Sunday, July 8, 2007

Cambodia - Weeks 1-2

Apologies and caveats

My apologies for being off-air for so long. Heavy teaching load first semester. My general operating principle is to allocate my time to family, teaching, research, gardening and then projects like this. With 2 courses and 600+ students on 3 campuses the last 2 items have got minimal attention in last few months.

These Cambodian enteries are simply a rough journal of my time working in Phnom Penh on a FOI project. Written more for family and students. Restricted, mostly by my choice, about what I can and should say about the actual project. Although it will be clear from comments that the challenges of helping to design an access for information scheme for a country like Cambodia are both many and often confronting.

Background to FOI or Access to Information in Cambodia

Cambodian Government has signed up with Development Partners ( Donor Countries and bodies like World Bank) to develop a clear policy framework on Access to Information (why I have been hired).

The Cambodian Parliament and civil society have also been active in promoting and encouraging greater transparency - with support from Article 19, UNESCO and World Bank.

In late 2002 the 5th Committee of the Senate initiated a bill on Freedom of Information.

In 2003 local and international NGOs began to advocate for a national Freedom of Information Law. In January 2005 a formal Freedom of Information Working Group was formed. A number of important and well attended conferences have been held that have informed Cambodians about Access to Information laws and best practices. These conferences included:

2004 – Workshop on Freedom of Information 23 June 2004 Phnom Penh
90 participants from 58 organisations.

2005 – Workshop on International Best Practices and Standards of Freedom of Information. 6-7 June 2004 Phnom Penh
112 participants.

2005 – Seminar on Access to Information 14-16 September 2005 Sihanouk Ville
38 participants

2006 - Seminar “New Trends on Freedom of Information and Access to Information in Cambodia” 4-5 April 2006 Phnom Penh

2006 – Seminar “Public Access to Information in Cambodia” 24 November MoNASRI Phnom Penh

A draft law has also been drawn up by the NGO ADHOC.

First Two Weeks in Cambodia

I have been engaged on a seven week consultancy by USAID through PACT Cambodia (a capacity building NGO) to assist MoNASRI (The Ministry for National Assembly Senate Relations and Inspections) to help draft a Policy Paper on Freedom of Information.

See US Embassy write up and picture of Formal Signing Ceremony at
After the 2006 Consultative Group meeting, the Ministry of National Assembly, Senate Relations and Inspections was given the mandate by the Council of Ministers to develop a government Policy Paper on Access to Information prior to the development of a Access to Information Law and that this Policy Paper be approved by the Council of Ministers. The Policy Paper will set out the framework for the government’s strategy on increasing access to information. It will define access to information, the role of government agencies and other stakeholders in promoting access to government information, fundamental principles to be included in the draft law, timeframe for its passage and designated agency responsible for the development of the draft law. This policy paper will provide guidance to the government’s commitment for promoting access to government information.

I am working with a local consultant and a drafting team of about 17 representatives from MoNASRI and other ministries. Usually just 3 of us on a day to day basis..

I have been in Cambodia for just over 2 weeks and deadlines for first drafts etc of the Policy Paper are fast approaching.

Many who I meet – both Cambodian and foreigners – try to diminish my expectations by pointing out that any progress at all on this issue in 7 weeks will be a welcome success.

Have been having lots of discussions with my various networks about whether FOI is possible in Countries in Transit or not.

I spend most of my time working so get to see few of the sights. But I do see the extremes of poverty (despite Cambodia having 8-10% growth each year) and wealth ie small unclothed children scrambling in rubbish piles at the edge of the road and a block further along a new Lamborghini outside a nightclub.

The traffic and its informality and flexible patterns and rules are a constant source of bewilderment and puzzlement to me. This is an extract from my diary about day 1 on the way from the airport to Hotel Goldiana

Entry into real Cambodian traffic - Sunday morning and roads very busy.
Series of little scenes stay in mind -

Traffic flows freely but slowly - we do about 30-40km for most of trip. The reason for this becomes slowly apparent.

Whilst traffic sticks to left and right (Cambodia is a left hand driving country) your position in that lane(s) is fairly flexible. If cars, bikes, tuk tuks (motor bikes with cart with roof on it) come too close or you intend to move up close to a motor bike rider who is busy applying her makeup you beep your horn.

A lot of driving is a slow delicate weaving in and out whether bus, bike or car

Most intersections appear to be unregulated - traffic, pedestrians just seem to glide through each other - never stopping but slowing to assist timing - all seems to be a question of fine timing. Watched as a young woman on a push bike who seemed to travelling at a constant speed just glided through a busy intersection.

Range of vehicles but most common small 50-150cc motor bikes -
occasional bike ridden by one person but generally two. If second person a woman or girl they tend to sit side saddle.

Often there are three on a 100cc bike - passed two bikes with 4 priests in yellow/orange robes and 2 drivers.

Occasionally you will see 4 men or women riding on the same bike. So you can imagine how many people there might be in a tarago van (lost count at about 12).

Having slight apprehension about walking anywhere - have doubts about my capacity to glide across intersections.

All the hallmarks of poverty abound - lots of small foodstalls, vendors with mats on grounds selling shoes (sometimes not in pairs). Lots of building rubble - every second building seems to be being built, repaired or tumbling down. Mounds of rubbish on corners. At same time paradox of endless small communication shops.

The Hotel Goldiana, is in the twilight of its golden years but clean and fairly well located especially in getting to PACT and MoNASRI. Every morning I keep of thinking about the lyrics of Hotel California.

The guests gather for breakfast (included in most room charges) the normal array of eggs, dried bacon, sad small sausages, an array of fruit, ceral and drinks. An interesting mixture of people – consultants (some on quick 2 day hit and runs and others like me here for a couple of months), visiting school groups, German and French backpackers, NGO workers and spare characters left over from a Graham Greene or Albert Camus novel.

The consultants are generally older than me – usually retired. They have great stories to tell and I have learnt a lot especially about agriculture and the frustrations of working with Cambodian bureaucracy.

I try and make a point of inviting myself to join an occupied table at breakfast so I can meet more of this ever changing cast of characters.

Strangely few, and on many nights no one, eat at the hotel in the evenings. I have eaten there a few nights and food is good and comparable to any of the other places you can eat within walking distance. And price the same. So not sure why no one eats there. The more westernisied, and costly, places are down alongside the Mekong – a 5 minute bike or tuk tuk journey away.

I am inhabiting a weird netherworld between the NGO PACT and the government officials in MoNASRI. I work with both, report to both and get caught up in all the agendas. Furthermore the outside surface and calm is interrupted by a starker and more troublesome reality. Report on internet that a Cambodian journalist has fled to Bangkok after death threats due to his reporting on forest clearing and ripoffs. On the weekend a large trade union has taken out a full page ad seeking justice for 3 leading union leaders they claim were assassinated over last 3 years (and in Australia we worry over unionists whose language is a bit blue or aggressive). Yet here am I sitting in the bowels of the Cambodian public service working on an Access to Information policy paper. Certainly not the heart – MoNASRI doesn’t carry that much weight – although on Thursday and the following Monday I am meeting with a series of senior government officials and parliamentary leaders. Suit days – being escorted by several senior MoNASRI officials.

It is hard to comprehend the wage levels here. The national average wage is 65 US cents a day. A low level public servant will earn about $25 - $40 US a month (my daily hotel bill costs more). A senior bureaucrat between $300 to $400 US a month. A waitress at the hotel between $1 to $3 a day.

There are 650,000 orphans in a country of just 14 million people. The official illiteracy rate is about 30%.

The currency is Riel but $US is the de facto currency.

Many of the senior civil servants I am working with have survived 4 regime changes since Pol Pot’s Year Zero in 1975. Many I work with have their stories of the Killing Fields and time spent working in the countryside. Many are supporting extended families on 1 salary until recent times when their older children, nieces and nephews have started to earn incomes.

1 comment:

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