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Cambodia: reform needed to combat poverty

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Cambodia is among the world’s poorest countries. While parts of the economy are making considerable progress, more than 30 percent of the population still live in poverty. Though the government has proposed many strategies – like the the Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, Cambodia Millennium Development Goals and the National Strategic Development Plan – little progress has been made in improving people’s living standards. On the 2010 U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index, Cambodia is ranked 124 out of 169 countries, just above Myanmar but below Laos. This is a slight improvement over 1995-2005. Over the past few years, Cambodia’s economic growth rate has been in double digits which has helped reduce poverty from 34.8 percent in 2004 to 30.1 percent in 2007, according to World Bank figures.

Cambodian government policies aimed at reducing poverty will not work without collaboration from people at the grassroots level, civil society organizations and donor communities. An active grassroots civil society would ensure that citizens’ diverse voices are articulated and heard by local governments. It would also act as a check on local government action and ensure that it complies with the wishes of citizens – a community-based monitoring function that enhances accountability. Both roles would promote governance for the benefit of the poor.

Poverty reduction is one of the mandates of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and has been their joint focus since 1999. Their continued financial and technical assistance is crucial to both government and civil society organizations. There are huge grants from major donor countries and agencies that prioritize a formidable range of pressing issues including agricultural and rural development, human rights issues, decentralization, disability and rehabilitation, disarmament and demobilization, education, electoral reform, fishery and forestry sectors, gender and women’s participation, governance and transparency, health and HIV/AIDS, landmines and unexploded ordinances in affected communities, land reform, microfinance, resettlement and rights of affected people and the rule of law. If policies in these sectors are effectively implemented they will contribute to poverty reduction.

Since the early 1990s NGOs in Cambodia have been heavily involved in post-conflict reconstruction, emergency relief work, repatriation and resettlement of refugees, and assisting with the implementation of basic services and infrastructure. NGOs work hard under difficult conditions in many sectors and geographical areas where the Cambodian government has outsourced, ignored or failed to provide assistance.

Despite their contributions to government policies, the activities of some of these groups – especially those that advocate civil rights or fight corruption – are obstructed or rebutted by the government in the name of protecting national security and the social order.

The central issue here is thus the lack of cooperation between the government and civil society organizations. There is no communication and coordination between government and donor agencies so that funds can be channeled properly to avoid duplication of tasks, and no common fund-requesting procedures to facilitate the organizations’ work.

In addition, there are donor-driven agendas to which NGOs often have to conform to maintain their funding. Such shifts may not be appropriate neither for NGOs themselves in terms of expertise nor for the particular development needs of the various communities. They also create conflicts of interest among civil society organizations when jockeying for funding which ultimately contributes to a lack of collaboration between them.

Furthermore, there are many challenges for people at grassroots level who wish to exercise their rights. A small oligarchy of high-ranking government officials, army generals and rich entrepreneurs dominates the country politically, socially and economically. The National Assembly and the Senate do not fulfill their functions effectively and hardly take any initiative on their own. The judiciary system, which is not dependent on the executive power, provides the rich and mighty with impunity. All TV channels and most of the radio stations and print media are controlled by the government and do not report fairly on the opposition parties.

Corruption is rampant in Cambodia; in fact, corruption is one of the main sources of human rights violations and one of the main factors fueling poverty. Instead of being properly consulted, rural and urban community leaders are intimidated and pushed aside. In most cases, the courts do not protect their rights to a fair trial. Grassroots activists who try to resist are arrested and given heavy sentences.

The poorest and most disadvantaged parts of society have limited opportunities to exercise their civil and political rights. They neither know about their rights nor how to advocate for them. The failure of the authorities to protect their rights, and excessive use of force by security forces sometimes lead to counter-violence. Thus in order to tackle poverty and violence, civil society organizations and donor communities need to lobby the government for administrative and judicial reforms and empowerment of people at the grassroots level.

Poverty reduction requires a strong government role in collaboration with civil society. First, the Cambodian government should work toward a clean, highly competent and courageous leadership. Second, Cambodia must develop a highly educated, development-oriented, non-corrupt, efficient bureaucracy. The new anti-corruption unit, recently established after the long awaited law on anti-corruption was finally adopted, should be aimed at strictly and independently enforcing the law.
Third, all civil society and government stakeholders interested in the development of the country should work towards a culture of mutual collaboration, through extensive community consultation rather than through pressure exerted by powerful groups or lobbies.

Ultimately, the Cambodian government should enforce reforms of the administrative, legal and judicial, military, economic and financial branches to improve the living conditions of the Cambodian people. Only if these reforms are implemented will poverty reduction policies be feasible

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Chak Sopheap Twitter: jusminesophiaSopheap

Chak Sopheap rejoined Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) as Executive Assistant in June 2010 having previously worked with the CCHR as an advocacy officer, helping lead the “Black Box Campaign” to fight against corruption in Cambodia and the campaign for freedom of expression. She has also worked for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, holding conferences and producing publications on democracy, human rights and ASEAN governance. Sopheap holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Economics and a master’s degree in international peace studies, which she completed from the International University of Japan. Sopheap has been running the Cambodian Youth Network for Change, which mobilizes young activists around the country for greater civic engagement. She is also a contributing author for Global Voice Online, UPI Asia Online and Future Challenges.

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