Local Cure for Poverty Elusive After 10 Years

Three hundred km from Phnom Penh in Preah Vihear’s Romtom commune, doing the people’s business is a modest affair: commune officials write down community data by hand on creased notepads and often work half days.

Nevertheless, 83-year-old Romtom commune chief Lun Chea is by law responsible for improving local living standards, managing public services and listening to the complaints and views of commune residents.

His existence is a far stretch from what the government envisages for such low-level officials in the future.

Since 2001, the devolution of responsibilities from central government to local officials has been Cambodia’s official policy.

And on Monday, the government launched the 10-year National Program for Sub-National Democratic Development, to strengthen institutions at all levels, transferring power from well-groomed officials in Phnom Penh to more outlying areas of the country.

The program also outlines plans to appoint new staff members equipped with skills in accounting and project management. The idea is to make sure money in the countryside is spent with more direction and is also rendered more accountable to local citizens.

But experts say the strategy announced Monday, though necessary, will be difficult and slow to implement and that current spending patterns are too heavily focused outside of social services, which is not getting the job done.

“If we look at government policies regarding investment in the rural areas its not producing the deserved effects,” said Rezaul Karim, an advisor for the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development, pointing toward health care, education and basic local services.

“That’s where the money should go,” he said.

Indeed, the International Monetary Fund announced on several occasions last year that government spending during the economic downturn had been too focused on military and civil service wages and not enough on health and education.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said during Monday’s launching of the program that the government would temporarily stop recruiting more civil servants in sectors other than health and education.

Mr Karim said that continuing to put money into nationalized programs and promoting large-scale, rather than more localized investment suited to community needs would undoubtedly result in rising inequality.

“There is certainly a danger [of rising inequality] unless the government can re-orientate its polices,” he said. “A lot of things are being done but not in an intensive, not in a coordinated way.”

The amount of money going toward communes for schools, health, clean water programs and basic infrastructure–all matters that make up targets outlined in the UN’s millennium development goals–is very small, Mr Rezaul said. Commune councils, which have a mandate to carry out local planning, only receive 2.5 percent of the national budget, or about $15,000 a year, he said.

Still, experts say that providing the local authorities with more power, and more money will take time to become effective as local authorities have yet to identify priorities.

“I think before we add more water we should fix the bucket,” said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association. “Indeed, the more direct channeling of resources to local levels the better.”

Mr Sophal said the government should simultaneously adopt a strategy of prioritizing local spending on a smaller scale level with bigger investment projects with the potential of adding to Cambodia’s economic growth.

“There is always a limitation to what villagers can do,” he said.

There is also a cultural element inhibiting the success of decentralizing Cambodia: government ministries often do not want to delegate power elsewhere and feel threatened by radical political reform, analysts say.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the government was committed to decentralization, even if the idea took some getting accustomed to.

“Decentralization is a new concept,” he said. “First we need to change the mindset of the people to better serve the people.”

But opposition SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said that the argument that granting more power to commune officials is part of the democratic process in Cambodia is flawed.

“The power is very much controlled by the party even though we have commune councils,” he said. “They do not have the ability to act independently.”

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, chairman of the National Assembly’s finance and banking commission, said that more funds allocated to commune councils must go hand in hand with better controls and transparency of government spending.

“There is no point in using the money to build a university in a commune that no one is interested in studying at,” he said.

For the moment, however, the resources available to commune officials are limited resulting in a lack of direction when it comes to local development.

“We need more human resources to help us out in providing theory and practical knowledge,” said Romchek commune chief Hem Ing in Kompong Cham province.

He said that his commune had received about $2000 so far this year and that the amount of money allocated to his commune depends on the development needs for the area expressed by local officials.

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