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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The battle against corruption: a long road ahead

The battle against corruption: a long road ahead

With the Royal Government's latest commitment to tackle corruption, the UNDP sponsored a visit to Cambodia by Bertrand de Speville last December to examine the situation and make recommendations. de Speville, the former Commissioner of the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption, former adviser to the Council of Europe Multidisciplinary Group on Corruption and now a principal of de Speville & Associates, was in town again this week. Michael Hayes spoke to him about his work. The following is an excerpted summary.

Post: On the issue of corruption in Cambodia, how would you compare it with other countries you've worked with.

de Speville: Let me make the point straight away that I'm not an expert on Cambodia ... but by all accounts that I've been given, it's a serious problem here. If you ask me to compare it, that's very difficult because I understand the wrinkles in Cambodia have their own characteristics. Just as they would in Nigeria , or in Pakistan, or in Indonesia, or in any of the countries in the world that currently are suffering with serious problems of corruption. I think what is important about what I've seen during my brief time here is that the government seems to be very determined to get to grips with the problem. And it's demonstrated that, not just in public statements, but in the work that it's put in, for example, in preparing this draft anti-corruption law ... they wouldn't be putting this kind of effort, well-publicized effort, and well-publicized commitments to get to grips with the problem, unless they meant to do so.

Post: We see problems in neighboring countries ... what are some success stories in efforts to fight corruption?

de Speville: Regrettably, if you look at the world today, there aren't many ... that's the reality. Many attempts have been made ... and there have been more failures than successes. If you look in this part of the world, I think you would look to Hong Kong and Singapore as places that started off being extremely corrupt and succeeded in getting on top of the problem ... If you look at Malaysia ... it is, I think, getting on top of the problem. ... One thing we've learned is that it takes time ... to show tangible results.

Post: So, in terms of Cambodia, people need to think long term?

de Speville: Yes, that's quite right. Not only long term, you've got to have endurance for this. It's a long haul, it can be painful, and also I think the people of Cambodia and therefore its government need to realize that it needs the investment of real resources. It's idle to pretend that just by passing a law and creating an anti-corruption body, you're going to get on top of the problem. You're not. You're going to have to invest real taxpayers' money, real resources of the country, year-in, year-out, for the foreseeable future. I'm afraid that's the reality.

Post: Can you be a little more specific on what resources need to be spent on?

de Speville: Well if you are creating an anti-corruption body, most of the resources you'd be spending on the personnel working in that body. In our experience about 90 percent of the expenditures of such a body would be on salaries. And the reality is that you've got to pay them properly. These are not people who are going to be able to supplement their incomes by other employment, normally, let alone any illegitimate supplements to their income.

Post: What is the size of the anti-corruption body in Hong Kong, for example?

de Speville: Well, Hong Kong has a population of 7 million ... not as large as Cambodia ... but its anti-corruption body, I think... numbers about 1,200 or 1,300, something like that.

Post: The Cambodian government always pleads poverty when it comes to this kind of thing. In your experience, do international donors fund this; is this something the IMF or World Bank or ADB would provide loans for?

de Speville: In some countries they have had to provide what's known as 'budget support', in other words helping to pay for salaries. Yes, that does happen in recognition of the fact that it has a good chance of being a good, sound investment.

Post: To get back to Hong Kong for a second, obviously if you spend money to run a bureaucracy with 1,300 employees, you need to look at the cost/benefit analysis of that. Are there any figures that researchers have come up with to say that ... here are the benefits in terms of investment?

de Speville: It is actually very difficult to have a direct causal link. Bodies like the World Bank have carried out studies like this and make comparisons, and they are very favorable. But the direct link is difficult to establish. What you would say, I think is , if you went to ask the people in the street in Hong Kong, or the people in the street in Singapore, and said to them, 'Was it worth spending hard earned taxpayers money on fighting corruption?', they would look at you as if you were asking a very strange question. They would say to you, in all probability: 'This is the best investment we have ever made. Just look around you.' And I think also that if you were to ask the businessmen of those two places, they would say to you 'Look, if we had had the corruption we had here 30 years ago, we could not have built up these places as we have done.' It took them a long time to recognize the benefits of fighting corruption.

Post: How do you deal with previous instances of corruption? You seem to indicate [the need] to set some kind of moratorium.

de Speville: Yes, ... it's a difficult problem in many countries who have had a long and difficult past about corruption. The experience has been that when they start a new initiative, a new effort to get on top of the problem, the past has a habit of stopping them going from going forward ... I believe that it is necessary to cut ourselves free from the past so that we can concentrate on the present and the future. ... Now, how one can do that, first of all it is a very difficult, delicate, political decision to be taken at a very high level. Secondly, ... leaders need ... to have the technical options open to them.

They need to know what it is that's feasible. In my view, of the technical options available, the best one is to draw a line in the sand. But like all good solutions perhaps it benefits from an exception ... I would make an exception, saying in effect, all right, we've drawn a line under the past, but if in the future we come across something that occurred in the past that is so horrific, that nobody in their right minds could overlook it, then we will look at that in a normal way.

Post: Are you in a position to expect that it will be repeated in comment on the draft law as it stands now?

de Speville: I think there is a draft that is currently being prepared, which I've not yet seen ... The previous draft, I've said in my report, contains a number of very positive features. And I think it is necessary to build on those positive features, and I understand from government officials that the second draft will indeed build on the first one.

Post: Can you be more specific?

de Speville: Well, as you know the government has undertaken to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. In order to be able to do that it needs to ensure that the law that it passes is in compliance with that Convention. So, some of the improvements, I understand ... incorporate the requirements of that Convention. And the law that the government intended to put before Parliament is broadly in two parts. One deals with offences on corruption and the other part establishes the independent anticorruption body that the government has decided to form. Now the mandate for that body will be to lead the implementation of the national three-part strategy: enforcement of the law, prevention and educating the public ... That's contained in the first draft and I the second draft. I do believe that it's important that the structure of such a body should be correct for the task that it has to perform. This is an executive body. It needs to be a disciplined service. The people working in that body need to have a very strict disciplinary code; there need to be clear lines of authority ... such an executive body needs to culminate in a point. There needs to be somebody at the top, a person at the top, who is the authority, who is responsible, who is accountable for the conduct of that body. At the moment, there's an earlier draft that I've seen, that proposes that the top of this body should comprise a council of several people, carefully selected. I'm not sure that such a council is an effective head ... Experience elsewhere - there have been many examples of such things - suggests that a body like that finds it extremely difficult to act decisively and quickly. But I think there is an important role for such a body and that is as an advisory council to the head of the organization. In my experience in Hong Kong where I had such an advisory council along side me, I found it invaluable to be able to turn to them on a regular basis for advice on operational matters.

Post: Given wages in Cambodia and the cost of living, any ballpark figure on what the operating budget for such an anti-corruption body might be?

de Speville: That's exactly the sort of question that ministers of finance tend to ask me: how much are we going to have to spend? And, yes, in ballpark terms, I think experience elsewhere suggests that a government needs to be thinking that it's going to invest up to half a percent of its national recurrent budget. Not its GDP or anything like that. What are its government estimates that are going to be put before parliament each year. Right? And if you think of that figure and take up to half a percent, that's the sort of figure that you should be thinking of. If you look at Hong Kong, Hong Kong is currently spending about 0.32 percent. If you look at some newer places like Mauritius, which has recently set up an anti-corruption body, I think it's 0.5 percent.

[Editor's note: The Cambodian national budget for 2005 is estimated at US $495 million; 0.5 percent of that would be around US $2.5 million]

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