When international donors sit down with government officials at the Consultative Group meeting on Dec 6 and Dec 7, observers from all sides will be watching to see whether the government is punished or rewarded for its reform work over the past two years.
When donors concluded their last CG meeting in June 2002, they left behind $635 million in aid and a number of benchmarks with timelines in an attempt to prod the Cambodian government to show real progress.
Sticking points for donors for several years already, those benchmarks focused on less-than-adequate legal and judicial reform, natural resource management, fiscal management, public administration reform and the need for increased money for the social sector.
In a draft report prepared last month for the upcoming meeting, the government lauded its perceived progress since 2002, writing Cambodia has become “an epicenter of sustained peace, security and social order, respect for democracy, human rights and dignity, cooperation and shared development.”
The report says the government has shown progress in every single area—the donor benchmarks have either been reached or are nearing completion.
The report, for example, notes that the government “has made significant progress in combating corruption by addressing its root causes.”
But in recent months, several donor institutions—the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank and both the US Agency for International Development and the UN’s human rights envoy—have compiled reports slamming the government’s lack of progress in a number of key areas.
“I think many of the problems I’ve been talking about for over four years are still there,” UN envoy Peter Leuprecht said earlier this month.
He pointed to the slow pace of legal and judicial reforms and criticized the proposed anti-corruption bill, saying it was insufficient.
Leuprecht focused on land concessions, which he said could lead to widespread social unrest if left unchecked.
He also called for stronger laws on access to information to cut through the opaque practice of awarding government land concessions.
USAID’s report, released earlier this month, also focused on corruption and its impact on the country’s development.
“Institutions are weak and public officials lack management skills,” the report reads. “Even if sufficient political will existed to implement reforms, results would not be forthcoming quickly.”
The World Bank echoed the sentiments in a briefing report prepared for the CG meeting, titled “Cambodia at a Crossroad.”
That report applauded the country for holding peaceful elections, the presence of a vibrant civil society and freedom of the press, but noted that poverty rates have not declined, child mortality rates remain high and corruption is out of control.
“What is needed is a concerted effort to strengthen, and in many cases create, the chain of accountability,” the report states.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon denied the report’s accuracy, while World Bank country representative Nisha Agrawal said earlier this week she would not comment until she had spoken to the minister.
Though some feel that only the donors can nudge the government in the direction of real reforms, diplomats says it’s not that easy.
German Ambassador Pius Fischer said donor countries walk a fine line because cutting funding could be “counterproductive” to what the donors hope to see in the way of progress.
The German government contributed about $20 million last year, half of which was in financial contributions and the other half in technical expertise.
“We have to keep in mind that peace and civility have only existed in Cambodia for a short time,” Fischer said.
“In some areas, we expect something significant to happen shortly,” he said, in reference to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Oct 18 speech, in which he advocated for a review of all concessions and more action to give land back to poor Cambodians.
“If we see progress, that would be encouraging,” Fischer said.
Japanese Ambassador Fumiaki Takahashi held a similar view. He said the country is still bouncing back from years of civil war and it will take time to rebuild, but there has been progress in some areas.
“Of course there are areas that we are not satisfied with,” he said. “But you have to take into consideration the many factors.”
Many disagree with the diplomatic outlook.
Representatives from more than 150 NGOs will gather at the Sunway Hotel on Nov 30 to hold an alternative CG meeting to highlight the need for greater commitment by the Cambodian government and international donors.
“I think the donors can do much more for Cambodian people,” said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho. “They have to change their strategy.”
The country has slipped backward in recent years, Kek Galabru said, citing the government’s unofficial ban since January 2003 on peaceful demonstrations and the spread of corruption.
“I don’t know what kind of progress [the donors] are talking about,” she said.
“I think they should do something.”
But Sok Hach, director of the Economic Institute of Cambodia, said donors have only so many options and pulling out of the country isn’t one of them.
“Cambodia still needs money from the donors,” he said, noting that more than half of the country’s budget is externally funded. “They could not leave Cambodia right now.”
Sok Hach said he has heard stronger language in the run-up to this CG meeting than in the past but is skeptical anything will change considering how much help the country needs.
“How do they take a strong stance?” he asked.