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'
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
"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."