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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Perceptions of government's recent Rectangular Strategy could influence donors at CG meeting

Perceptions of government's recent Rectangular Strategy could influence donors at CG meeting

While the Cambodian government is promoting its Rectangular Strategy (RS) as an innovative

solution to the country's economic and social woes, outside analysts and experts

claim the document offers little substance.

"It's old wine in a new bottle," said Dr. Lao Mong Hay, head of the legal

unit at the Cambodian Center for Social Development.

Debate over the RS, which was presented by the Prime Minister in mid-July, takes

on new significance in light of the December 6 Consultative Group meeting between

the government and major aid donors. As an outline of "the government's economic

policy agenda," the strategy-and concerns over its viability-could affect donors'

calculations.

Most reservations hinge on the prospect of implementation.

"It's better to call [the Rectangular Strategy] a vision for Cambodia rather

than a strategy," said Nisha Agrawal, the World Bank's country manager. "...

A strategy would tell you how to get to that vision."

A structure of interlocking rectangles, the RS's diagram divides into four main areas:

good governance; the environment for implementation of the strategy; strategic growth;

and a more intricate breakdown of strategic growth priorities. Each of these areas

then takes on four main challenges. For example, the good governance rectangle focuses

on (i) anti-corruption, (ii) legal and judicial reform, (iii) public administration

reform and (iv) reform of the armed forces.

The RS is a follow-up to the government's triangular strategy, implemented from 1998

to 2003. The former supposedly builds on the achievements of the latter, according

to "Implementing the Rectangular Strategy and Development Assistance Needs,"

a report commissioned for the government earlier this year.

But many, including the World Bank, have questioned the extent of reform completed

under the triangular strategy.

"Now there's more electricity, telephone lines, more convenient roads,"

said Sok Hach, director of the Economic Institute of Cambodia. "In terms of

physical infrastructure there's been big progress because we were starting from zero.

But that's not true of poverty issues."

Levels of poverty in Cambodia have remained high and stagnant since the last consultative

group meeting, according to "Cambodia at the Crossroads," a briefing paper

released by the World Bank.

Developers and donors worry the RS may do little to change this situation, unless

its words are translated into concrete actions.

"The crucial question on everyone's mind is: Having this strategic action plan,

how can we implement it in 2005?" asked Shyam Bajpai, country director for the

Asian Development Bank.

Hach has an answer. Reform cannot go forward, he said, without a major overhaul of

the public administrative and judicial systems. Civil servants must become more independent

from politics and the government should work to restore trust in the judiciary, he

said. Without these changes, there will be no one to enforce laws and regulations

created under the RS.

"In Cambodia, we produce some good paper," Hach said. "But it's misguided

to say 'I have a good strategy' when those in charge of implementing it are weak.

"Without reform in these two areas, other reforms are useless," he added

While Michael Bird, program representative for Oxfam, acknowledged that public administration

and the judicial system were key priorities, he advocated continuing piecemeal reform

in other areas as well.

"I think you have to work wherever you can all the time," he said. "You

have to do this because people need food in their bellies and they can't wait for

an overhaul of the judicial system."

But experts agree that to make any major reforms under the RS, the Cambodian government

will have to do a lot more than draft new recommendations and pass unenforceable

laws.

"A lot of mindsets need to shift," Bird said. "I believe many constraints

have to do with people's beliefs of right and wrong, what they deserve, what they

don't deserve. This needs to change before there can be restructuring of society."

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