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'Friction-fearing' donors shut NGOs out of governance

'Friction-fearing' donors shut NGOs out of governance

HUMAN rights groups and other NGOs are complaining about donor insistence that they

be excluded from a new Government/donor working group on good governance.

The working group - established at the annual donor meeting in Paris in May - will

focus on issues such as judicial and legal reform, rule of law, land reform, corruption

and human rights.

However, some donors are reluctant to allow NGOs that work in these areas in the

formal setup of the working group.

The chairman of the working group, World Bank Chief Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, acknowledges

that the role of the NGO community is still being negotiated.

"Some donors argue that the relationship between the Government and civil society

is a reflection of governance - which is exactly what the working group will be addressing,"

Mbida-Essama says.

"Including the organizations in the working group could reduce their visibility.

We want to make sure that they continue to be a legitimate part of the process, not

just an appendix".

The good governance working group joins existing working groups on forestry, demobilization,

fiscal reform, civil administration reform and a planned working group on social

affairs that are designed as forums for the Government, donors and NGOs to propose

reforms and review progress. Previously, only the fiscal reform working group specifically

excluded NGO participation.

Donor reluctance to allow NGO participation in the good governance working group

flies in the face of lobbying efforts of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee

(CHRAC), an umbrella organization of 17 local NGOs, to be included in the group.

According to CHRAC Vice-Chairman Sok Sam Oeun, who is also Executive Director of

the Cambodian Defenders Project, NGOs are being shut out of the working group due

to donor fears of "friction".

"Some donors are concerned that having NGOs inside the working group will create

a lot of friction and fighting between the Government and the organizations,"

Oeun told the Post. "I agree that if we select the wrong people to participate

there could be friction. But if we select the right people, it will not be a problem."

However, doubts about NGO participation in the good governance working group exist

within the NGO community itself.

Thun Saray, President of the human rights group ADHOC, says NGOS need to define their

role in the reform process undertaken within the working group.

"It is a problematic balance," says Saray. "Some say that if we participate

in the working group actively, we loose our role as a watchdog. Personally I prefer

to participate. It doesn't mean we cannot criticize if there is no political will

to implement the reforms we have helped work out."

According to sources inside the donor community, France and the European Union (EU)

have been particularly opposed to including NGOs in the working group.

Not surprising, says one EU observer.

"France is reluctant to criticize the present Government because it feels this

would actually jeopardize the fragile peace and stability," the observer says.

"In doing so, France willingly condones abject practices, serious abuses and

gross violations of human rights.

"Since 1997, the behavior of the EU has been largely consistent with that of

France. EU members other than France, however, think differently and they do admit

to certain concerns."

The EU delegation in Bangkok did not wish to speak on this subject and French embassy

officials in Phnom Penh were not available for comment.

Reportedly, some donors were also initially opposed to including human rights as

a specific issue for the new working group, a reluctance that has now been overcome.

"Human rights will be part of the working group's focus," says Mbida-Essama.

"Good governance really encompasses every aspect of society. Public administration,

demobilization and natural resources, which already have their own working groups,

are also governance issues. But both donors and the Government felt that there were

a number of other governance issues that needed more attention."

According to Mbida-Essama, the working group will measure its success by setting

up benchmarks or time frames for specific issues - for instance that a certain reform

has to be carried out before a certain date. The areas where these benchmarks will

apply has not yet been identified.

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