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More tax a benefit of decentralization: expert

More tax a benefit of decentralization: expert

Delegates to a conference on decentralization heard that one benefit of the new system

could be higher tax payments.

Dr Peter Koppinger, country representative for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said

that tax revenue could grow since people were more willing to pay when they knew

where their money was going.

"Decentralization is dependent on income levels, especially here in Cambodia

where state structures are very weak," said Koppinger. "Maybe there's a

better chance now [for raising money at the local level], because people didn't know

what happened to their money before."

Experts from several countries gathered to share their experiences in setting up

administrative structures at the East and Southeast Asian Conference on Decentralization

held in Phnom Penh May 6-7.

The commune elections held in February were cited as the country's most significant

step in devolving power to the grassroots. Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said the

country was moving towards its goal of local development.

"Given the circumstances of a country that just received complete peace,"

said Sar Kheng, "the socio-economic situation has just started to progress in

all fields."

The issue of raising the funds required to run communes, which are an integral part

of the push to make local government more responsive to people's needs, is seen as

key to their success.

Leng Vy, head of the department for local government at the Ministry of Interior,

said the priority was to ensure that the lack of resources and financial constraints

were addressed.

Each commune will have its own assets and budget, and will gather revenue both from

taxing commune members and from funds allocated by the state. The amount of resources

possessed by a commune would determine how able it was to respond to its needs. That,

said Vy, required a development plan.

"If a commune doesn't have a development plan, it doesn't get funds to continue

sustainable development," said Vy.

The need for proper planning was another key issue addressed by delegates from Thailand,

where corruption and inefficiency at the local level are seen as problems.

They said too many local organizations were created over a short period of time,

which left many unable to carry out their functions effectively or to manage the

considerable sums of money they were allocated.

"Challenges among the Thais are how to establish good local governance in order

to realize the merits of decentralization," said Dr Damrong Wattana, a consultant

on public sector reforms.

Nathaniel von Einsiedel, regional coordinator for the Asia and Pacific Urban Management

Program, said factors such as the level of each country's development, its income

and its political maturity - ensuring that votes were not bought and sold -

ought to be considered.

"Civil service reform is very much a part of decentralization in Thailand,"

said von Einsiedel. "Several national laws need to be repealed or modified.

It is for Cambodia to determine what level of decentralization needs to be pursued

now."

There was general agreement that government, business and civil society all needed

to cooperate in the decentralization process to reduce the possibility of conflicts.

"There can be contrasting opinions, but there must be a common vision,"

said Koppinger. "This is important because there is a lot of distrust in Cambodia."

Mayor Mary Jane Ortega from San Fernando City in the Philippines, a city with

both high rates of volunteerism and payment of taxes, related a story about squatter

fishermen in her city who needed to be moved.

Through close dialogue and help from NGOs, suitable land for relocation was found.

In return for the land the group of fishermen agreed to maintain their surroundings

and help in the campaign against dynamiting fish.

"If you show you can treat your citizens as partners, they will come and help

you," Ortega concluded.

Prum Sokha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said no single 'good'

model existed that could be transplanted to fit Cambodia's situation.

"As we say in Cambodia, it is not correct 'to cut the head to fit the hat, or

to cut the feet to fit the shoes'."

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