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Reflection on corruption in

ABCD, Cambodia.
This is a very rough working draft.

The ABCD project of Christian Outreach in Cambodia is unusual in its emphasis on
changing the thinking of the participants. It has now been working for 6 years towards
achieving its objectives. One of these objectives is the formation of a local NGO by the
staff in order to replicate the programme in the future. As the process of NGO formation
was gaining momentum,zambia the director and the management committee had been
formed, an issue of corruption came to the surface. An audit revealed that the majority
of the staff had received money and goods that they were not entitled to. In a few cases
this amounted to several thousand dollars. This issue has resulted in the dismissal of
some staff and has provided an opportunity for reflection on empowerment and the
processes of community development. This paper documents the thoughts and
reflections of the author who was the architect of the programme and who continues to
be involved in the programme.

In addition to the annual reports which comprehensively document the project, there is
a project summary called Transformation by Wearing Hats (Tearfund Case Study 1996).
The opening paragraphs of the Case Study are as follows:-

"You cannot easily change the damage caused by the war, or

caused by the systematic breaking of relationships, or the loss of
dignity. You cannot easily reverse the situation "lack of food". You
cannot easily change the damage done by the meetings held in
fear, or the meetings at which people were harangued by
propaganda. The mind is paralysed by such things so the way
forward is slowly carefully" Meas Nee, a Khmer.
"The rural communities of Cambodia are characterised by a fragile food production
system, often with inadequate water supply and a number of chronic health problems.
This state of poverty and subsistence economic activity is perpetuated by a mentality
amongst both individuals and the various village communities which limits their ability to
change their environment.". ABCD 5 Year proposal opening statement.

"The Agriculture, Business and Community Development Programme (ABCD) started

in 1992 in the rural district of Prey Veng, Cambodia. The International Non
Governmental Organisation, Christian Outreach, funded in part by Tear Fund, started
the programme in response to invitations from the Government and local people.
Despite its name ABCD does not emphasise physical change in agriculture and
business. It is focused on the transformation of the participants thinking. The
programme is based in three communes (22,000 people) and aims to animate changes
in community awareness and respond to felt needs and problems in partnership with
local communities, through the creation of an environment of change.

"One of the distinctive features of the programme is its emphasis on the local
communities agenda. Its funding is constructed in such a way that it is not tied to an
agenda created by an outside agency. Funding is flexible to follow the agenda set by
the people."

While the main objectives of the 7yr programme concern the villages and their
movement towards a dynamic proactive community, one of the objectives was that the
staff would form a local NGO at the end of the programme. The process in the villages
leads to potentially sustainable development within the village. However, the resources
of the village are limited and it seemed unreasonable to expect villagers to actively
replicate the programme to new villages. There is some limited influence of proactive
villages on their near neighbours, but in order to achieve a planned replication of the
programme it was decided that the staff might become a local NGO.

Herein lies the first potential problem. The decision to include the formation of a locally
based organisation for replication in the project objectives was taken by the staff of the
Northern NGO with only very limited consultation. The five year proposal was written at
a time when there were only two Khmer staff for ABCD, and so very limited discussions
were held with these two people. Thereafter it was a task of the expatriates to animate
the Khmer staff to some form of ownership of this objective. This of course is not the
best approach. The rest of the programme emphasises that people should be free to
set their own agenda, not to be made to conform to a pre-set agenda. And yet this
objective was pre-set and the staff have been asked to conform to it.

In institutional terms, the objective was left very broad. It describes a local organisation.
At the time of writing the proposal it was not clear if such a thing as a Khmer Non
Governmental Organisation would be appropriate or even possible. Therefore the
options ranged from a local NGO to perhaps a team within the District Government.
The essence of the objective was that there would be a institutional structure that would
facilitate replication of the programme with Khmer ownership. Funding may well need to
come from external sources because replication is a social service, but that funding
could be North/South aid or perhaps from within the Government budget.

As the programme draws to a close, it seems that a Khmer NGO is a feasible option
and the staff have been discussing and working towards this for a number of years. In
the early years the subject was raised by the expatriates and some interest was shown
by the Khmer staff. After a period of cooling, where the expatriates did not push the
concept, the Khmer staff approached the expatriates and asked about the details of the
Khmer NGO. These were the first signs of true ownership. In the last two years detailed
discussions have been held by the staff to decide the form of the new institution, and to
decide on its basic structure.

Understandably there has been a range of ownership and understanding within the 26
Khmer staff. The proposal logical framework has as an indicator of achievement that "5
national staff undertaking management and animation in community meetings" and " a
national organisational structure in place for replication". This was intended to imply
that only 5 staff were really needed to have sufficient ownership of the new organisation.

Discussing ownership and corruption in

The programme has a budget of about 120,000 UK Pounds per year. Of this money,
the majority of it is spent on staffing. The programme is predominantly animation and its
physical benefits come from the self help responses of the villagers. Even so, about 15%
of the finance is used to start revolving funds within the villages. And a further sum is
used to facilitate experimentation and the formation of enterprises.

Since the village development committees (VDCs) are handling resources on behalf of
the village, the issue of corruption has been a constant discussion point. Social
accountability is said to help the VDC be responsible. All meetings with the VDC are
suppose to be public and anyone in the village can attend. The VDCs have an annual
workshop at which they put up drawings of what is in the revolving fund and how it is
growing. They are also animated to feed this information back to the villages in a full
village meeting.

In Cambodia, as in so many countries, it is very easy to impose an externally generated

agenda on rural people. Local government or an NGO can approach a village and
suggest a course of action that would improve the village. The project cycle often
means that a proposal written by an albeit informed but external person has already
documented what the donors money will be spent on. If the priorities of the village
community are for school buildings, and the NGO proposal is for water supplies, then
either the water supply is put in regardless (so that the NGO can fulfil its quota) or the
village have to approach another source of assistance (for the school). Even in credit
schemes it is very easy for the scheme to be owned and policed by the external agency,
and the villagers to merely be joining in with the NGO programme.

In ABCD a priority is the emphasis on the villages agenda. We want to help with what
they want to do. At the same time, villages have a general deference to the outsiders
which makes them want to follow whatever the NGO wants to do. There needs to be a
great emphasis on ownership by the village. To do this ABCD had a strategy of non-
policing at village level. The process was argued that if external people asked to see
the details of the credit fund, then there would be a perception that the credit fund
belonged to the agency and was merely "on loan" to the village. Accordingly, in order to
generate a sense of ownership by the village, ABCD staff were encouraged not to ask
for the details of the fund. They could animate other villagers to ask for details. There
was a great need for social accountability within the village, but the staff were not asked
to police the fund. They were asked to animate the villagers themselves to do their own

This at first sight can appear that the programme is being irresponsible with donor
money. However, the objectives of the programme were that the villagers take a
proactive response to their lives, that they take responsibility. Some of the best ways of
learning responsibility is to fail. When people are animated to see failure and to develop
their own response to it, the end result is often more powerful than if the people are
constrained by tight rules . To give an example, the village of Pomme Ville initially had
a corrupt VDC who installed handpumps only at one end of the village among their
friends and relatives, and stalled and delayed on further activity because of internal
squabbling. After about 3 years, the villagers realised that their village was far behind in
making the sort of improvements that other nearby villages had made. The villagers
forced the VDC to step down and appointed a new VDC. The village of Pomme Ville is
now one of the most dramatically visible transformations within ABCD. The current
VDC is more effective than some of the nearby villages. The end effect is more
powerful because of the prior failure.

Throughout the programme, the Khmer staff have been encouraged to discuss the
concepts of ownership and corruption as part of their training in animation.

Discussing corruption
Cambodia is a society that seems to accept standards of financial practice that would
be unacceptable to the majority of Western society. I am being careful with my words
since there are many times when corruption is found in European society. The
accepted norm regarding corruption is not necessarily the practice. In Cambodia
however, the practice of paying bribes is so common that people will discuss it, almost
with a fatalistic acceptance that this is how Khmer society is.

In training discussions on corruption, the Khmer staff voiced the opinion that it was
important that money designated to improve the life of the poor actually reach the poor.
They talked about it being unacceptable if the revolving fund was used solely for the
VDC and their immediate relatives.

Real life situations arose that were used as the basis for discussions. When a
Japanese NGO delivered bicycles to commune health personnel (a mixture of Govt
staff and volunteers), people were seen giving 10,000 Riel to the commune leader.
Was this acceptable? The points noted by the staff were that a) the commune leader
did not seem to ask for money, but the people gave it because it was an accepted norm,
b) the commune leaders salary is very low and he had given some time to the
arrangements for the bicycle distribution, c) it could be considered a thank you for the
arrangement, d) 10,000 was still cheap for a bicycle!
Here an interesting point is raised. When is a thank you gift a bribe and when is it a
thank you gift? Previous discussions by the author in Africa have noted that the
distinction between finance used to obtain a service to which one has no rights, and
finance used to speed up a service to which one has every right.

Another real life example discussed by the staff was the case of a village leader. He
was accused by a woman of raping her when alone in the fields with her. She reported
him to the police, and the police arrested him. Eventually he was freed when he agreed
to pay 400,000 Riel to the woman. She immediately handed over all the money to the
police, as she had promised them from the start. It turned out that she had a grievance
against the village leader (her cousin) and all the village believe she fabricated the rape
story. She has since had to leave the village.

She paid the money to the police to ensure their co-operation. In fact Khmer law says
that when a woman accuses a man of something, and there are only the two witnesses,
that the woman’s story should be believed. In practice........ the police will do what they
feel like doing and finance may adjust their feelings.

These are difficult scenarios. And I have purposely avoided trying to indicate any

Regarding false receipts among the staff. The staff presented their own case. An
exchange of dollars for gold (gold is used in the villagers as a medium for transactions).
Suppose, they hypothesised to the expatriates, that there are 5 gold sellers all of whom
are offering 1 chi of gold at 47 dollars. However, one seller offers at 45 dollars if the
staff member will always return to that seller. The receipt will be made out for 47 dollars
and the staff member can pocket the 2 dollar difference. Staff argued that the
organisation is not losing out, because the best price the organisation could get on the
open market is 47. They did not see this as corruption.

Some expatriates accepted this argument because it reflects things such as airmiles.
Globally companies try to induce employee to spend corporate money with them by
offering individual airmiles to the employee. So this would seem to be seen as a
marketing incentive rather than "corruption". Globally acceptable therefore acceptable?

The staff discussed these and related issues over many months, often without clear
conclusions. These discussions although not conclusive were considered empowering.
And the staff did seem to make clear conclusions on the opinion that it was important
that money designated to improve the life of the poor actually reach the poor.

Some very strange voting

Christian Outreach had not been corruption free. Since 1992, two administrators had
been dismissed. The first had filled a 70 gallon tank of petrol with 110 gallons. This was
while he was still on probation. The second had gradually taken about $4000 by forging
receipts from a garage. A phone conversation had alerted the expatriate administrator
to the fact.
But in late 1997 and early 1998, an interesting sequence of events occurred. The staff
were asked during a special workshop, to vote for the management committee of the
new NGO. The programme had 4 managers and it was decided that this should be
expanded to 5. In order to include the fifth person, each staff member was asked to
write 5 names on a piece of paper. The results caused some surprise among the
expatriates. The two with full votes, Jeff and Irene (names only for the purposes of this
paper), were unsurprising. However, one manager, Fred, who had been with the
programme almost from the start received only 20 out of a possible 25 unspoilt votes. A
young man, James, who had been a temporary manager while others were out the
country training, received equal votes. And the health manager, Janet, received only 16
votes, while another temporary manager, Charles, received 14. This demonstrated that
Fred did not have the unanimous support of the staff. There had been some comments
made against Fred during his tenure as manager, but the expatriates basically trusted

There were many ways to interpret the vote, but it was the first sign of open dissent
against Fred who alongside Jeff held the positions of greatest responsibility. They had
been with the programme the longest and they had received the training in the UK. It
was assumed by many that either Fred or Jeff would become the director of the new

Then came a time when it was necessary to vote for the directors position. This too was
a surprising vote. Jeff actively lobbied for staff note to vote for him. At the final vote,
Charles, was voted in as director. Although the full dynamics of the situation were
obviously not available to the expatriates, some expats interpreted the raising of
Charles to the directors position as a face saving exercise. he narrowly missed being
on the management committee, and it was seen that this was a way of including him.
The directors positions was said to be of two year tenure, and did not hold a veto vote
for strategic decisions, and therefore although he became the public face of the new
organisation his powers were effectively equal with any of the managers.

Revealing the corruption

Charles began to act as director in waiting, attending NGO forums, meeting donors,
learning new elements of reporting. As he did so he began to share with expatriates his
concern about whether he could do the job. The expatriates pointed out that it was his
humility and seriousness that made him actually the best qualified for the job.

Charles then dropped the bombshell. He felt he could not lead a new organisation into
being if there was so much corruption. His statements were supported in writing by
James. James spoke of the expatriates being in a dark cave and he wanted to bring
them a candle. The tone of the letter was accusatory, and there was more than a hint
that the expats knew about the corruption and were turning a blind eye. In reality, the
expatriates were not aware of the corruption.
An audit was commissioned. An accountant brought in who checked submitted receipts
against the merchants own records, and who looked at the VDCs record books,
comparing them to receipts submitted. The tracks were open and obvious. Receipts
would show 1000 items purchased, but only 500 were actually bought. Receipts would
show $500 handed over to villages but the village record book would show only $400.
The staff had not even been very subtle about it, and a clear picture was quickly

As the audit was commissioned, the programme leader explained the situation to the
staff. Referring vaguely to accusations, he explained that an audit would be undertaken.
He offered a grace period that if anyone wanted to confess their crimes before the audit
was finished, and pay the money back, then they could keep their job. During this
period some of the staff did just that, although they confessed to very small amounts.
The audit showed that they had taken larger amounts. Two managers did not confess

When the audit finished another meeting gave people a final opportunity to confess
their sins before action was taken. This time a piece of newsheet was put on the wall
and people had to write the amounts taken for everyone to view (and be willing to pay it
back). At the end of this meeting, two managers were unmoved and so were dismissed
on the basis of the audits results.

The corruption in question was not a question of "airmiles" or "thank yous’". There was
a deliberate attempt to defraud the organisation and the villagers. They took money that
was due to be used for village development and kept it for themselves. It is not clear
whether the villagers know this; probably not since they had written into their own
records the smaller amount. Judge against their own standards the staff had been
caught in deep corruption.

Making sense of it
So how can we view these events. There is a Khmer proverb:-

"Khmers are clever in making things spoil and disintegrate/"using things up". They are clever in causing
themselves personally to advance." "Khmer chlat kang roliey ohs; chlat kang rih’jomrahn kluen eyn."

At first sight this proverb is disturbingly negative. But it was the one quoted to the
expatriates after corruption among the staff had been discovered. They said they knew
it was destructive but it is the nature of Khmers to destroy.

Initially it was very disappointing to discover such hypocrisy within the staff. If we had
not been participatory, and had only lectured them on the evils of corruption, then there
might be some excuse for continuing in the social norm. But by their own mouths they
had set the guidelines. As one staff member pointed out, when the government workers
accept gifts, they have such a low salary that it is the only way to survive. But, they
went on to add, these managers were on very high salaries for Cambodia and have no
There was also a culture of fear and threats. Many of the letters accused one of the
managers of pressurising other staff to accept money. There was a story that when one
of the other managers wanted to not accept money, that the manager put sand in the
others Motorbike petrol tank to warn them.

So, there is no escape from the sad conclusion that the staff had compromised the
principles that they themselves had talked about in workshops. The culture of fear was
in direct conflict with the goal statement " an environment of loving relationships".
They had articulated the need for honesty and integrity to be part of the programme in
order for it to succeed, and yet they contradicted those statements by their actions.

Can we therefore conclude that they did not own those values, or own the programme?

A positive light
As part of its philosophy, the programme encourages the team staff not to talk about
problems but to talk about opportunities. While it is indeed disappointing that staff have
contradicted their "talk" by their "walk", these event s have provided an exciting
opportunity. Even as they stand at the current time, the recent events are a very strong
endorsement of the process of change embedded in the programme.

One must not lose sight of the fact that some of the staff challenged the social norm to
bring to light the corruption. They not only overcame their "Khmer" understanding of
how the world works but they also overcame localised social pressure. This was a work
situation where key managers were encouraging everyone to accept kickbacks. A
number of staff wrote letters to the expatriates which expressed a hope and concern for
the future. This forward thinking shows an unusual insight, great bravery and an
ownership of the programme objectives and , its core values.

After the solving this problem, the staff that took that initiative are in a very strong
position of ownership for the values of the future replicating programme, for the new
local NGO and for the process of tackling social ills in Cambodia. The new NGO will
have as its director someone who has experienced the pain of tackling corruption, and
who hopefully will be able to work with villages on such issues. It will be staffed by a
few people who have examined their working practices and made a pledge to improve
them. In this sense, the exposure of the corruption and the dismissal of staff can be
seen in the positive light of those who remain, who have faced a difficult social issue
and learnt from the experience.

With hindsight....
Have the staff learnt? Only time will tell. More important for this reflection is the
question "What can we learn from these events?"

Should there have been an annual audit of the staff’s receipts? In a trust situation such
an annual audit is not the normal business practice. In the UK, the VAT man comes
every three years and exercises the right to a random audit of receipts of businesses.
The department of Internal Revenue audit only if they believe there is a problem. The
organisations accountant checks and organises receipts to prepare end of year
accounts. The accountant is looking to balance the books and to balance budget
against expenditure. It is not normal practice to randomly phone suppliers and check
that the receipts are true.

But given the propensity for deceipt that there is in Khmer culture, should an audit have
been built into the system?

As one of the architects of the programme, I have asked myself if I should have
instituted an annual audit. I have found two reasons why I would not, even with

The first concerns the normal corruption practice in Cambodia. As I understand it the
norm is to make a deal with the merchant. If somethings costs 600, then a deal is
struck to write the receipt for 800 and the person buying on behalf of an organisation
gets one hundred while the merchant makes some extra profit. In this case a random
audit interviewing the merchants would not expose the deceit. The audit merely says to
the Khmer staff that the organisation does not trust them, with very little hope of finding
the truth. It is true that the audit as carried out, did indeed reveal the corruption, but I
would suggest that the staff would soon find a way around the audit unless it itself
became ever increasingly complex.

Secondly, the idea of an audit is control of people by rule and authority. This rarely if
ever works in the long term. It creates a dependency as a child upon a parent. While it
is true that a period of rule can provide a safe environment for personal development
(as evidenced by parents with young children) - there must come a time when the rules
relax and personal responsibility becomes the guiding force. The heart of the ABCD
programme is to create an environment of personal responbility. To encourage the
villagers to consider their problems and to take their own steps to find a solution. If the
staff are going to encourage the villagers to be personally responsible for the
development funds then they too must have a sense of responsibility.

The counter argument is that the staff are not socially accountable to their "neighbours",
that in fact the village development committee do have an annual audit (in that they
present the status of the funds to the village), and that in the early stages of the
programme a safe environment was required to help the staff to grow in moral and
personal responsibility.

I have said above that I personally would not commission an annual audit. That my
hope was, and remains, that the trainings and mentoring given to the staff would
encourage a set of values that were sustainable in the long term and were consistent
with global standards of financial accountability.

What remains
There is an interesting opportunity presented in the ABCD staff at the exposure of the
corruption. Some of the staff have shown responsibility by challenging the social norm.
They have adopted moral insights not commonly found in their traditional culture, and
they have turned their reflections into action. Others on the staff have seen a process
where a wrong action has been challenged by people of equivalent social standing and
where leaders have been challenged and as a result have lost their leadership. The
have experienced the strength of public accountability and a grace period for
confession and restitution. There is the potential that they may learn from this
experience and accept greater social responsibility.