Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong yesterday questioned an opposition policy pledge to drastically increase commune budgets, instead promoting the Cambodian People’s Party’s current piecemeal approach to funding projects.
Delivered at the opening of a commune office and police station in Chroy Changvar district’s Koh Dach commune, the remarks took aim at one of the opposition’s most concrete plans – to allocate one-fifth of the national budget to communes.
“One party said if they win the election, they would allocate $500,000 to each commune and, at the previous election, they promised to give 40,000 riel [$10] a month to the elderly as pensions,” he said. “Are there any aunties and uncles here who believed the 40,000 riel pledge?”
The promised funding redistribution would funnel at least $823 million to the Kingdom’s 1,646 communes in a dramatic boost from their current financing.
While decentralising power to local governments has ostensibly been a ruling party goal for decades, the party has instead kept tight control over the state apparatus, with a 2015 Local Public Sector Initiative report saying “centrally driven political motivations” were “seriously hindering” governance reforms.
According to Ministry of Finance figures released last year, the government allocated just 2.8 percent of its national budget to commune funds – this year equivalent to $92.69 million, or an average of about $57,000 per commune.
Of that funding, about 60 percent went to administrative costs such as wages, and the rest to “development”.
According to Socheatvong, commune development funds are allocated from the state budget as money becomes available, meaning projects are not funded and completed all at once but over time.
“We cannot complete all at one time,” he said. “First, we build 2 kilometres, later we build 6 kilometres, and the remaining 5 kilometres we will construct later,” he said.
Reached yesterday, however, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua defended the huge boost as both plausible and necessary.
“We need to send experts to the commune level to help local people for any development plan,” she said.
An expert in the sector, who requested anonymity to preserve his relationship with the government, said there was certainly a need to boost commune funding, noting Cambodia compared poorly to other countries regionally in terms of decentralisation.
“The amount could be at least doubled and the current system could accommodate this money,” he said.
An adviser to the Interior Ministry’s National Committee for Subnational Democratic Development, which manages decentralisation, noted that commune budget allocations had risen over the last decade, but conceded there was still a “big gap between resource allocation and people’s needs”.
However, the adviser, who requested anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the media, said it made more sense to boost funding at the district level, where differences in population are not as extreme as at the commune level.
“If we try to have more capacity in terms of service delivery, we should consider the district level,” he said.