While the new NGO bill has yet to be signed into law, the dialogue between NGOs and government is being hailed as worthwhile and a much-needed process in itself. Stuart Alan Becker reports.
AMBIGUOUS language in Cambodia’s proposed new NGO law – a draft set of rules developed after 10 years’ study of the NGO laws of other countries – has caused concern among NGOs that it might be interpreted in a way that could be used to stifle Cambodian development rather than enhance it.
More than US$100 million a year flows to the poor and marginal citizens of Cambodia every year through the NGOs, some of whom worry that an ambiguous law could unreasonably enable government officials to arbitrarily shut down NGO operations. They point especially to cases where big money interests would seek to remove people from valuable mineral or development land, especially in remote provinces where minorities live.
The government, on the other hand, is concerned that foreign-controlled NGOs could work to undermine official policy if there is not a mechanism of law to ensure that they are registered and operate according to state guidelines.
Out of the middle of this exchange, the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia has brought together NGOs working in Cambodia under a common voice to open dialogue with the government, with some success.
The mere act of all the NGOs coming together on Monday, January 10, breaking into study groups, having discussions and putting their ideas forward to the Secretary of State from the Ministry of the Interior, Nuth Sa An, has provided some comfort for NGOs who noticed a level of responsiveness .
Nuth Sa An received feedback from the collected NGOs, acknowledged their concerns on behalf of the government.
The Government’s Ministry of Interior called another meeting Friday, January 21 with six leaders from NGOs for an all-day session, among them Oxfam America’s Brian Lund, a CCC board member who had been very concerned about the vague aspects of the draft NGO law, sees the government’s response as a good sign.
“I’m optimistic because I’m seeing civil society gather under one voice … their common interest here is in Cambodian development,” he said.
“The government has shown its willingness to engage.
Lund and others appreciated the government’s decision to accept the request to delay the draft law consultation from December 28 to January 10.
As a result, the talks of January 10 and January 21 have been taken as encouraging milestones by those who attended.
CCC Executive Director Borithy Lun, himself a Khmer Rouge survivor, regards the NGOs as essential in channeling aid to the poor and marginalised of Cambodia and seeks to make a distinction between the political nature of government and the non-political citizens advocacy and assistance the NGOs perform. Lun hailed the January 21 meeting with Minister of Interior H.E. Nuth Sa An and his staff as good sign for the NGOs.
“It was a very constructive open dialogue.,” Borithy Lun said.
“I can judge that the full-day meeting resulted in at least 70% percent of the recommendations that we put forward have been taken on board. We have done our best to protect the survival of the Community Based organizations by adding some extra text to some articles and we also have come closer to an understanding of how the work of NGOs is happening at the various tiers of the implementation level. The Ministry of Interior are doing something worthwhile to facilitate an enabling environment and that is very appreciated by the delegation as well as the entire NGO community,” Borithy Lun said, adding that the meeting was presided over by Minister Nuth Sa An, and that he “took the time to listen and pay attention to the discussion for the entire eight hours.”
Borithy Lun said that in many instances a tendency by the media was to lump the work and mandate of the non-governmental sector together with political opponents of the government.
“The temptation of the media is to bundle us with the opposition. We are not looking for a seat on the national assembly. We are doing it for the people,” he said.
“We the NGO community work for the people. We do not have any political gain or interest. All of our work aims to promote and ensure positive social changes.
“The political setup in Cambodia was meant to be pluralist, with a multi-party arrangement. Though structurally it is still the case but the balance of power has changed rapidly over the last few years. In some countries where true democracy prevails a sovereign state provides ample opportunities for people to participate and contribute to the development and future of their country.”
Born in 1956, Borithy Lun is the sole survivor of a family of six – all wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. His father was a career lawyer and a well-known personality in the Ministry of Justice before the Khmer Rouge period. His whole family was taken away to the countryside and Borithy Lun made an escape from one youth camp to another, changed his identity, kept moving and eventually got away from the killing fields.
Borithy Lun started working in the development sector in Cambodia in1994, first as head of finance and administration for the Cambodia Trust Limb Project. He then spent six years working for the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance, a health-care NGO involved in reproductive health – and as a logistics adviser. There, Borithy Lun helped the Ministry of Health establish a country-wide computerised drug-distribution system, including the implementation of clear logistics procedures manuals for the entire country – a system still in place and regarded as very effective in the health sector.
Later Borithy Lun worked for the United Nations Development Program for four years as operations manager for Cambodia and Indonesia.
For the past three years, Borithy Lun has served as executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which is how he became involved in the dialogue between the NGOs and the government about the proposed new laws.
In tracing the origins of the CCC, Borithy Lun said that in the early 90s, as Cambodia was opening to the outside world, there was no mechanism for sharing information among NGOs to the government nor to the donors. CCC was created to fill that need
CCC thus became a kind of coordinating body for dialogue, and a technical and strategic hub for information sharing and exchanges. During the short-lived troubles of 1997, CCC was the point of contact for directions and latest information for either evacuation purposes or for key security-related information.
Borithy Lun said CCC celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010, marking two decades of NGO solidarity and cooperation.
CCC was guided by its vision to “built a strong and capable civil society cooperating and responsive to Cambodia’s development challenges”.
“CCC is committed to facilitating the exchange of information and fostering productive and mutually beneficial relationships among the development community in Cambodia,” he said.
“CCC aims to strengthen the collective voice of civil society. CCC embodies the belief that the collective strength of NGOs working together can contribute positively to the development of Cambodia.”
During the past 20 years, many other umbrella organisations have come into existence, including MEDiCAM which focuses and coordinates NGOs working on health issues and NGO Forum on Cambodia, which works on advocacy issues such as protection of land rights and fair budget distribution.
Other organisations like the Center Etude Development Agriculture Cambodia work on improving agriculture and alliances of NGOs who work on human rights, such as the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a group of 21 NGOs.
“Collectively the NGO community in Cambodia is accountable for the over $100 million per year, which is a quarter of the development assistance for Cambodia,” Borithy Lun said.
He said it was vital to make aid money effective – but not just being mindful of economic growth and to really reflect whether aid can be translated into development effectiveness.
“Economic and social growth should happen simultaneously, which means better and fairer re-distribution of wealth should take place,” he said.
“Not everybody is enjoying the good life – NGOs work to ensure that we reach out to the poor and vulnerable in remote areas who struggle to have their basic needs for education, health and social services met.
“There is room for argument, reflection, and analysis of Cambodia’s governance structure based on the evolution of social, political and economic change in Cambodia.”
He pointed out the CCC’s stewardship of the NGO Code of Conduct and self-certification. (see adjacent code).
Code of Ethics for Associations, Non-Governmental Organisations and People’s Organisations in Cambodia
Article 1. Associations, non-governmental organizations and people’s organisations are organisations:
1.1 Whose purpose is to work in partnership with stakeholders for a sustainable development of the Cambodian society, based on justice, equality, transparency, accountability and respect for human rights;
1.2 Whose policy and vision is appropriately and independently determined from that of any donor or government agency,
1.3 That are not aligned with or affiliated to any political party;
1.4 That are not-for-profit organisations in which no profits of the organisations are distributed for private gain;
1.5 Whose activities are carried out without discrimination on the basis of nationality, group belonging, political loyalties, ideologies, skin colour, race, age, religion, handicap or gender;
1.6 That operates within the laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Article 2: Through their programs, associations, NGOs and people’s organisations should:
2.1 Respect the moral values, dignity, history, religion, custom, tradition and culture of the communities they serve, when suggesting an improvement of the current situation;
2.2 Facilitate self-reliance, self-help, people participation, for sustainable development so as to avoid dependency;
2.3 Seek to strengthen the human resources and the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia;
2.4 Have, as their fundamental concern, the well-being of those affected by the development programs;
2.5 Seek to promote the women’s status and implementing international conventions regarding elimination of all forms of discrimination against women;
2.6 Seek to ensure that any material assistance provided by them is appropriate and meets internationally accepted standards and, if possible, it should be purchased in Cambodia,
2.7 Seek to ensure all development and relief assistance provided by them is guided and informed by internationally recognized and professional standards,
2.8 Are non-partisan in any public policy and lobbying activities with which they are involved.
Article 3: Partnership and cooperation between associations, NGOs and people’s organizations:
3.1 Will be on the basis of equality, equity, dialogue and mutual respect;
3.2 Associations, NGOs and people’s organisations recognise that for a long-term development, international experts are needed, but their support should be limited in time and the goal must be to strengthen the capacity of the Cambodian staff;
3.3 Associations, NGOs and people’s organisations will share relevant project information with each other, will refrain from competing with each other, and will cooperate at the field level to avoid duplication and disruption of each other’s projects;
3.4 Associations, NGOs and people’s organisations strive to mutually support each other, so as to promote and maintain their values;
3.5 All Associations, NGOs and people’s organisations try to make sure that their relations with funding agencies are honest and above board. Under no circumstances will activities such as double funding for one plan, diverting resources to non-project-related activities, overstatement of achievements or capabilities or distortion of facts be carried out or condoned by associations, NGOs or people’s organisations.
Article 4: In their relations with the Royal Government, associations, NGOs and people’s organisations shall:
4.1 Strive to cooperate with the Cambodian people and the Government to rebuild the country and to improve the quality of life of the people;
4.2 Strive to create a culture of mutual respect and openness based on the perspective that associations, NGOs and people’s organizations are important components of any democratic society;
Article 5: Within their own organisations, associations, NGOs and people’s organizations shall:
5.1 Be governed by an independent and well-qualified Board of Directors or Legislative Committee, and a duly constituted Executive Committee, so that they function with transparency, accountability and respect for human rights;
5.2 Solve all problems and conflict on the basis of non-violence
5.3 Prohibit either direct or indirect conflicts of interest by members of the Board of Directors, employees, or volunteers;
5.4 Conduct their affairs with integrity and truthfulness. Their activities shall be open and accessible to scrutiny by their donors, except for personnel matters and proprietary information;
5.5 Strongly oppose and take no part in corruption, bribery, other financial impropriety or any illegal acts;
5.7 Recognise that all of their activities impact on the public perception of the community of associations, NGOs and people’s organisations, and that they share a significant responsibility to enhance the public trust;
5.8 Provide avenues for individual growth and development of staff;
5.9 Provide just compensation and promote the rights and welfare of all employees;
5.10 Strive to promote participatory and democratic management practices.