Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to be here today to address this international gathering of students on the topic of “Commune Elections and Decentralization in Cambodia”. First of all I would like to express my deep gratitude to the National University of Singapore for organizing this session to share with you some thoughts on recent developments in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
During the last few years, the contours of the world landscape has been characterized by the following phenomena: globalization, regionalization and localization, which have been reshaped by innovations in technology, free flow of information, the spread of knowledge, the financial integration of the world and rising demands for political rights. In my yesterday’s ASEAN Lecture for the National University of Singapore (NUS) I made extensive comments on Cambodia’s perspectives on globalization and localization. Therefore, it is appropriate that today I will discuss with all of you about the issues and concept of “localization” or “decentralization and deconcentration”, which constitutes a form of participation of the people in the organization and management of their livelihoods through the devolution of power to provincial and district governments, as well as to the commune councils that are close to the people and voters, allowing them to make decision on issues concerning their daily life. Decentralization and deconcentration will make the local authorities more accountable and efficient in delivering public services and strengthening good governance at the grassroots level.
In the Kingdom of Cambodia “decentralization” entails the transfer of political, fiscal and administrative power to the local authorities at commune level. Decentralization requires holding elections to establish representatives of the local authorities, such as the Commune Councils, which is capable of taking binding decisions determined by the law in some policy areas. In this sense, decentralization is the transfer of budgetary resources and the responsibility for the management and development to the grassroots authorities emanated from the elections. “Deconcentration” increases the autonomy of the provincial and district authorities, nominated by the Royal Government without any election. Therefore, “deconcentration” entails closer relationships between the local and the provincial and district authorities.
Having understood that decentralization increases the efficiency of public services and responsiveness of the government to the needs of the grassroots people in social and economic development by increasing the responsibility of the commune leaders for the achievements and performance at the local level, the RGC decided to hold the commune elections to this effect. In this sense, we have built up the real momentum for the strengthening and consolidation of democracy through the devolution of powers and responsibilities from the central government to the people at the grassroots level.
In order to create a favorable environment for the elections, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has taken serious strides to beef up security for the commune elections by especially avoiding at all costs all kinds of violence and conflicts over the course of the registration and the campaign, during and after election. As the Head of the Government I wanted to be neutral. So I did not go to vote on that day. The elections of 3 February 2002 were witnessed, observed and commented upon by thousands of external and internal observer teams from registration of voters to counting of votes. There was near unanimous view that the elections were blissfully peaceful in a land written off as in eternal strife. Moreover, if one compares this one with the 1993 and 1998 elections, the 2002 commune elections have been characterized by new positive developments by building up the government capacity to consolidate democracy and promote the respect for human rights in Cambodia. In this sense, the results clearly reflected the unfettered and free choice of the population. The Cambodian people are proud for the commune elections and described it in such glowing terms as the “miracle on the Land of Angkor”. Indeed it was a miracle, entirely brought about by calm and persevering leadership and hard work and above all by the will of the people at large.
At present, the authorities are trying to resolve the differences among the major parties elected by the people in the interests of Cambodians and of Cambodia’s future and all commune council members are required to put the national and people’s interests ahead of those of their own political parties and cooperate to serve people who are the owner of the power in developing Cambodia to the level of prosperity similar to countries in the region. At the same time, the government has created conditions conducive to the smooth operations of the commune councils as part of the implementation of decentralization and the improvement in the government’s public service delivery.
Therefore, the recent commune elections that we have conducted recently represent a forward step for democracy and a fundamental expression of deepened reform process in all sectors in Cambodia. The newly established commune councils represent a form of power to be delegated to local communities and will become one of the main internal organizing principles of local governance. The most apparent expression of this is through the particular configuration of public goods and services provided to Cambodians from all walks of life including the transfer of resources to the grassroots communities. These systems of power devolution and resource allocation will structure the process of change, which has become now “the blood and bone of the Cambodian”, in order to achieve the anticipated progress. It is my conviction that this process will not only unleash the powerful force of financial devolution and engender a far-reaching stimulus for strengthening grassroots democracy, but also significantly structure the social capital of local communities and promote further political stability and security in the country, which is vital for the country’s march toward improvement in the living standards of our people, better respect for human rights and sustainable development.
Moreover, The devolution of power is carried out through decentralization and deconcentration will shift the focus of development towards the people and the base of our society with the view to implementing structural adjustment, strengthening grassroots governance and declaring war on poverty, which is not just a convenient slogan or a merely a policy issue but a deep felt passion. It defines and drives the substance, the content, and the heart and soul of our Government. Indeed, we have embarked on decentralization even before the commune elections.
In 1996 the RGC decided to formulate and test systems for decentralized and deconcentrated planning, financing, management and implementation of local development in five provinces: Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat and Ratanakiri. The Seila program has consolidated the foundation, established the framework and provided experience for long-term reforms through decentralization and deconcentration. For decentralization, the Seila planning system, financial system and management and implementation systems at commune level are now being reviewed to prepare the regulations that have been applied to the Commune Councils. For deconcentration, the Seila planning system, financial system, management and implementation systems are being reviewed by Ministries and the Council for Administrative Reform to prepare the regulations that will apply to provinces in the future. At present, Seila is primarily an aid coordination mechanism for mobilization of resources in support to decentralized and deconcentrated reforms aimed at improving good local governance and poverty alleviation.
Seila implementation has been implemented in a transparent and efficient manner. From 1996 to 2000, over US$75 million has been disbursed through Seila to support investment at province and commune level and to build the capacity of local government authorities to plan and manage development. At the same time an additional US$20 million has been programmed by agencies and donor programmes to support activities identified through the Seila planning process. Nearly US$9 million was transferred to Commune Development Committees (CDC) who contracted the private sector to build or repair local infrastructure such as roads, bridges, culverts, irrigation structures, schools, health centers and wells. The commune population mobilized approximately US$1.5 million themselves to contribute to their own development. Approximately US$40 million of investment was allocated by the province to provincial departments such as Agriculture, Health, Education, Rural Development, Public Works, Women’s and Veterans Affairs, Environment and Culture for projects that responded to local priorities identified through the Seila planning process.
The most important lesson that I have drawn from the implementation of the Seila program, which is worth highlighting here, is that decentralization and deconcentration, aimed at devolving power from the center to the local communities, has enhanced democracy and improved the efficiency of public services at the grassroots level. Moreover, this development program has increased local ownership and participation of the people in the national development efforts and strengthened the bonds between the State and civil society. However, in a genuine democracy all players are required to assume their responsibility for maintaining peace and social order, upholding laws, strengthening governance and fostering social and economic development at the grassroots level. To exercise these rights effectively it is essential to strengthen the capacity of government officials and the people at the grassroots level in order to allow them to do an informed decision-making. On the contrary, exercising these rights and freedom without assuming responsibility for the future of the nation will create regionalism and chaos as testified by the current situation in some countries in the region. Therefore, it is important to determine the degree of relationships between the central and the local authorities. Where the local authorities are strong the RGC should devolve power to the people to allow that to take an active part in the development process. However, where the local authorities are not strong the RGC will assist them to strengthen their capacity through training and secondment of officials from the central government to help them exercise effectively their rights. Therefore, we cannot implement a one size fits all policy.
In this spirit, the RGC has proposed a strategy that is based on the bottom-up, integrated, participatory, decentralized rural development. The objectives are to expand the number of Village Development Committees (VDCs) – an elected body whose function is to represent the village to government, non-government and international organizations in the management of rural development projects. The RGC intends to increase the coverage of the Seila program to 1,216 villages in 17 provinces by 2005, which will account for 80% of rural communes across the country. This will allow active community participation in grassroots institutions and increase the ownership of development projects, by shifting decision-making and accountability closer to individuals, households and communities. Policy and institutional reform is being supported by strategic public investments including village water supplies and rural roads, to support the restoration and maintenance of essential rural infrastructure and to generate rural employment. At the same time, the Ministry of Rural Development has worked closely with international organizations and NGOs to provide institutional support and to train the people and local authorities with the view to improving public service delivery.
Based on the positive evaluation in implementing the Seila program, taking into account efficient cooperation between all relevant ministries and agencies, the Royal Government adopted the second phase of Seila program for 2001-2005 in January 2001. The second phase of Seila is intended to implement the decentralized and deconcentrated reforms, laws and policies that are currently under formulation by the national government with the view to improving these policies and the efforts to alleviate poverty. The total budget for Seila, 2001-2005, is US$95 million. 75% is for investment at the province and commune level and 25% relates to capacity building for local government in management of deconcentrated and decentralized systems. However, the pledges by our external development partners still fall short of the plan. For this reason, we have made strenuous efforts to mobilize more resources in order to promote democracy, development and poverty reduction at the grassroots level and in the four corners of Cambodia.
To implement decentralization program following the commune elections held on 3 February 2002 and the subsequent establishment of 1,621 Commune Councils across the Kingdom of Cambodia, a commune budget will be created to allow communes to fully operationalize. Moreover, a National Committee to Support the Commune (NCSC) was established to implement the Law on Commune Administration, to formulate and to implement the decentralization policies. NCSC is chaired by the Minister of Interior, assisted by the Minister of Economy and Finance and the Minister for the Council of Ministers as Deputy Chair, with the Minister of Rural Development, the Minister of Land Management, Urbanization and Construction, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Veterans as members.
At the same time, the RGC has set up a Commune Fund (CF), consisting of block grants from the government, tax and non-tax revenues to be to be assigned to the communes by the Parliament and donor’s assistance. The Commune Fund will be used to finance the following:
a. General administration of commune’s affairs;
b. General development of the commune’s social and economic infrastructure; and
c. Delivery of local public services.
A Commune Fund Board (CFB) was established from among representatives of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Planning, the Seila Secretariat and the local communities. The establishment and the early stage of operation of the CF should offer an opportunity to create incentives for the newly established Commune Councils and Administrations to increase their capacity and adopt accountable, transparent, effective and efficient local governance practices. This will require the provincial governments to strengthen their own capacity to provide support and oversight of the communes. This capacity is crucial for the development of local institutions.
Therefore, the Commune Council will be responsible for the provision of services, including social services to the villages. The council will increasingly have a say in all decisions associated with regional development. At the same time, we should also recognize the difficulty in implementing decentralization. Therefore, in decentralization the critical issues are financial problems and management capacity at the grassroots level. Therefore, strategically decentralization should be implemented step by step commensurably with the capability based on the multi-speed principle. Through decentralization, the Royal Government intends to allocate and transfer resources to the Commune Councils so that they can plan and manage a part of their own local development. There are many rural infrastructure projects at the local level that the people, under management by the commune, can do themselves at less cost through contracting out to the local private sector. This includes construction of schools, wells, bridges and small irrigation canals. Gradually there are small services that the communes can begin to undertake themselves such as commune literacy programs and the establishment of water or road user associations. Supporting the communes and the villages to carry out their own local development will reduce the burden on the government to do everything for them. The Ministries cannot do everything and should not try to do everything that is needed at local level. Whatever the communes and the people can undertake themselves reduces the burden on the government and involves the people in their own development, which is crucial for ensuring ownership and sustainability in promoting development.
At this important juncture, in order to ensure smooth implementation of decentralization program I have taken the following practical measures:
First, build consensus and ensure commitment within the entire administration to implement these reforms with poverty alleviation being the main goal of the entire government. But there must be a clear management structure, clear planning, financing and implementation and monitoring systems and mechanism, a clear division of responsibility both horizontally between Ministries and Departments and vertically between the different levels of administration for efficiency to be achieved.
Second, the government ministries are required to provide more of a role to the provinces and their provincial departments in the planning and implementation of national programs, which will remain under the responsibility of the Ministries. The Ministries can manage the budget under a five-year program, but delegate the planning and implementation to the province level. This model has shown that it can deliver and utilize resources more effectively to the local level.
Third, it is important to realign the three levels of budgeting and planning responsibility between national, provincial and commune levels. Each level needs to receive some budget support, plans need to be developed that identify what can best be done nationally, provincially and at commune level. In this context, regulations, systems and controls need to be developed that ensure accountability and transparency and reports should be prepared accurately on the use of the disbursed funds.
Decentralization policies and programs that have been put in place are truly nationally owned and accepted by the Cambodian people because we believe in them and we wish to adhere to them for the benefits of Cambodians today and to be born. These efforts are designed to bolster up a once strong and proud nation to get back its place. We are strongly determined to fully reclaim our own destiny, be a real partner in regional and global affairs and be well on its way to becoming a truly free nation, free from want and poverty above all. The reform programs that we have formulated by ourselves are designed to achieve this goal and not to please anyone or to gain temporary reprieve from criticism.
In conclusion, I would like to wish you all, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, good health, strength, happiness and success in all your endeavors. I thank you for your kind attention.