PRIME Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday defended the government’s controversial decision to end salary supplement programmes for civil servants, saying such programmes breed corruption and create inequity among government workers.
Speaking before the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum, a meeting with international donors and development organisations to assess the government’s progress on a number of reforms and finalise new aid pledges, Hun Sen called the cancelled programmes “dangerous” and said they risked “breaking our administration”.
“Regarding the issue of salary supplements and why the government decided to cancel the priority packages and the salary supplements, I have already ordered my colleagues to discuss this with the development partners,” Hun Sen said. “At this point, it will help prevent corruption.”
Under several kinds of salary supplement programmes, donors had been assisting the government in bolstering the often-paltry salaries of civil servants across a variety of sectors. Two such supplement programmes – Priority Mission Groups (PMGs) and Merit-Based Performance Incentives (MBPIs) – were implemented in recent years to allow donors to target specific projects and promote a culture of meritocracy among government workers.
In December, Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon said the government was cancelling all such programmes as part of a broader administrative reform effort effective January 1. NGOs and development organisations responded that they had been given little time to prepare for the reforms, and in January, Keat Chhon announced a six-month transition period in which straightforward salary supplements, though not PMGs or MBPIs, would be allowed to continue.
Officials from NGOs and development organisations have warned that, in response to the supplement cuts, low-level government employees such as doctors and nurses may leave their jobs or charge more for services to supplement their incomes.
In a letter dated May 25 and addressed to ministers and secretaries of state at “all ministries [and] institutions of the Royal Government”, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said that a replacement compensation system called the “Priority Operating Costs scheme” (POC) is to be implemented in July. The letter says that POC will operate “within the framework of the cooperative financial contributions of the development partners”, though it does not specify what sort of oversight donors will have of their funding.
Operating expenses under the POC system, Sok An’s letter explains, are to be tabulated by totalling “daily expenses”, “expenses on communication” and “expenses on transportation”. Monthly expense limits for employees at different levels of government are presented in a table, with limits ranging from US$50-$70 for “operational” expenses at the provincial level and below to $350-400 for “programme management” expenses at the national level.
“This expense table shall be implemented as the common, standard expense table for all ministries and institutions running the Cooperative Financial Contributions programmes or projects of the development partners and shall be reviewed every 18 months at the latest,” the letter reads.
Hun Sen said in his remarks to donors on Wednesday that the Kingdom’s previous reliance on salary supplements had created an environment in which employees of the same government office were forced to compete with one another to work on donor projects and receive the attendant bonuses.
“Imagine if you had a military unit with 100 soldiers and only three of them received the salary supplements – the other 97 will say, ‘Let those soldiers fight!’” Hun Sen said. “They will withdraw, leaving the other three soldiers to be killed, so if we continue this system, Cambodia’s administration will be broken in the near future.”
Sin Somuny, executive director of the local health group Medicam, said he agreed with the prime minister’s concerns about preserving equity in civil servant compensation. He said, however, that further discussions are necessary to clarify how the POC scheme would work in practice.
“I don’t fully understand the details of both the rate and the arrangement of POC, and I think it needs to be fully understood,” he said, adding that he was unsure whether expense levels could be adjusted depending on the needs of a particular office.
In a presentation at a conference in April, National AIDS Authority vice chairman Tia Phalla said POC payments “are not compensation or salary supplements” and emphasised the need to maintain salaries for government workers at acceptable levels.
“There is a real risk that the huge [public health] gains made in Cambodia over the last 15 years might be reversed if staff remuneration is inadequate,” Tia Phalla said.
Donors and development organisations referred questions to the German Embassy, which they said had been the leading international organisation working on the Kingdom’s public administration reform. Embassy officials could not be reached for comment.