In January 2014, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he would oversee a wide-ranging review of reforms, particularly in the economic and social arenas. Since then public debate has instead been dominated by the possible impact of new legislation, some of it controversial. There has been far less attention to the fruits of the government’s reform efforts.
For that reason the Asia Foundation (TAF) earlier this year launched the Reform Inventory Initiative (RII) – an annual ministry-by-ministry review of reforms initiated or reinforced since the 2013 election. Rather than critiquing the government’s approach, RII, guided by an advisory group, seeks to highlight progress on reform.
RII’s advisory group members, who comprise industry leaders and experts in economic, administrative and social fields, assessed 12 ministries. Fifteen ministries were not examined due to inaccessibility of information.
The following top five reforms were selected based on whether they have had, or are likely to have, a significant positive impact on the provision of public services.
Stricter monitoring of the National High School Exam
Exams in Cambodia have long been characterised by cheating and maladministration, eroding the value of diplomas. In January 2014, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport issued Prakas No110 on the organisation and functioning of exams, introducing protocols to eliminate corruption and cheating.
Public support was overwhelming – TAF conducted a survey in five provinces and found 96 per cent in favour of the ministry’s tougher stance on exams.
Stricter monitoring made it much harder to “buy” a good result, and achieved this without impinging on child rights and due process. In 2014, the first year of implementation, the passing rate halved compared with previous years.
This year the passing rate rose 15 per cent (with girls outperforming boys), suggesting students opened their books rather than their wallets to ensure good grades.
Expansion of national health insurance to cover all the nation’s poor
Although Cambodia’s poverty rate declined from 50.4 per cent in 2004 to 20.5 per cent in 2013, many people live just above the poverty line and remain vulnerable. Increasing evidence links illness and access to health care with debt, sale of assets and poverty.
Since 2000, the Ministry of Health has worked with development partners to establish a government insurance program known as the Health Equity Fund (HEF). HEF supports poor households to access public health services and, if hospitalised, reimburses transportation expenses.
It also provides a daily $1.25 caretaker food allowance. The HEF currently supports 2.9 million Cambodians, and research has shown that it has contributed to a fall in household expenditure and debt incurred for health care.
Establishment of the national exit examinations for health professionals
Numerous private institutions educating health professionals have opened recently, yet the absence of measures to determine educational quality has added to concerns over graduates’ knowledge and competence.
In 2013, the Ministry of Health introduced the National Exit Examination (NEE) for graduates in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing from all public and private education institutions.
So far 3,039 graduates from the four health disciplines have taken the NEE. This number is expected to exceed 2,000 a year after the inclusion of midwifery graduates in 2016.
Implementation of Revenue Mobilisation Strategy
The Medium-Term Revenue Mobilisation Strategy (2014-2018) aims to increase the tax take by strengthening tax and non-tax administration. In October 2015, the General Department of Taxation (GDT) announced that tax revenues had increased 25.5 per cent in the first nine months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.
The increased tax take (worth 16.6 per cent of GDP in 2014, up from 10.3 per cent a decade earlier) has allowed increased investment in health and education and has boosted wages for civil servants.
To further promote a culture of tax compliance, the GDT is encouraged to be consistent with the values of transparency, accountability, and fairness.
Establishment of the ACU’s Anti-Corruption Contract
The government addressed one long-standing complaint by businesses when it published official fees for public services. Since then, some businesses have signed memoranda of understanding (MoU) with the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in which the signatories agree to respect and abide by the official fees.
The Coca-Cola Company led the way, signing its MoU in late 2013, followed by Prudential and Herbalife, as well as the European Chamber of Commerce of Cambodia and state-owned Electricité du Cambodge. By July 2015, at least 20 national and international companies had signed this MoU with the ACU.
In conclusion, these reforms offer encouraging signs that change is taking place in at least some public sector institutions. As TAF’s 2014 survey on the exam reforms showed, people welcomed the changes, yet emphasised that strict oversight should continue and would work only if repeated each year. “Predictability” is a common thread throughout the five reforms. Indeed reforms need not be new – enforcement matters.
Future reforms include the National Policy for Gender Equality, the Ministry of Commerce’s online business registration system (scheduled to launch on December 7), and the Ministry of Environment’s efforts to improve the much-criticised Environmental Impact Assessment process.
If successful, these reforms should lay the groundwork for continued improvements in public sector services and see a fairer, more equitable Cambodia.
The Reform Inventory Initiative’s three advisory groups include representatives from: Cambodian Civil Society Partnership, Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, University Research Co, LLC, United Nations Development Programme, Club of Cambodian Journalists, NGO Education Partnership, United Nations Children’s Fund, ANZ Royal Bank, ACLEDA Bank, DFDL, American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, European Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, Mekong Strategic Partners, Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, Young Entrepreneur Association for Cambodia, and other experts from various bilateral agencies, multilateral institutions, NGOs and private sector.