Letter to the Editor of The Cambodia Daily on NGO Draft Law
AKP Phnom Penh, December 23, 2011 —
The following is the letter to the Editor of The Cambodia Daily in response to its article published on Tuesday on the proposed NGO draft law:
The Editor (submitted for publication)
The Cambodia Daily
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Regarding your article on the recent consultative workshop on the fourth draft of the proposed NGO law (Gov’t Draws A Hard Line On NGO Law, December 20), I offer several comments.
As a participant in the workshop and with over thirty years experience relating to the Cambodian government on NGO matters, I regard your headline as misleading. As the article makes clear, the government has made positive modifications to earlier drafts in response to concerns from the NGO community. In fact, as the article states, the only remaining “hard line” has to do with the simple registration and reporting requirements – and those apply only if a group wishes to be recognized as a legal entity. This certainly seems reasonable. As one of the government officials noted, the purpose of the law “is to govern, not to suppress.” As champions of “the rule of law,” all of us in the NGO community should embrace this opportunity to see law applied fairly to our own activities.
In a private conversation before the workshop, one NGO representative asked if I thought the draft law (he called it “this piece of s**t”) was “the result of the government’s arrogance or malevolence?” I said I thought it was the result of arrogance on the part of some NGOs who have operated for years as if the government were the enemy of development. The fact that NGOs have failed to self-regulate has made it necessary for the government to act and responsible NGOs should welcome and contribute to this process rather than regard it as adversarial.
One of the issues drawing some attention at the workshop was the article stating that NGOs should not spend more than 25% of their total budget on “administrative expenses.” While some clarification may be needed to define what distinguishes “administrative expenses” from “program expenses,” the communal squirming was disturbing. Would you donate money to a charity that spends 25% or more of its budget on “administration?” Is it really appropriate for humanitarian groups to spend so much on high salaries and benefits (including housing, educational allowances and expensive vehicles) for administrative staff and their families? Is it really appropriate for international NGOs to give salaried positions to “trailing spouses”or other expatriates when qualified local staff are available? “Capacity building” has been going on now for three decades. The mantra of “sustainable development” must not be used to conceal practices contributing to “sustainable dependency.”
Other than some legitimate technical legal points raised at the workshop, perhaps the most serious article remaining in the draft law would allow the government to close down any foreign NGO whose activities “jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society.” This is one of those catch-all phrases that means whatever the authorities want it to mean at the time. It is a reminder that Cambodia is a sovereign nation and all international NGOs and all international NGO workers operate in Cambodia at the pleasure of the government.
There is far too much important work to be done to waste our time trying to figure out how to continue to protect our perks outside any legal framework. We need to be sitting in consultative workshops – and working on the front lines – with our government partners struggling against a host of serious issues such as land grabbing, environmental degradation, domestic violence, corruption, forced relocations, gender inequality, the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, human trafficking, intolerable prison conditions and inadequate health and educational services rather than complaining about simple registration and reporting requirements.
Finally, let’s not forget that the extraordinary development work accomplished in Cambodia since 1979 is built on a foundation designed, constructed and maintained by the same leadership team some of the NGOs fear and ridicule.
December 21, 2011