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NGO special ran at a crucial time

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The NGO 2011 Special Report and directory included in The Phnom Post on January 28 merits full recognition as it pays tribute to the very hard work of local and international non-governmental organisations in Cambodia. The contribution made by NGOs in all sectors of development is valuable, not just for their services to the people, but also for the advocacy and stance they take in defence of their roles and functions in development and in the building of democracy.

This NGO 2011 Special report and directory comes at a very critical moment as the government is making public the draft law on associations and NGOs.   

Governance or decision-making shapes how public policies and national resources are allocated, which in turn impacts the quality of development and people’s daily lives. Governance is not just the full responsibility of the government: this responsibility must be shared with the people.

Civil society organisations (CSOs), informal grassroots groups, associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions play a key role in effective governance. They assess the effectiveness of public institutions based on their accountability, transparency, inclusivity and responsiveness to citizens. Effective governance is the best route to social justice and gender equality, and promotes the realisation of the rights of all citizens that are enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.  

Governance is the most critical challenge to development in Cambodia, according to the 2009 World Bank report, An Assessment of Civil Society Contributions to Good Governance in Cambodia.

Making governance people-sensitive requires a mindset that recognises the roles and functions of civil society players, women, the disabled and the youth in shaping governance. It requires a level of mutual trust which begins with the recognition of the people’s right to information, free speech, civic engagement and social accountability.

It requires a mechanism that enables constructive dialogues and a social and political environment that promotes people’s engagement in public affairs.

Cambodia has made significant steps towards the decentralisation of power through the holding of commune elections every five years. Further steps were made towards de-concentration of power when district and provincial representatives were indirectly elected in 2009. The efforts and commitment of the Ministry of Interior in developing a mechanism for effective governance at the local level should be recognised.

These efforts can be more cost-effective and further contribute to the democratic process by allowing the elected representatives the power to make decisions through active inputs and contributions. Most critical of all, the elected representatives must be accountable to the electorate rather than to their political parties. There is room for improvement and for hope, and there are achievements that we all can be proud of.

Unfortunately, the NGO Law drafted by the Ministry of Interior and distributed for discussion will bring new challenges to the roles and functions of associations and NGOs in Cambodia. If adopted without changes, it will put democracy in Cambodia farther back rather than advancing it forward. In the draft law, the registration process is tedious and bureaucratic and could eliminate viable grassroots groups and networks.

The phrase “personal and public interest” is included in the draft law. It should be reminded that these words have been routinely used in our country to curb freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

While the argument is not about monitoring and reporting activities, the draft law provides unlimited rights to the government to scrutinise and to arbitrarily “monitor” activities of any CSOs or NGOs, local or foreign and even the identity of all staff. With the growing abuse of power of the authorities, the widespread level of corruption and the political targeting, the law is a signal of the government’s aim at controlling and curbing civic engagement in governance.

There should be serious concern about the role of the Ministry of Economy and Finance to audit as well as the power of the courts to postpone or dissolve any CSOs and NGOs, local or foreign. Who will be “monitored and audited”?  The function of the government should be to create an environment conducive to people’s input and trust of public institutions, not to create a level of fear and mistrust.

This legislation will lead to a huge leap backward to an undemocratic state. The Cambodian people will be the first to be impacted and to pay the price of a law that is to regulate and control rather than to protect and to preserve fundamental human rights.

The most preferred investments bring benefits and enhance capital. The most beneficial investment in good governance is an effective mechanism that opens and secures social accountability, not a law to disempower and create an atmosphere of mistrust. If passed without taking into consideration the inputs made through the consultative process, the NGO Law will reach one goal: the loss of the people’s voice and constructive inputs that would otherwise give a democratic shape to development in Cambodia.

Mu Sochua, MP,
Sam Rainsy Party.

Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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