The government and its foreign donors met behind closed doors to kick off a two-day aid pledging forum yesterday amid mounting complaints from non-government groups that international aid keeps flowing with too few reforms to show for it.
The Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum, which ends today, is a chance for the donors and government to discuss the progress Cambodia has made toward meeting development targets they set 18 months ago, and set new targets for the next year-and-a-half.
The meeting will end today with donors making their latest pledges of aid, expected to top $1 billion.
“The Royal Government has made its utmost efforts to firmly and deeply implement various reform programs and considers them as a ‘life or death’ issue for Cambodia,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in his opening remarks yesterday.
In the lead-up to the forum, however, local and international organizations alike stepped up their pleas that donors hold the government more accountable for development targets they say have been missed on everything from oil revenue transparency to land reform.
Yesterday’s talks touched on the government’s new five-year development plan, management of the national economy, agriculture, social welfare programs and political decentralization. And though the forum’s organizers released prepared statements from speakers on both the government and donor sides, journalists were barred from listening in on any of the discussions or off-script remarks. When asked by a Cambodia Daily reporter for headphones broadcasting the donor talks, a staffer who declined to identify himself said that letting a reporter listen in would be against the “rules.”
According to the prepared statements, however, some of the key issues regarding development targets did arise during yesterday’s talks, including the thorny issue of government transparency in revenues related to the country’s natural resources.
Recent reports that Australian mega-miner BHP Billiton is being investigated for alleged bribes it may have paid in Cambodia, and the government’s revelation that French oil firm Total paid $20 million into a still-undisclosed “social fund,” have raised concerns that Cambodia’s resource revenues are being misspent.
“Efforts to consolidate reforms that improve the credibility and transparency of the budget should remain top priority, including importantly in the management and accountability of revenues from extractive industries,” John Nelmes, resident coordinator for the International Monetary Fund, said in a prepared statement.
Asked during a break in the forum whether the government had created that requested transparency, Mr Nelmes said that “in time we hope there will be more.”
“It’s important to move toward transparency, and I think there is some movement in that direction,” he said.
On the corruption front, the prime minister also discussed salary supplements for civil servants and civil service reform, an issue that has been at the forefront of donor concerns since the pay supplements were abruptly jettisoned by the government in December. The government and donors have since been working on a plan to replace the pay supplement programs with a standardized pay system with the hope of phasing it out altogether in a few years.
“This issue is a vital issue concerning reform, equity and the consistency of public administration. This issue is also relevant to combating corruption in project implementation,” Mr Hun Sen said.
NGOs have also been especially vocal this year about economic land concessions. At thousands of acres at a time, the government grants these concessions to private agri-business investors. NGOs, however, blame the concessions for throwing thousand of families across the country off their rightful land and into poverty.
Japanese Ambassador Masafumi Kuroki appeared to touch on those fears with a prepared question to the government.
“How is the royal government evaluating not only the returns but also the risks from a variety of concessions…to ensure that these concessions are maximizing the country’s medium and long-term benefits in terms of jobs, technology, environmental and community development?” the ambassador asked.
In his own prepared statement to the forum, Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim defended the government’s record, insisting that it has pursued land registration in a way that “everyone is equal before the law with transparency and without discrimination.”
In her own opening remarks to the forum, World Bank Country Director Annette Dixon noted the government’s “limited progress” toward integrating its strategic planning with aid management.
But she also praised the government’s progress on financial reforms, its recent crackdown on illegal logging, and the passage of a 20-year National Forest Program.
Ms Dixon also praised the recent passage of the Anti-corruption law, a long-standing development target for donors.
“This is an important advance in the government’s fight against corruption,” she said. “The next important task is to ensure that the supporting legal framework, institutions and processes are established and development partners stand ready to support government on this.”
Critics, however, complain that the corruption law fails to adequately protect whistleblowers and there are no guarantees of the independence of the unit it establishes to investigate claims of corruption.
UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Broderick, however, was positive about the law.
“The law as is is fine,” he said during a break in the forum. “We’ll be positive about it, whatever assistance we can provide.”
Mr Broderick said he also felt positive about Cambodia’s overall current direction.
“If you look at it economically, at what has happened over the last 10 years in Cambodia, 9 to 10 percent economic growth, and there has been a significant decrease in poverty,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of things we need to do and work together. I think there’s good progress.”