World Bank Hears Local Officials’ Woes for Pending 3-Year Plan

High electricity prices, low wages, limited irrigation and modest rice and crop prices were among the top concerns raised by government officials at a workshop in Phnom Penh on Monday to help the World Bank decide how to spend its money on the country over the next three years.

It was the fifth of 10 meetings the World Bank has planned with officials, politicians, companies and NGOs before deciding how to re-engage with Cambodia. The Bank froze all new lending to the country in 2011 in protest over the government’s mass eviction of families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood.

“Nobody, nobody is better placed than you to give advice on what the priorities ought to be, because you are on the front lines,” World Bank Country Manager Alassane Sow told the audience. “So that’s why we take this initiative very, very seriously.”

Dork Sothea, the head of Kompong Chhnang’s provincial council, said farmers needed better prices for the food they grow.

“People are not happy cultivating rice and other crops because the prices are low, so we need to find more markets for the farmers,” she said.

Ms. Sothea also said that low wages were driving her constituents abroad in search of better pay, and called for more job training to keep them at home.

“Kompong Chhnang province is now facing a labor shortage for agriculture, and also for other sectors, because we don’t have professional training centers,” she said. “We have some garment factories, but they don’t respect the Labor Law and our workers earn low wages.”

Chun Socheat, the head of Kandal’s provincial council, complained of high crime, poor schools, and the challenge of keeping people on the farm.

“Even if they are young, they sell their draft animals and come to Phnom Penh,” he said. “People like living in the urban areas more than in the rural areas.”

Mr. Socheat suggested improving the delivery of public services to rural areas to counter this trend, along with more electricity and irrigation.

The World Bank has already held similar workshops in Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk provinces, and Mr. Sow said some themes were emerging.

“Essentially the concerns are infrastructure, and I mean by infrastructure roads and irrigation,” he said.

“But one thing that I heard everywhere also is the issue of prices, that there seem to be some problems with the prices of agricultural products,” he added. “The issue of interest rates [for loans] is also something that has been raised.”

Mr. Sow said there was also a clear call for more and better services at the community level.

“Everywhere, people are requesting that the services get down to the local level,” he said. “I heard it everywhere, that the budget at the local level is small, which is understandable due to budgetary constraints. But I think the call for more decentralization, services at the local level, is loud and clear.”

The World Bank will hold five more workshops, including one with NGOs, before it initiates high-level meetings with the government on how to re-engage later this month.

The government officials at Monday’s workshop all sounded eager to see the Bank start spending on new projects in Cambodia again.

Some rights groups, however, say the World Bank is ignoring the voice of one key demographic: Cambodians who have been forced out of their homes and off their farms to make way for development projects, especially those being funded by foreign donors—including the Bank. They have criticized the Bank for not scheduling a single one of its workshops with evictees.

After Monday’s workshop, Mr. Sow declined to be interviewed and expressed anger with a reporter for having attended the event, accusing him of sneaking into the meeting like “a wolf,” although the schedule was posted on the World Bank’s website and Bank staff at the event knowingly allowed journalists to enter.

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