A recent article in the Asia Times states that Cambodia is about to overhaul its laws that deal with NGOs.

In late September he [Hun Sen] called for the revival of a controversial law which would require the country’s more than 2,000 associations and NGOs to complete a complex registration process and submit to stringent financial reporting requirements. The draft law is expected to be passed by Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP)-dominated National Assembly in the coming months. “Cambodia has been heaven for NGOs for too long,” he said in a speech broadcast on national radio on September 26, adding that he had given up hope of reading any positive reports written by international or local NGOs. “The NGOs are out of control … they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival”

Although many NGO, both international and local, are liable to see this as further silencing of government critics, similar to the recent banning of the UN’s Human Right’s Commission member Yash Ghai, few can deny that cleaning up the NGO sector of Cambodia is long overdue. There are literally thousands of “NGOs” operating in Cambodia that are simply used as a tax loop hole. NGOs don’t pay taxes and can employ foreigners without much bureaucratic fuss. NGO laws, or lack there of, for many years have provided relatively easy visa entry for foreigners of dubious morals to stay for extended periods in Cambodia.

In many cases, what should be registered as a business is actually registered as an NGO so that the managing director may conduct business whilst still attracting funding from larger bilateral donors or international NGOs. It has for local agri-businesses especially, been a useful form of foreign direct investment from donors. Some have used donor money to establish contract farming relations, with the NGO acting as marketing agent. This has occurred in some cases due to donor perceptions of Cambodian agriculture. Direct assistance to local NGOs has been justified in the name of agricultural and private sector “development” that is typically characterised as backward and poor. Furthermore, many local NGOs are run by part time, ex or full-time government employees as sideline businesses.

Thus the Cambodian institutional landscape has long been blurred between aid, business and government. Tighter law enforcement should help to seperate out clearly the different functions of government, business and charity. It remains to be seen however, as Asia Times suggests, whether this law signals Cambodia’s distancing from western donors due to expected oil revenues and towards further Chinese patronage or whether it is simply a move to finally address a longstanding problem.