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Clean hands and criticism for Pact plan at BBAC

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

A tough crowd greeted special guest speaker at last week's British Business Association of Cambodia (BBAC), Aaron Bornstein. The Chief of Party for the Mainstreaming Anti-Corruption for Equity (MAE) Project, which is overseen by the anti-corruption non-government organization Pact Cambodia, was there to introduce the 'Clean Hands - Clean Business' project to BBAC members.

The USAID-funded MAE project includes a number of activities include increasing public awareness on issues related to corruption through the "Clean Hands" campaign, assisting the Royal Government of Cambodia in the drafting of the Anti-Corruption Law and related laws, and, it claims, training journalists in investigative reporting techniques through its partner, Internews.

Aaron's experience includes running private sector and other international development projects for the last twenty four years and he holds a Masters Degree in International Economics and International Development from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has been in Cambodia since February.

The Clean Hands presentation focused on 10 points which businesses who wanted to advertise their participation should adhere to. Its symbol, a white hand held up in a stop motion, was recognized by 75 percent of people surveyed by Indochina Research in a recent poll, Aaron added. The 10 points are;

1. We treat our workers with dignity and respect

2. We treat our clients and customers fairly, providing respect and customer service

3. We treat our suppliers fairly, and expect fair treatment by them in return

4. We provide accurate receipts and documentation of transactions to our customers and clients

5. We are against unfair competition

6. We are for open and transparent public procurement processes

7. We respect the government's legitimate role in taxing and regulating our business

8. We reject demands for illegal payments (bribes) and unnecessary inspections

9. We support government's efforts to simplify bureaucratic steps to register and operate a business as well as efforts to publish and disseminate relevant laws and regulations

10. We support government's efforts to engage in a dialogue with the private sector to solve business problems and we are willing to join this dialogue.

Aaron made a few comments about trying to include local businesses but hoping that foreign-owned businesses would lead by example in joining. Acleda Bank, he announced, had agreed to become the first member.

Then he turned it over for questions and comments, and the floodgates opened as seasoned Cambodia-hands, perhaps just slightly emboldened by the free flow of wine and beer, told him in various ways that for various reasons it was unworkable in its current form.

"It's a good start," one businessman said kindly. "It may need a little work."

Another was more forthright. "You are assuming that the government sees things the same way as you do, and is willing to change to achieve your aims. It is not," one European member fumed. "I can say now I will NEVER join this idea." He also expressed indignation that the very notion of corruption had been put to his company, and expressed doubts that putting a sign on his door announcing he was not corrupt could actually be good for business.

"He's talking to the wrong people," another muttered.

Someone also had doubts about yet another slogan to be adopted by business-not because the outstretched white hand that was the symbol of the Clean Hands campaign was not a good one, but because there was a limit to how many causes' customers could take in and assimilate.

"We already have Childsafe and Heritage Watch," they said. "Maybe I should just adopt a clenched white fist with the middle finger pointed skywards and send a clear message to everyone all at once?"

"Why are you targeting businesses? I hope you are allowing NGOs to join too-some of them really need to read this list," another cynic asked.

And then from the Acleda table came a very pertinent question; how do you hope to have these measures adopted when salaries for public servants, including police, hover around 25 dollars a month? Can average Cambodians in administrative positions actually afford not to be corrupt, in the Western sense of the word at least?

Aaron accepted the criticism in good humor, vowing to take it all on board before continuing his circuit of business associations and organizations, and the meeting ended as people began to rush next door to the QBar for what was billed as the final night of performances by the Asian Tom Jones.

BBAC members were too late to grab the prime seats, however. These were already occupied by some of the nation's most brilliant movers and shakers, including key architect of Cambodia's World Trade Organization accession, His Excellency Sok Siphana, and other dignitaries. Blissfully unaware of Aaron's presentation next door, they were already swaying happily to a spirited cover of the Jones' classic, Sex Bomb. "I told you he was talking to the wrong people," one of Aaron's most strident critics of the night muttered again.


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