In November 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the government was preparing draft legislation to regulate the work of non-governmental organisations operating in Cambodia.
The announcement, made during a ceremony commemorating 30 years of cooperation between the government and NGOs, called for, among other things, greater transparency among civil-society groups and warned that the government would “weed out” organisations engaged in opposition politics.
However, a contingent of such groups had already begun to address the issues of transparency and legitimacy five years earlier, with the establishment of a project designed to promote the self-regulation of NGOs.
The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC) in 2004 began its NGO Good Practice Project to promote professionalism and accountability throughout the sector with a community-generated Code of Ethical Principles and Minimum Standards for NGOs in Cambodia.
Updated regularly, the code “aims to maintain and enhance standards of good organisational practice throughout the NGO community”, and to “ensure public trust in the integrity of the individuals and organisations that make up the NGO sector”, according to the preamble to the CCC’s 10th revision of the code published in August 2007.
The CCC also operates a related Voluntary NGO Certification System programme, established in 2007, whereby applicants are reviewed to ensure that they meet the CCC’s Good Practice criteria in a process that includes field visits and a full assessment of operations and conduct.
Successful candidates are certified for a period of three years, after which further review is required to assure their ongoing compliance with the Code of Ethical Principles and Minimum Standards for NGOs in Cambodia, self-regulated by being reported to the CCC’s own Code of Compliance Committee.
In 2009, some 28 NGOs – 24 local and four from abroad – applied for the certification program. On review, according to the CCC’s 2009 Annual Report, 19 organisation applications were reviewed and nine were certified as what the CCC calls “Good Practice” NGOs, holding them up as exemplary institutions.
NGOs not fully meeting code requirements were helped by the CCC through workshops. In 2009 there were 12 mentoring and coaching workshops held to teach NGOs how to improve and to qualify for certification.
The announcement of a draft NGO law, which the government says it has distributed throughout the sector but which many organisations say they still have not seen, has stirred debate among civil society groups about the purpose and scope of the proposed legislation, and whether the law is a mechanism for transparency or a tool for restraint.
As the government has yet to move forward with the draft legislation, local and international groups continue to focus attention on the importance of self-regulation in order to maintain confidence in the sector and to ensure that their vital work on behalf of the Kingdom is done openly and professionally.