked policy. It needs to be updated and improved,” Mr. Sethy continued.
Using as an example the construction of a new building at the National Institute of Education, Mr. Sethy said that when the building’s expense came in over budget, the Finance Ministry refused to give them more money. He added that four letters he personally sent to the ministry on the subject went unanswered.
“But I’m thankful to our partner [the E.U.] that helped us because sometimes Cambodians don’t listen to each other. I’m thankful to our partner, who stuck with us and saw the issue and resolved it,” Mr. Sethy said, going on to express his gratitude to the E.U. for spending 36 million euros, or about $48.7 million, on Cambodian education initiatives to date.
E.U. Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain—who at the workshop pledged an additional 37.2 million euros, or about $50.3 million, to Cambodia’s education sector for 2014 to 2016—said the E.U.’s support for the education sector should merely supplement, not replace, proper funding by the government.
“The support we are providing at the E.U. should not substitute a lack of support by the government…. It should be the other way around,” Ambassador Cautain said on the sidelines of the workshop.
“It is something we say to the government behind closed doors, but also in public,” he added. “On that, we are fully aligned with the minister [of education].”
Mr. Cautain added that while government funding for education has risen over the past few years, this increase is not proportional to the growth in total state expenditures.
“What we have seen the last years is that, even if in nominal terms, the budget for education has increased, the percentage which is allocated [to] education of the total government budget is decreasing, so that is a concern for us,” he said.
“Usually, if you look at other countries, a reasonable share would be around 20 percent of the total budget of the government. I think the last year, we were around 16 percent, going down from 19, 18” percent in previous years, he added.
According to official figures, the government allocated about $280 million to education for this year, roughly 9.1 percent of the $3.1 billion total budget. In 2012, funding for education was $245 million, or about 9.4 percent of the budget.
In contrast, some $400 million has been apportioned to the defense and security sectors this year, which amounts to about 13 percent of all spending and a 17.3 percent increase over last year’s allocation, with $245 million going to the Defense Ministry alone.
But it was not always this way, as Mr. Sethy noted.
In 2007, $132.7 million was set aside for education, about 11.5 percent of that year’s total budget and an increase of 24 percent over the year before.
Officials at the Finance Ministry declined to comment.