Voluntary Income and Asset Declaration Online – the case of Cambodia

Open submission by Mears Samnang Kuy, Accountability Cambodia

Summary

In a powerful case study, a newly established civil society organisation (CSO) with few resources is leading one of the most sensitive reforms to promote integrity in CSOs and the public sector. Foreign aid has played an important role in enhancing public services and improving the livelihoods of poor people in developing countries. However, the perspectives of beneficiaries have not received the attention they deserve. Corruption does not discriminate between public, private and civil society sectors. Donors have struggled with corruption in the public sector, and they have tried to pour foreign aid into CSOs in the hope that they can improve aid effectiveness and efficiency; however, there has also been some corruption under CSO banners. The current CSO management system has limitations when it comes to holding CSO leaders to account. This is a reason that an innovative voluntary income and asset declaration online (VIADO) system has been introduced for CSOs, which empowers community members to check the wealth of CSO leaders who join this programme, and whether they have illegally enriched themselves, or have a conflict of interest in their leadership. They can then report it on social media. It is expected that CSO leaders will maintain their integrity through annually updating their income and declaring their assets online as a model for politicians and government leaders. This requires a wide range of stakeholder collaboration, especially for donors to demand that CSO leaders demonstrate integrity as part of funding conditions. As a result, the level of corruption will be reduced significantly, which then enhances the livelihoods of the poor and makes more funding reach them.

What can we learn from VIADO?

How can we make a reform which could address hundreds of problems in a country such as Cambodia, including massive abuse of powers in public institutions; nepotism that is common in the public and private sector, CSOs and political parties; corruption that exists in almost every corner of society; a police and military that are forces that protect the greedy and rich and powerful officials; public positions, judges and prosecutors that can be bought; and CSOs that may play a role in complimenting the state or criticising it in exchange for funding, with officials and leaders who may commit corruption when they have an opportunity to do so?

Donors that have collaborated with the government in reform have spent millions of dollars annually in the last 20 years and tried to build the capacity of government officials in the legislative, executive and judicial branches; created laws and policies; encouraged decentralisation and deconcentration; and increased government wages. What are the results? Corruption and nepotism are still widespread in the public and private sectors and in CSOs. An Anti-Corruption Law was established, but it only required a closed asset declaration, which is criticised as insufficient to fight corruption.

While there are many proposed solutions that have limited results, I propose a complementary solution of Voluntary Income and Asset Declaration Online (VIADO) in CSOs to control corruption and temptation. It is a system to build integrity in order to address these problems. All problems are closely linked to human greed, which infects and undermines public institutions that lack a strict system to limit the opportunities for corruption. Since the Cambodian context is different from that of the USA, European Union and South Korea, because of the leaders’ lack of will, the proposed solution on income and asset declaration (IAD) should take a different starting point than in those successful nations. The main purpose of this innovation is that any leaders who want to lead public institutions and CSOs in Cambodia should have to meet at least one condition: to show their integrity through VIADO. This will empower citizens, who are the owners of the country, to have the power to check the integrity of political candidates and CSO leaders before, during and after their leadership. We want to make sure that those leaders have very limited opportunity to commit corruption; instead, we want to encourage those who want to address social, economic and political problems.

Accountability Cambodia (AC) is a CSO that has collaborated with eight CSO partners to arrange a conference on VIADO of CSO officials and leaders to improve aid effectiveness and efficiency in Cambodia. There were 28 participants, including representatives of USAID, ActionAid Cambodia and Heifer International Cambodia, as well as an assembly member, a union, staff and leaders of local CSOs, local media and students. We distributed a survey to the participants containing four questions. The results were as follows:

  • 100% of respondents said that they wanted CSO leaders and officials to do VIADO to show the integrity of their leadership.
  • 100% of respondents said that they wanted to see students join in the VIADO programme in order to demonstrate their integrity before they become leaders in the future.
  • 100% of respondents said that they wanted to see donors include VIADO compliance in funding conditions to ensure aid transparency and effectiveness.
  • 100% of respondents said that they wanted to see political parties implement VIADO before they become leaders.

Since AC launched this initiative, there are increasing demands of integrity among students, CSOs and political parties. Many students, CSO officials and leaders joined the VIADO programme. Moreover, members of three opposition parties and elected officials of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), and the leader of the Khmer Power Party (KPP) have practised it.

However, VIADO is a soft mechanism to encourage citizens and CSO officials and leaders to declare income and assets voluntarily online. It faces three main challenges. First, it does not have an official verification system to check the wealth of officials who complete a VIADO declaration; it does not check whether the information on the VIADO form corresponds with the actual information. For example, the VIADO initiative does not check whether an amount of money in the bank account is the same a person states on the VIADO form. However, we encourage individuals to update their information annually and post online. Second, VIADO could lack support from leaders of CSOs and the government because some of them may enjoy the opportunities to commit corruption while others may be concerned with personal security. Third, donors may hesitate to include VIADO in their funding conditions to ensure aid effectiveness and transparency. Many donors may think that their current management mechanisms are good enough to control corruption. This is a reason that they may not see the need for additional criteria in their funding conditions. 

Recommendations

  • The most powerful reform is initiated by every institution. CSOs should promote their integrity through practising VIADO as a model of integrity towards politicians. 
  • Donors should embed VIADO in funding conditions before releasing funds to CSOs.