Despite government assurances to the contrary, non-government groups yesterday maintained that the public has been largely barred from commenting on proposed changes to a key planning document designed to set Cambodia’s course for the next three years.
At stake is Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan for 2009-2013, which sets the government’s goals on everything from poverty reduction to primary school enrollment.
A trio of NGOs, NGO Forum, Medicam and the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, yesterday held a public forum on the plan in Phnom Penh.
In all, the government allowed just three weeks, beginning Dec 17 at a time when many foreign development workers were on annual leave, for detailed responses to a 200-page government-drafted document that is to determine how millions are spent to alleviate poverty.
Though acceptance of written comments on the plan closed on Jan 11, Theng Pagnathun, the planning ministry’s deputy director general, said that NGOs and partners could keep submit their comments.
“If you cannot take one bus you can take the next bus,” he told the meeting yesterday, without saying whether any new deadline has been set.
The NGOs organized the forum yesterday in their latest attempt to press their problems with the plan. Amid a crowd of over 100 civil society workers, however, Mr Pagnathun was one of only three government officials to attend the meeting.
Though disappointed, NGO Forum Executive Director Chhith Sam Ath, whose group co-sponsored the event, expected as much.
“It is not surprising that we invite the government officials and they do not come,” he said.
It was a common refrain throughout the day.
Speaker after speaker recounted attempts to arrange meetings with government representatives who turned them down, and invitations sent to ministry officials who did not show up yesterday.
Mr Pagnathun reminded the NGOs to work through the discussion groups each ministry has for debating public policy with their development partners.
“If you use a good technique with compromise and come to an understanding with those ministries…my side will not refuse,” he maintained.
But Mr Sam Ath said the problem runs deeper than a lack of communication.
Instead of relying on “technical working groups,” Mr Sam Ath suggested the government take its development plan straight to the communities that will be affected.
“This process should be led by the whole population,” he said. “We [the NGOs] do not pretend to speak for the poor. The poor can speak for themselves if they are given the opportunity to do so.”
The Planning Ministry would rather not.
Thoun Thavarak, the ministry’s director-general, insisted last week that the document was not to be made public until after being approved by the National Assembly.
“There should be a change from ownership of the government to [ownership of] the country,” Mr Sam Ath said. “This means to let the people of Cambodia raise issues that they are facing.”
Barring that, some NGOs raised their own concerns yesterday.
Mam Sambath, executive director of Development and Partnership in Action, recommended several changes to the plan that could help draw government earnings from oil, gas and other resources into the open.
“This plans is not clear,” he said. “In our country we don’t know what kind of contract our government has granted the oil and gas companies. It’s still kind of mystic[al].”
He recommended that the plan instruct the government to seek public input on its pending petroleum law and to reveal resource earning that come from royalties, taxes, bonuses and so on.
“Revenue should be accountable to the people,” Mr Sambath said, “so that the ownership is across the country, not a few government ministries only.”
Pen Raingsey, who manages the NGO Forum’s land and livelihood program, suggested changes to sections of the action plan affecting people evicted from their land.
He suggested adding that the government would consider the impact on residents’ livelihoods before going through with an eviction, making sure an relocation site had the all the necessary infrastructure before moving people in, and focusing on issuing land titles in urban areas.
Reached by phone yesterday, Ministry of Land Management spokeswoman Non Theany said the recommendations were being considered.