If you spend any time hanging out with expatriate businessmen in Phnom Penh one of
the first things you learn is that they like to complain-all the time.
Lend an investor a sympathetic ear and he will gladly inundate you with a torrent
of bile: tea money at the customs office, unjustified storage fees, unfair competition
from smuggled goods, hassles with the tax man, bureaucratic trickery, stall tactics,
inter-ministerial turf battles, party politics, bogus spare parts, judicial payoffs,
tangled legal conundrums, power snafus, crooked cops, over-valued imports, whatever.
The list goes on and on. It's no wonder there are so many watering holes about town
with aging white guys hunkered over glasses filled with a rich, amber-colored elixir,
hoping to drown their sorrows into gold.
However, to the surprise and delight of many, help may be on the way.
Last week's Third Government-Private Sector Forum, chaired by Prime Minister Hun
Sen, with almost the entire Cabinet sitting behind him, and attended by around 300
investors and the like was the most visible sign of a process that has been underway
for more than a year. The goal is to institutionalize a mechanism whereby those in
the private sector, both local and foreign, have a vehicle for an on-going dialogue
with the government that is designed to solve problems, make markets more efficient
and enhance economic growth and development.
And who knows? Given time, a fair bit of pushing and prodding, and a bundle of patience
it may just work.
At the very least, more than a few observers feel that last week's Forum was "a
positive first step."
Behind the public face of the Forum, on Jan 25 the government officially set up seven
Private Sector Working Groups (PSWG). Membership includes representatives from both
government and business.
The PSWGs came about after an exhaustive debate over many months on how investors
and the government would interact. Would contact be via the expatriate business associations,
through the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce or facilitated by the International Finance
Corporation (IFC)? Wrinkles remain on who is to play what role and what, if any,
function there is for the IFC.
Some investors feel that without an "IFC-like" entity acting as or supporting
a Secretariat the process may become diluted or be too tightly managed by the government.
All PSWGs met once before the Feb 7 Forum chaired by the Prime Minister. Grievances
were aired and lists of suggested solutions to problems submitted by private sector
representatives. The process was cleverly designed to enable the government to take
the sting out of whatever laundry lists of complaints would be presented at the Forum
as in the Prime Minister's address he gave the government's okay for several changes.
Yes, the government will publish an Official Gazette listing all new laws enacted,
and yes, museums can be open at lunchtime to make it easier for tourists to visit
them, just to name a few.
Small steps forward, inch-by-inch.
Interestingly, Sok Chenda Sophea, Secretary-General of the Council for the Development
of Cambodia says that all decisions made at the Forum will become official law as
soon as the Council of Ministers signs off on the minutes of the meeting and, because
the PM chaired the Forum and all the Cabinet was there, this will be a mere formality.
The PSWGs are now set to meet on a regular basis, generally once a month. Got a beef?
Contact the relevant PSWG business representative and vent your spleen.
Of course, the key to the whole process will be follow-up. Translating well-intentioned
words into concrete actions has been a regular visitor to the lists of investor gripes.