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Govt-private sector forum 'positive step'

Govt-private sector forum 'positive step'

If you spend any time hanging out with expatriate businessmen in Phnom Penh one of

the first things you learn is that they like to complain-all the time.

Lend an investor a sympathetic ear and he will gladly inundate you with a torrent

of bile: tea money at the customs office, unjustified storage fees, unfair competition

from smuggled goods, hassles with the tax man, bureaucratic trickery, stall tactics,

inter-ministerial turf battles, party politics, bogus spare parts, judicial payoffs,

tangled legal conundrums, power snafus, crooked cops, over-valued imports, whatever.

The list goes on and on. It's no wonder there are so many watering holes about town

with aging white guys hunkered over glasses filled with a rich, amber-colored elixir,

hoping to drown their sorrows into gold.

However, to the surprise and delight of many, help may be on the way.

Last week's Third Government-Private Sector Forum, chaired by Prime Minister Hun

Sen, with almost the entire Cabinet sitting behind him, and attended by around 300

investors and the like was the most visible sign of a process that has been underway

for more than a year. The goal is to institutionalize a mechanism whereby those in

the private sector, both local and foreign, have a vehicle for an on-going dialogue

with the government that is designed to solve problems, make markets more efficient

and enhance economic growth and development.

And who knows? Given time, a fair bit of pushing and prodding, and a bundle of patience

it may just work.

At the very least, more than a few observers feel that last week's Forum was "a

positive first step."

Behind the public face of the Forum, on Jan 25 the government officially set up seven

Private Sector Working Groups (PSWG). Membership includes representatives from both

government and business.

The PSWGs came about after an exhaustive debate over many months on how investors

and the government would interact. Would contact be via the expatriate business associations,

through the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce or facilitated by the International Finance

Corporation (IFC)? Wrinkles remain on who is to play what role and what, if any,

function there is for the IFC.

Some investors feel that without an "IFC-like" entity acting as or supporting

a Secretariat the process may become diluted or be too tightly managed by the government.

All PSWGs met once before the Feb 7 Forum chaired by the Prime Minister. Grievances

were aired and lists of suggested solutions to problems submitted by private sector

representatives. The process was cleverly designed to enable the government to take

the sting out of whatever laundry lists of complaints would be presented at the Forum

as in the Prime Minister's address he gave the government's okay for several changes.

Yes, the government will publish an Official Gazette listing all new laws enacted,

and yes, museums can be open at lunchtime to make it easier for tourists to visit

them, just to name a few.

Small steps forward, inch-by-inch.

Interestingly, Sok Chenda Sophea, Secretary-General of the Council for the Development

of Cambodia says that all decisions made at the Forum will become official law as

soon as the Council of Ministers signs off on the minutes of the meeting and, because

the PM chaired the Forum and all the Cabinet was there, this will be a mere formality.

The PSWGs are now set to meet on a regular basis, generally once a month. Got a beef?

Contact the relevant PSWG business representative and vent your spleen.

Of course, the key to the whole process will be follow-up. Translating well-intentioned

words into concrete actions has been a regular visitor to the lists of investor gripes.

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