Corruption, a virus of Cambodian society

Corruption is omnipresent in Cambodian society and constitutes the main obstacle to sustainable development. The last ratings of the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), released by Transparency International in 2018, ranked Cambodia 161th out of 180 countries (in 2017: 156th out of 176), with a score of 21 out of 100. Cambodia is perceived as the most corrupt country within ASEAN and the third lowest in the Asia Pacific Region, after North Korea and Afghanistan.

After decades of civil war and political instability, corruption occurred at almost every level of public life and at all stages of business transactions. The culture of law unenforcement, ambiguity of rules and multiplicity of practices together with a system of patronage, historically rooted in the society are the main challenges of fighting corruption in Cambodia.

The most visible forms of corruption in Cambodia are bribery and unofficial fees, misuse of public funds, and grand corruption. Bribery has been institutionalised over the last decades in education, health and administration as a possibility of complementing the low salaries of public servants. Moreover, it often constitutes a way of obtaining a job in public administration. The police and the judiciary are considered to be among the most corrupt institutions. The recent inflow of investment has also led to substantial corruption at high level.

Widely accepted, corruption undermines the rule of law, social development and democratic institutions; it significantly weakens the accountability of the political leadership in Cambodia. Corruption also jeopardises the effectiveness of development cooperation programmes, with a recent case of proven corruption in the management of Global Funds in Cambodia or Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. In a report released in 2014, the International Labour Organization estimated that corruption costs Cambodia’s economy some $1.7 billion annually – about 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The fight against corruption is one of the top priorities of the Government of Cambodia. In the national Rectangular Strategy Phase III 2014-2018, good governance including the fight against corruption is considered the key to achieving sustainable socio-economic development.

In 2007, Cambodia signed the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and in 2010, after 16 years of equivocation, an anti-corruption law was adopted by Parliament. The law has established two separate, public institutions for combating corruption – the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NCAC), responsible for developing national policies and strategies for fighting corruption, and the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), responsible for investigating allegations of corruption within the public sector. In many areas, the law contains deficiencies and falls short of meeting international standards. The independence of the institutions is undermined by their strong links to the Prime Minister Office and the lack of transparency. Reports on activities are not made public or submitted to Parliament. No precise justification is given for the rejection of a large number of complaints. Budget allocation for anti-corruption activities remains at a relatively low level compared with other countries in the region and is regarded as insufficient to perform effectively. The law also provides no protection for whistle-blowers.

Despite a rather weak institutional framework, some progress has been recorded in recent years. The government has undertaken reform processes, such as the Public Financial Management Reform, Public Administrative Reform and Decentralization Reform which aim at strengthening the institutional framework, including systems for accountability and transparency. The list of public service fees has been expanded and published with a time limit for service compliance. On-line registrations for vehicles and business activities have been introduced as part of the e-government projects. Several ministries transferred service delivery functions to sub-national administration in the pilot One Window Service Offices. In the education sector, stricter monitoring mechanisms of national high school exams were put in place. These actions went together with the considerable increase of tax revenue and continued increase of salary for public servants.

Corruption is, however, not tackled in a systematic manner; reforms are only initiated by few reform-minded ministers. Main challenges remain in regard to grand corruption. There is a clear collusion between public and private sector and lack of transparency in declaration of ruling party high-level member’s assets. Exploitation of key public institutions for political gains, conflict of interests and nepotism are prevalent.

European development partners active in Cambodia cooperate closely with the government, other international partners, and civil society to tackle corruption. Fight against corruption is prioritized in the European Development Cooperation Strategy for Cambodia 2014-2018 as an integral part of the support for Governance. The significant financial support is provided to the “supply side of governance”, to strengthen public institutions and systems for public financial management and public administration at central and local levels. In addition, support to the “demand side of governance” aims at increasing capacity development, citizens’ participation and awareness raising programmes with civil society linked to the transparency of financial resources and corruption. In 2015, European partners and the USAID have also taken the lead in Development Partner Anti-Corruption Coordination Group, which enabled a more coherent communication and better engagement with the government.

Corruption in Cambodia is acknowledged as a real impediment to sustainable economic development and inequality reduction. A corrupt environment reduces productivity, leads to lower overall human capital, distorts public spending, creates ineffective bureaucracy, hampers growth, and eventually weakens public institutions. The success in the fight against corruption in Cambodia has been rather limited. Increasing transparency is essential to improve the effectiveness of the Government in fighting corruption and to changing people behaviours.

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