[Editor’s note: Nick Beresford is the United Nations Development Programme Cambodia Country Director. The UNDP works with the Cambodian government, civil society groups, community organizations, aid agencies, donors and the private sector on issues related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.]
VOA: What development area does UNDP Cambodia work on with the government?
Beresford: We could divide the work that we do with the Cambodian government maybe into three areas. The first is environmental protection, climate change-related. The second is looking at prosperity and resilience. And the third one is looking at the policy issues around governance and economic policies.
VOA: What do you think about the course of development in Cambodia and inequality?
Beresford: We look at development overall. First of all, economic development has been very successful. Over a 15-year period, you have seen the economy more than triple in size. You have seen poverty fall by more than half and that’s quite a remarkable achievement. On the governance side, I think there are some challenges around democratic governance and so on, there is more work to be done. Then, I think the last part of your question was also looking at inequality. If we look at the data that we have, whether we use Gini coefficient or we use Tile data and so on, whichever way we look at it, the data shows that actually, inequality is under control. It compares well to neighboring countries and it’s not showing any sign of getting too bad. But, I think one of the issues there sometimes is how good is the data that we are using. We know that some of the national data systems do need some improvement and it can’t be sure sometimes that the data that we use might necessarily reflect the completed picture.
VOA: How do you see the progress of governance?
Beresford: On the issue of governance, I mean, just a couple days before the election, the Secretary-General issued a statement and he called for an inclusive and pluralistic political process. He called for the government to uphold international human rights standards, guarantee civil society actors and political parties were able to excise their democratic rights. We stand behind our Secretary General’s call for those improvements. Within the UN country team, as well as the OHCHR (Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights), we also noted their concerns around some of the recent issues where many certain sections of the population did not have the political opportunities that they had before and expressed concerns around the restriction on the press and so on. I think on the governance issues, we recognize that there is some work to be done. More positively, we are also keen to engage with the government to see where we can help to make some of those improvements.
VOA: What should be done to ensure that development can benefit ordinary Cambodians, especially the millions that live under the poverty line or live slightly above the poverty line?
Beresford: You raised two important points there. You have people below the poverty line. At the moment, we estimate that probably 10 percent of the population is underneath the national poverty line. But there is a large section of the population who are only just above the poverty line. They might not be counted as the poor but they are quite near poor and we categorize them as being vulnerable to economic shocks, health shocks and so on. I think one of the most important policies going forward is the social protection policies. We are very pleased to see that the government has been very active in this area, issuing the policies and putting some of the first social protection policies in place. That’s the way that we start to help to build resilience and protect [them] against the vulnerable.
VOA: Do you think it has to do with strengthening state institutions?
Beresford: Yes, that’s another aspect. I think it’s also important in order for the social protection scheme to work well. You need resilience and you need good capacity within your government so that they are able to administer these schemes properly so that you guard against leakages and so on, and that the schemes are effective and efficient and the wealth goes to those people who need it.
VOA: Government departments often complain of not having funds because they are dependent on foreign aid. Where is the new money coming from?
Beresford: It’s a good question because it touches on important change coming through Cambodia. Many years ago, we were aid dependent. That’s no longer true. For a long time now, Cambodia has been trading dependent. Its openness to foreign markets and its economic growth has been the engine that has helped people move out of poverty because a lot of that economic growth was also in low-skilled or unskilled labor. For example, in the garment factories, it provides employment for many ordinary people. Going forward, what we see is two things that work. Number 1, you have a high rate of economic growth, 7 percent or so. That has been true for many years. Secondly, you have a very good rate of tax collection, maybe about 20 percent which is quite high for this region. Certainly, it compares well to its neighbors. If we put those two together, the fiscal space of the government is growing quite rapidly.
VOA: Are you concerned about corruption in Cambodia, especially corruption in the tax system?
Beresford: I think we have to remember that all lower-middle income countries face this problem, and in fact many upper-middle-income countries, and in fact, many high-income countries face this issue. So, Cambodia is not alone. I think it’s natural and it is a particular part of economic development, where only a few years ago we were a lower income country. The leakages, corruption, transparency and accountability problem should be expected to happen. We should expect them to be there but there’s no reason for us to accept them or to say that we shouldn’t try to combat them. I think if you look at even the richer countries such as China, they have made a very public and a very committed attempt to both acknowledge the problem and also to take quite strong measures to try to deal with it. So I think there are a lot of lessons in Asia where the government can pick up and see how it can start to more successfully tackle that issue.
VOA: Has the Cambodian government done enough to combat corruption in the country?
Beresford: Hard to say. I think at the moment it’s still quite a challenge for the government. But I think the government is aware of that. And, it needs to find its own way forward to address that and then to address that more successfully. Development partners such as ourselves do as much as we can also to help alleviate that problem. One thing the government can do is to raise the salary of civil servants by providing a decent standard of living for civil servants. It helps to reduce the need for the civil servants to seek other forms of income. I think the most famous example of that may be Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore who has taken a very tough stance against corruption and also very significantly increased salaries to make sure that civil service jobs are very well paid. There are a lot of different ways to address this and we encourage the government to look at these examples and to do what they can to move ahead in those efforts.
VOA: How can development partners assist Cambodians to hold the government accountable?
Beresford: I think that we can see that the government is making moves to reach out across political alliances and to be more inclusive, but we do what we can to encourage the government. Of course, it’s for the government and the people in Cambodia to work out these issues. At the same time, at the UN, we reaffirm the principles for which we stand, of democratic governance and human rights. In the OHCHR and in the Secretary General’s comments that I eluded to earlier, we expressed some of our concerns and then at the same time also expressed our encouragement that the government addresses the issues of inclusive governance, address the issue of democratic governance, address the issue of human rights.