The approach to aid taken by the donor community and the government often leads to incomplete policymaking, overly ambitious timetables and hasty project designs, according to a new study.
Conducted by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, the study criticizes donors for often assuming that the government’s commitment to reform “exists on the basis of a few meetings with senior officials.”
Yet evidence shows that the political will to reform is still lacking, and “speeches often replace policy making,” the report said.
“One of the key weaknesses in governance in Cambodia is the lack of implementation or enforcement of reforms,” said the study, which was funded by the Asian Development Bank.
The report, issued last week, comes just ahead of next week’s major donors meeting in Paris, where the government plans to ask for $1.5 billion over three years, or about $500 million per year.
At the meeting, the government will present progress reports on different areas of reform, while donors will decide how much aid to give. At the Tokyo Consultative Group meeting a year ago, donors pledged $470 million.
The report by CDRI also criticized the government and donors for putting too much attention on money at too early of a stage in discussions and planning. The government often establishes reform priorities based on the money it can get from donors, the report said.
“Under the present circumstances, it is difficult to make large strides in improving good governance,” the study said. “This requires sustained political will, policy making that is transparent and inclusive….These steps are hard to achieve when so much attention is placed on money.”
The report recommended that donors require concrete proof of reforms as a precondition for assistance, rather than taking the government at its word.
While the study praised donors and the government for the progress they have made, it cited many areas in which more work needs to be done.
The study said one key criteria of donors should be to allocate independent and adequate budgets, to build an image of financial integrity and to consider land reform as a top priority.
Little effective separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, partly due to party politics, puts power in the hands of relatively few individuals, the study said.
The donor community is part of that problem because it relies mainly on the executive branch to implement reforms, which ultimately undermines good governance, according to the report.
The report listed low salaries for government employees, the lack of an independent audit authority and budget money for the social sector not reaching local offices as key areas that need improvement.
One of the main obstacles to development is the judiciary system, which is plagued by corruption, incompetence and lack of independence, the study said.
“Intrusions by the executive and occasionally the legislature into the judiciary are a pattern of governance in Cambodia,” the report said.
Khieu Thavika, a government spokesman, disputed the study’s findings, saying the government has shown its commitment to reforms and has made significant progress in fighting corruption and stopping land grabs.
“The CDRI should research this again, as it has not done a good study on this matter,” Khieu Thavika said Thursday. “The donors have highly praised the efforts made by the government. The government has done a lot.”
Chea Vannath, president for the Center for Social Development, a reform advocacy group, said the performance of donors has to be measured as much as the government’s.
“There are two sides to the question,” she said. “On one hand, is Cambodia good enough for the donors? On the other hand, are the donors good enough for Cambodia?”
Peter Koppinger, country representative for Konrad Adenauer, an NGO promoting democracy, agreed donors need to solicit more input from more people.
“They just ask, ‘which one has power and who do I have to cooperate with?’” Koppinger said. “Even the things [programs] that work still have problems.”
Donors, however, defended the process they take to reach decisions.
Mario de Zamaroczy, the resident representative of the International Monetary Fund, said the study does not accurately reflect how his organization works.
“We certainly don’t stop at a couple of meetings,” said de Zamaroczy, who said he had not seen the report. “We have specific conditionalities that the government must meet for assistance.”
Eiji Yamamoto, counsellor at the Japanese embassy, said the report doesn’t take into account the recent trend of the donor community.
“The recent trend of donors is not just to focus on the money side,” he said. “Yes, there is attention put on money, but at the same time, we also stress human resource development and other reforms, like good governance.”
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, acknowledged that there is always room for improvement in donors’ interaction with the government.
However, he noted that the process has made significant progress from the past.
“Before, they didn’t even talk about concrete issues. They just asked the government what they have done to improve,” he said.
The study said the government also has to increase its revenue raising capacity, consult the private sector when it comes to economic development policy making and give the National Assembly a proactive rather than reactive role in the legislative process.
Overall, the report said donors and the government must demand more accountability in reforms, or Cambodia will remain as it is: one of the poorest countries in the world with a reputation for also being one of the most corrupt.
“The biggest challenge facing the [government] now,” the report said, “is to translate its commitments into sustained actions.”
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)