Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment: What would you do with $500,000 a year?

Comment: What would you do with $500,000 a year?

Comment: What would you do with $500,000 a year?

It is an interesting question, isn't it? You could do so much with $500,000 a year.

In Cambodia, you could build schools or roads, put diagnostic equipment into hospitals,

even educate scholars in the glories of Khmer culture; in fact, you could do the

things Cambodia needs to become a stronger society.

Or you could squander the money, allow it to be caught up in a rigid, inflexible

bureaucracy, see it channeled through protocol irrelevant to the grass-roots, and

watch as foreign consultants take valuable resources as fees back home. More than

anything, you'll stand-by in dismay and feel the palpable sense of how mismanaged

projects facilitate massive, debilitating and destructive corruption.

Since 1993, the Japanese government via its trust-fund for heritage sites, has been

giving Unesco in Phnom Penh $500,000 a year to run a training project at the Royal

University of Fine Arts (RUFA). The authority responsible is the Ministry of Culture

and Fine Arts (MoCFA).

Do some quick math and you find you are talking around $4 million since 1993. If

you have a moment to spare, take a walk around the campus behind the National Museum

and ask yourself: where the hell has all that money gone? You might also spare a

thought for the Japanese tax-payers, as obviously Unesco and MoCFA, as well as the

Japanese government itself, hasn't cared enough to protest the situation, stop the

wastage, defend the interests of students and teachers, and preserve Khmer culture

against the destructive side-effects of corruption.

At RUFA you will see incredibly beautiful buildings constructed in 1917 and a superb

example of a wonderful historical campus, a national treasure which has been the

training ground and home for so many famous Khmers who have shaped Cambodia's pre-eminent

place as a nation of outstanding cultural heritage.

But be prepared for a shock. At first you will find it hard to believe that this

is a place of learning. The buildings and surroundings are terribly run-down and

in a state of advanced disrepair. There is a vague, yet overwhelming, feeling of

unnecessary and wanton decay, and a sort of miserable, slow-motion listlessness among

the few students and teachers you see.

You cannot help but ask yourself, where does all the money go? What happens to the

$500,000 a year? Why is this place of Khmer history, learning and creativity so run-down

despite the $500,000 per year?

Well, at least $334,000 of it goes in salaries for international and national staff.

The international staff is supposed to train students and teachers, but in fact they

do rather more teaching of undergraduates than they do training of Khmer staff. For

their part, the national staff is often reluctant, or incapable, of teaching classes.

Many, especially in the architecture faculty, simply come, attend for set hours,

and go, even though they are paid between $250 and $400 per month for a full-time

commitment to the training program. The rest of the budget goes on field trips, sessional

training (which is not carried through to classroom situations) and language training

(taken off-campus at ACE). Just $3,000 is spent on purchasing books and learning

materials and $3,000 on translation of texts into Khmer. It is interesting to note

that this figure of $3,000 on these items, is the exact same amount the project spends

on employing a driver. Unesco takes $50,000 as an administration fee.

When asked in a questionnaire in the architecture faculty if the project was assisting

them to gain a career either as an academic or conservationist, each national teaching

assistant or lecturer responded that they didn't think the project was helping them

long-term, because when the project finishes they will not have any income to continue

and will have to find other work.

The head of the Unesco office has recently stated in the press (Cambodia Daily, Dec

14) that RUFA graduates have no trouble finding jobs. This is misleading in the sense

that organizations like APSARA are somewhat hesitant to employ graduates from the

architecture faculty, while those employed from the archaeology faculty have in fact

received laboratory training thanks to the German government's DAAD program.

In the meantime, it is quite a loose statement for the head of Unesco to make in

the absence of any concrete evidence. What evidence does exist in the form of anecdotal

accounts of alumni over the last three years, suggests that less than 50% of graduates

from the Unesco training are actually working in heritage conservation. Those trained

in archaeology by DAAD have closer connections with the DAAD team, and the evidence

here suggests a very high level of employment, especially with the APSARA Authority.

The reason RUFA is such an evocative case is that it is just one small, but significant,

example of what happens to educational, health and judicial institutions all over

Cambodia in the grip of corruption and falsification of ministerial accountability.

The reality is that there is money in the MoCFA. Here are the words of the minister

(Norodom Buppha Devi) quoted from a recent interview in the Phnom Penh Post: "The

Ministry is not paralyzed by a lack of funding", and in answer to the question

of: what is the budget of your Ministry and which areas receive the most funding,

the reply was: "One major area is the University of Fine Arts which is divided

into five colleges- music, dance, plastic arts, sculpture and archaeology. I consider

these various departments equally important."

These words are remarkable in that they totally leave out the faculty of architecture

(the largest in the university-there is no faculty of "sculpture") and

that they equally totally misrepresent the Ministry's financial support for the university.

During the course of our work, both my assistant and myself looked long and hard

to find something resembling a budget for the university. In truth, there is none.

In truth the ministry pays salaries of $15 to $25 per month to teachers, many of

whom are "ghost teachers" too busy earning their living somewhere else

to be at the university. Almost nothing is spent on buildings, maintenance, books,

equipment, curriculum, students or teachers.

Apart from the intrinsic interest and messy complications of questions such as these

relating to ministries, the overriding practical issue of how Unesco itself possibly

expects to run a training program in a venue which totally lacks any kind of complementary

institutional strengthening program, has to be asked. If this is the overriding question,

then the overarching one is why hasn't Unesco taken a stronger line in laying out

conditionality with the MoCFA? This line of questioning of course could go on and

on, but let's ask the basic moral question of why Unesco hasn't informed the donor

organization of the inherent impossibilities which attach to this equally inherent

impossible situation.

Of course, there are always two sides to everything. The donor organization itself

stands in a position of astounding exposure to allegations of why it simply allows

the project to continue, year after year. Apart from the higher level diplomatic

reasons associated with Japanese government support for Unesco, at the local Phnom

Penh level it is unbelievable that the Japanese embassy doesn't know what is going


Herein lies a fundamental ethical concern for any of us who are involved in donor-aid

programs, an issue which both Unesco and the Japanese embassy should have come to

grips with years ago-Unesco in terms of being a responsible implementing agency and

the embassy in terms of being the Japanese government's organ of local representation

of tax-payer funded aid agreements.

This is a legitimate question to ask against the background of what human development

does for a nation in transition. The head of the Unesco, perhaps not thinking beyond

the notional concept of "capacity-building," recently reiterated rhetoric

about low salaries, income disparity and corruption with the words: "We would

like to see the salaries of civil servants reach a level that allows them to do their

work under the best conditions-that's the main goal of the whole UN team in Cambodia"

(Cambodia Daily, Dec 13).

Such comments are a surface statement of the obvious and are somewhat incredulous

given the UN's presence in this country for the last ten years. More specifically,

in RUFA's case, Unesco had been supplied with all the details leading to capitalization

of intellectual property and marketing the university's considerable cultural assets

that would have given staff a living salary.

In my job as a UNV consultant for RUFA, myself and my national UNV colleague, Yi

Soktha followed our job descriptions and put together a detailed, 70-page package

of reforms which, if used as consultative planning documents involving the university,

the Ministry and Unesco, would, I believe from past experience, have gone a long

way to solving RUFA's problems, including generating revenue to cover a living salary

for staff.

These documents were submitted to Unesco in July, and since then there has been absolutely

no written or verbal response to their contents. I was, however, told many times,

it was not Unesco's "mandate" to set policy for the Ministry - even though

it is quite unambiguously stated in my job description that my work centered on assisting

the Ministry in the management and administration of the university and to formulate

proposals leading to the autonomy of the university.

In September I informed Unesco that the level of corruption was undermining any chance

of bringing about sustainability at the university and was severely compromising

Unesco's project itself. I was dumbfounded when the reply came: "Oh yes, we

know all about that; in fact your figure of $3,500 for student entry is wrong - our

informants tell us it's more like $4,000!"

I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that Unesco knew all about the corruption

destroying not only the university, but its own project, and had done nothing to

stop it. And it's so easy to stop: just introduce faculty criteria for entry, establish

a normal credit system and introduce a fee-system based on an audited budget (all

laid out in the documents given to Unesco in July).

In late October, I was called to Unesco for a meeting which included the UNV project

officer, was told there was a complete lack of confidence by the Toyota Foundation

(funding my UNV position), by Unesco, by UNV and by the MoCFA, and given three options:

  1. Leave the country next weekend, return to Australia and finish my contract (February)

    somehow or other from there;


  2. Leave the country next weekend, having been terminated;


  3. Leave the country next weekend, having myself resigned.

I resigned in protest saying that there could not possibly be a lack of confidence

in something which they themselves had not considered, reminding Unesco and UNV that

I was still waiting to hear back about the proposals for RUFA submitted in July.

I was given a one-way ticket out of the country back to Australia, taken to the airport

and put on a plane, got off in Bangkok, and came straight back into Cambodia as a

private citizen.

Since then, I have met many outstanding people, including Vanthorn Nhem, executive

director of the Khmer Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Organization (KHRACO).

If I had $500,00 a year I know what I would do with it. Vanthorn and his volunteers

work tirelessly at the very grass-roots of social justice in Cambodia.

After you've taken a walk around RUFA, take a trip out to KHRACO, and you'll see

what I mean. You'll really see what could be done with $500,000 a year.

- Dr Malcolm Innes-Brown is an academic and consultant in educational administration

from the School of Management at Curtin University in Western Australia who has worked

extensively in SE Asia, China and Mongolia.


  • 12th Cambodia int’l film festival to see return of Hollywood star

    Phnom Penh is set to come alive with the magic of cinema as the highly anticipated 12th Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) takes centre stage. Boasting an impressive line-up of 188 films from 23 countries, including captivating shorts, feature films, documentaries and animation, the festival promises an

  • Bareknuckle champion wants Kun Khmer fighter

    Dave Leduc, who is the current openweight Lethwei boxing champion in Myanmar, has announced that he will travel to Cambodia this year to challenge SEA Games gold medallist Prum Samnang any time that is convenient, after their planned match later this month in Slovakia was

  • Struggling Battambang artist dreams of staging full-scale gallery exhibition

    Leav Kimchhoth, a 55-year-old artist from Battambang province, is a familiar face to locals and tourists alike on the streets of the riverside in Phnom Penh. The one-armed painter and illustrator often hawks his work near the night market on weekends and public holidays. He

  • Fresh Covid warnings as Thai hospital fills

    A senior health official reminds the public to remain vigilant, as neighbouring countries experience an increase in Covid-19 cases, with the latest surge appearing to be a result of the Omicron XBB.1.5 sub-variant. Or Vandine, secretary of state and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health,

  • 1.4 billion dollar Phnom Penh-Bavet expressway due in four years

    The Government, through the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, has officially signed a public-private partnership agreement with a private company for the construction of a Phnom Penh-Bavet Expressway project that will connect the capital to Svay Rieng province. The budget for the project is

  • New Law on Taxation comes into effect

    Cambodia has enacted the eagerly-awaited new Law on Taxation, which aims to improve the national tax regime’s compliance with present and future international standards and economic conditions; encourage accountability, effectiveness and transparency in the collection process; and promote investment in the Kingdom. King Norodom