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Re-thinking Cambodia's aid agenda

Re-thinking Cambodia's aid agenda


Dr Lao Mong Hay: 'A man ahead of his time.'


here is a well-known phrase often used by those concerned to promote agency in sectoral

growth: that any nation which stands still, is dead on its feet.

In the wake of the Monterrey summit in Mexico, the issues for Cambodian growth and

development may well focus on increasing the viable flow of capital and human resources

in the private sector rather than maintaining the static status quo of aid flow into

lateral inter-governmental pro-jects.

The concept of "projects" having agreed "inputs" with expected

"outcomes" is likely to be replaced with development aid progressively

building upon "strategic willingness" - in other words, not self-contained

projects linked to bilateral ownership or un-coordinated marginalism, but an open

working consensus built upon maintaining the momentum of actual achievement in economic,

social and political development.

Lying at the core of such achievement sits the elimination of corruption and the

reduction of world poverty. Also lying at the core of this new generation aid determination

will be examples of some of the raw statistics of the past: figures like those that

show that the United States gives $10 million a day to Israel, a country that does

not even fall anywhere near the UN categories of the world's poor nations.

Perhaps this sort of realism is also something to shake-up the comfort zones in Cambodia.

Few in positions of over-sighting Cambodian aid utilization are unaware of the successes

and failures. The UN agencies in particular have at times stood astride involuntary

situations without extending an obviously necessary mandate, and have done so without

enhancing in any concrete way progress in Cambodian national development. Since the

Paris Peace Accord, incrementalism of international aid in Cambodia has reached 50%

of the national budget, while poverty has remained static and little in the way of

realism can be achieved in GNP forecasts because of corruption in both money supply

and fiscal responsibility. In its country reports for the world's poorest nations,

the World Bank consistently points out that increase in GDP must be at least three

times as great as the rate of demographic increase for there to be any inroads in

reducing poverty.

Clearly, in Cambodia's demographic profile, there are more children being born into

poverty each year than can be accounted for in GDP sectoral growth. Along the same

lines, to say that national growth rates of a recipient nation will cancel out interest

costs on concessional loans over say a 40-year life cycle of such agreements, has

also shown itself to be a suspect concept in practice. This is especially so in the

face of debt accumulation expressed as a percentage of GDP and as an indirect figure

accounted against the negative-gearing effect of globalization on the world's less

developed nations.

What is equally clear is that world leaders gathered at Monterrey have sent out a

message: aid will flow to countries where there is success in the rule of law, where

there is equity in access to good education, where health services are de-centralized,

where markets are regulated by supply and demand cycles, and above all where reform

in public sector management results in open, transparent and accountable government.

No longer will aid be delivered to countries simply because they are poor or because

of bi-lateral alliances.

What now emerges as vital for Cambodia is the recognition of the importance of the

practicalities of diversity management - that is, to break free from the old order

of pyramid power, to let go the inherent cumbersome mindset of positional authority,

to dump without delay the stolid, moribund economics of homeostatic centrality and

crash through the amazingly cluttered bureaucracy of relic Franco-phile paper-shuffling,

to move instead into new generational lateral flows of applied Khmer talent.

Most pressing of all, is the need to move out of inter-governmental aid programs

that do little for Cambodian self-determination and contribute instead - often for

reasons beyond Cambodian control-to corruption and disempowerment in Khmer public

and private life. The need is for targeted expertise, not international, inter-governmental


For its part, the challenge for the Royal Government of Cambodia is not the retention

of party power, but the creation of real jobs for real people and reform of government

administration based on productivity agreements rather than merely "downsizing".

The implementation of de-centralized labor and capital applications resulting in

a "strategically willing" workforce maximizing opportunity costs and realizing

relative advantage is a macro-economic reform common to all successful Asean nations.

The excellent progress made by the Seila program is an outstanding example of what

can, and is, being gained in Cambodia.

In the light of what is being achieved, the prime ministerial notion of power residing

in its present position for the next ten years without expressing a corresponding

notion taking into account the will of the people, maybe interpreted as a genuine

wish to vouchsafe stability against a background of high civil unrest. It may also

be interpreted as a less than far-sighted view of what Cambodia and its people are

capable of, given the opportunity. A more realistic view could well concentrate upon

creating those opportunities, such as those being fulfilled by the Seila program.

In looking wider afield at highly successful Asean countries, the Peoples Progressive

Party in Singapore has shown since independence from Malaysia in 1966, that support

of a nation's people follows policies which create jobs, housing and national security

within a system of open, fair, honest and efficient administration of government.

Sure, Singapore has had a one-party government, and certain aspects of "democracy"

have been tightly controlled. But "control" and "power" are two

very different things. I remember back in the early 1970's during the first stages

of Singapore's development, when Lee Kuan Yew, for example, would arrive at a school

classroom at 7am and if the teacher wasn't there exactly on time, demand to know

why the teacher was late. Look at the spectra in Cambodia with teachers at the Royal

University of Fine Arts, for instance, recently burning tires, going on strike, suffering

a salary cut, trying to make sense of inchoate Treasury and Ministry of Culture and

Fine Arts corruption, incompetence and ineptitude. That is the difference. And it

has to be said. Power without social responsibility, fiscal management and public

sector reform does not serve the interests of ordinary people. And this has to be

said openly and frankly.

It is actually quite interesting that at the recent opening of Singapore's 10th parliament

since independence, the Singaporean president made a benchmark speech to the nation

saying that in the face of Singapore's worst economic crisis since the 70's, the

country needs to move into a more diversified acceptance of political opinion and

economic expertise in order to deal with the complexity of contemporary problems.

The president was really saying that a strengthened democracy will simultaneously

open avenues of creativity and collaboration in order to come to grips with complexity

- in effect that political bloc dominance may not best serve a nation in crisis.

For one of the most successful Asean nations to come out and say this after what

has been more than 30 years of guided-democracy, is a palpable signal for a multiple-crisis

Asean partner such as Cambodia.

In looking ahead to gaining maturity as a democratic nation and dealing with common

purpose and resolve to overcome the nation's problems, for Cambodia, it can no longer

be centered on questions associated with "saving face" or "respecting

Khmer culture" when the face of Cambodia has the visage of corruption and Khmer

culture the fabric of incompetence. Khmer people are so very much better than that:

they are extraordinarily gifted, with wonderful, reflective intelligence, and a quiet,

but strong, steady sense of application.

If only the nation's leaders stopped jockeying for power and harnessed instead the

multiple strengths and ready willingness of Khmer people!

It is actually not all that difficult to do. One of the great and immutable signs

that any nation has advanced along the path of democracy, is a state-sanctioned right

of any individual to freedom of speech. The other great quality marking maturity

as a democracy is equality before the law of each and every citizen. This means that

the nature and scope of progress towards strengthening a market economy and a democratic

political system in a transitional nation such as Cambodia, is that public debate,

government processes and extending informed opinion to marginal constituencies (including

those without access to education or service industry) will involve manifold critical

analysis, establishing the veracity of evidential policy-making and examination of

feasibility presented by possible alternatives in order to frame both local and national

relevance in determining political platforms.

Few in this country do this better than Dr Lao Mong Hay, the former executive director

of the Khmer Institute for Democracy who has come under increasing attack for advancing

the level of political, economic and social exchange in Cambodia. He is a highly

respected figure precisely because he popularizes the level of analysis, information-giving

and due process to all levels to both national and international standards.

On a local level, Lao Mong Hay could be seen as a man ahead of his time, which perhaps

says more about local Khmer politics than it does about Lao Mong Hay. The true role

of government at this point in Cambodian transitional status is surely to express

and serve the will of Cambodian people and protect the rights of individuals by strengthening

parliamentary process, ensuring an independent judiciary, fostering both supply-side

and demand-side economics, and adhering to policy resulting in fair distribution

of wealth through wage and productivity outcomes.

Lao Mong Hay has consistently said all of this, over and over again He deserves the

strongest possible support. His most recent observation that a "neutral"

period and cessation of gift-giving in the lead-up to the national election next

year is entirely consistent with policy around the world in which countries commonly

dissolve their parliaments in pre-election periods and absolutely forbid candidates

to curry political favor through any form of gift-giving. In the Kingdom of Cambodia,

there is nothing "unconstitutional" about the King simply remaining head

of state and the business of government continuing in a neutral pre-election (and

even post-election handover) government.

Indeed, it would be a mark of Cambodia's democratic maturity and a signal to the

rest of the world (particularly Cambodia's Asean neighbors) that the people of Cambodia

were - at last - in charge of their own destiny.

Cambodia can no longer say it wants to be a stronger member of Asean, a beneficiary

of WTO, a measured voice in the major world forums on one hand, and continue on the

other to fall back into short-fuse autocracy, factional power retention, a pernicious

hierarchy of corruption and desperate, entirely unnecessary, poverty.

Let the voice of the people speak. Let the people listen. Let the words of Lao Mong

Hay be heard. He has words of great wisdom for Cambodia's people, at every level,

in every circumstance, and every corner of the country.

Dr Malcolm Innes-Brown is an Australian academic in the School of Management at

Curtin University in Western Australia. He has many years experience in Britain,

Canada, SE Asia, China and Monglia, including working as a UNV in Cambodia. He continues

an active association with individuals, NGOs, government and the three major political

parties in Cambodia in the nation's fight against corruption.

- Email: [email protected]


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