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NGOs slam supplement cuts

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A nurse attends to a sick child at Treal Health Centre in Kampong Thom last year. The elimination of salary supplements is expected to affect healthcare workers.

Termination of salary supplements could jeopardise aid projects, groups warn

DEVELOPMENT organisations on Wednesday offered scathing criticism of the government’s recent decision to terminate salary supplement programmes for civil servants, a move that could cost government workers at least US$4.5 million this year in the health sector alone.

At a meeting convened by the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, more than 40 NGO leaders said the abrupt termination of the programmes could lead to a rise in absenteeism among civil servants tasked with staffing health centres and schools or administering other aid projects.

Under salary supplement programmes, development organisations had been bolstering salaries for civil servants in a range of sectors.

Development experts fear a reduction in public sector pay could lead to increased corruption, as civil servants look to maintain their present incomes.

A December 4 letter from Minister of Finance Keat Chhon said the programmes’ termination – the result of a sub-decree that went into effect January 1 – was “applicable to all donor-assisted as well as [government-] funded projects and programmes”.

Sharon Wilkinson, country director for Care International in Cambodia, said at the meeting that the sub-decree had caught NGOs completely by surprise.

“NGOs did not really start to comprehend that this sub-decree had come into effect until perhaps the early hours of Christmas,” she said, adding that the announcement had given them “no time to prepare for the implementation of this”.

Apart from slashing services to poor Cambodians, including the provision of antiretroviral therapy to HIV-positive patients, Wilkinson expressed concern that the termination of salary supplement schemes could set up “a parallel system” between NGOs and civil servants.

“If we are no longer allowed to support our government counterparts, it will be a true wedge between NGOs and the government, and we will be working in a parallel system, something we must not allow to happen,” she said.

In his December 4 letter, Keat Chhon justified the termination by saying that salary supplements could jeopardise attempts at broader civil-service reforms.

Wilkinson, who has worked in Cambodia for 11 years, said Wednesday that she was sceptical of that reasoning.
“The public-sector reform programme is an ongoing debate that for 11 years has not been solved,” she said.

Keat Chhon also said in the letter that incentive-based pay schemes could be seen as unfair, a claim that was echoed by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, who said last month that they could “cause bad feelings in the workplace and lead to declines in productivity”.

Belinda Mericourt, senior programme manager at Aus-AID, Australia’s foreign aid arm, said she was unconvinced by the argument that salary supplements were excessively “divisive”. “It can’t be any more divisive than patronage,” Mericourt said.

A December 18 letter from Keat Chhon to government officials that was distributed at the CCC meeting said the sub-decree had been drafted “per instruction of” Prime Minister Hun Sen. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday that the government’s “conservative” national budget had made salary supplements “unsustainable”.

“It’s sustainability we want,” he said, adding: “We have to depend on our own budget. We cannot depend on aid all the time.”

He also reiterated government concerns that salary supplements could “create an unjust environment in the workplace” before referring further questions to the Ministry of Economy, which could not be reached.

According to the December 18 letter, the government “will continue to jointly discuss with the development partners on the short-term strategy to be laid out urgently to ensure effectiveness of project implementation and to amend financing agreements affected by the termination”.

But Mericourt said at the Wednesday meeting that a request from development partners for a meeting with government officials – sent on December 17 and signed by bodies including the United Nations and the World Bank – had gone unanswered, adding that she did not expect a response before next week.

She said the government had provided little direction on how development organisations should adapt to the terms of the sub-decree, which many at the meeting described as unclear.

“There is apparent confusion and a lack of understanding of what this means,” she said, adding that there had been no word from officials regarding whether alternate forms of compensation – such as per diems – could be used in place of salary supplements.

Development partners have largely refrained from criticising the sub-decree. A statement issued Wednesday by the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator, for example, reads in part: “The UN in Cambodia will align with the Royal Government’s decision to terminate salary supplements. While we are aware of the potential short-term impacts of this decision, it is clear that restructuring civil service salaries represents an opportunity for the UN and development partners to work with the Government on salary reform.”

At the meeting Wednesday, however, Mericourt was more candid, at one point saying the move had the potential to become “a total disaster”.

“I think the emphasis has to be on the humanitarian impact, not on government politics,” she said.

Government officials and development organisations have been unable to put a dollar amount on the salary supplement programmes.

On Tuesday, Maxim Berdnikov, East Asia and the Pacific portfolio manager for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said active Cambodia grants included provisions for $381,500 in monthly salary supplements, making for a 12-month total of roughly $4.5 million. A Global Fund spokesman said the fund was in compliance with the sub-decree, meaning the salary supplements had been suspended.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR

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