Reform of the judicial system topped the first day of the Consultative Group meeting between the government and international donors Wednesday, with many donor representatives expressing concern that the government had not made sufficient progress since last year’s meeting in Tokyo.
In six hours of talks, the most significant discussion came at the end of the day. Wednesday’s session was scheduled to be less formal than meetings to be held today and Friday—the day that donor pledges will be announced. The government is hoping donors will give more than $1.4 billion over the next three years.
Minister of Finance Keat Chhon, who co-chaired Wednesday’s talks, said late Wednesday that the government remained confident it would get the $484 million it is seeking from donors for the next year.
The discussion on judicial and legal reforms was the “critical one,” Keat Chhon said Wednesday morning. Throughout the day’s presentations and speeches, it became clear that representatives from many donor countries and agencies agreed.
The reforms are necessary if Cambodia wants to improve its international image, UK Ambassador Stephen Bridges said. He cited recent stories in the International Herald Tribune, the Bangkok Post and the Asian Wall Street Journal that were critical of Cambodia’s human rights record and its courts.
The government submitted a “draft strategy” for legal and judicial reform to the donors, but many representatives criticized it for being too broad, and asked the government to come up with some concrete timetables for meeting the goals.
After briefly reading the draft strategy, Swedish Counselor Daniel Asplund said it seemed that judicial reform had “lost a whole year.”
“How can the government assure us we are talking business” during today’s and Friday’s talks? he asked.
A strong judicial system, donors said, made foreign trade, economic growth and the reduction of poverty all that more attainable.
The government is facing tough competition for foreign aid this year, with countries such as East Timor and Afghanistan becoming higher priorities in the eyes of the international community. Donors reacted positively Wednesday to some of the efforts the government made over the past year, but there were some sharp criticisms as well.
European Commission head of delegation Aldo Dell’ Ariccia called on the government to find ways “to fill the gap” between poverty reduction strategies, and actually reducing poverty in Cambodia.
“In the last four years, we have had more poor people, and those people are more poor than they were four years ago,” Dell’ Ariccia said. “There is something that is wrong.”
More than 80 percent of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, health indicators remain low and nutrition is still inadequate for nearly half of Cambodia’s very young, Unicef told the donors.
Another heavy topic for discussion over the next two days will likely be the relationship between the government and its donor partners.
As Cambodia moves into its 6th Consultative Group meeting, heavy hitters like the UN Development Program are saying there is a “need for a new development paradigm,” because the gap between rich and poor is widening, despite aid efforts.
“This has come about as a result of a general acknowledgment of a failure to reverse the widening gap between the poorest and the richest nations, and questions raised about the effectiveness of [overseas development aid] programs,” the UNDP writes in its CG “Partnership Concept Paper.”
Meanwhile, the government will be asking donors to better streamline its multiple requirements and timelines, and asked donors Wednesday to consider a working group or task force to accomplish that.
Donors said Wednesday that they were pleased with the progress the government made with creating commune councils since February’s elections.
ADB officials found in visits to two provinces that several commune councils had representation from the three main political parties, and that many commune leaders had leadership experience.
The government is asking donors for funding to strengthen the commune councils with equipment and training through a National Commune Development Fund.
The government said it would need a total of $68 million between 2003 and 2005 for this. About $34 million of that would come from domestic revenue, and another $20 million is already budgeted through development projects, leaving a shortfall of $14 million.
Questions arose concerning the relationship between the “grass-roots” commune councils and the administrative levels above them. For example, what is the role of provincial and district governors in overseeing the commune councils?
Formal discussions on topics raised at Wednesday’s meeting begin today. The government will also answer to donors on progress made in areas such as forestry and land management, trade and investment.
At last year’s donor meeting, the government received about $615 million in pledges from donors, and has since received about $471 million of that amount.