Marwaan Macan-Markar

Cambodian lawmakers are still to offer unanimous support for a petition aimed at combating corruption that was presented to the National Assembly in mid-May. The call was a cry from ordinary people — over a million of them. Leading this grassroots movement was a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) that have been fighting graft that plagues every level of this Southeast Asian nation. By May, the activists had gotten some 1.1 million signatures out of a population of 14.2 million to support a drive to bring local anti-corruption laws on par with international standards.

There was a lot of awareness raised, with many public meetings during the signature campaign, which ran from Nov. till Apr. 2008, says Aaron Bornstein, head of the Cambodia office of the Mainstreaming Anti-Corruption for Equity (MAE) Project, which is funded by the development arm of the US government. “The campaign was conducted in 19 out of the country’s 20 provinces. There was urban and rural support.”

“The coalition is intent on getting all political parties in the country to commit to supporting the petition before the end of the calendar year,” Bornstein said during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. “This revealed greater public awareness that even ordinary people can play a role in battling corruption. Supporters of the petition were saying, ‘enough is enough’.”

As a new report by the UNDP confirms, Cambodia’s groundswell of anger against corruption at the grassroots level is also evident in other corners of Asia, where people are forced to pay bribes to get basic services such as health care, education, water and sanitation — in addition to bribing the police and members of the judiciary.

Like in Cambodia, sections of the public have mounted innovative efforts to take on those who are abusing power. In Nepal, an anti-corruption CSO has tapped the power of community radio to “encourage anti-corruption activities,” states the UNDP report, ‘Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives - Accelerating Human Development in Asia and the Pacific’.

In the Philippines, “roadwatching” has become an anti-graft activity, where adults and schoolchildren have learnt “valuable lesson about citizens power and good governance” by paying attention to road construction, adds the 233-page report. “[This group] monitors road-building — examining the original plans then sending young people out into the field to discover what, if anything, was actually built, and if so, how well it was constructed.”

“People across the Asia-Pacific region are becoming increasingly concerned about corruption, and governments are starting to react,” notes the report, the first of its kind published by the UN agency. Hauling the rich and powerful before the courts may grab the headlines, but the poor will benefit more from efforts to eliminate corruption that plagues their everyday lives.

That message, in fact, was driven home by Transparency International (TI), a global anti-graft watchdog, last year. “The poor, whether in developing or highly industrialised countries, are the most penalised by corruption,” revealed TI’s ‘Global Corruption Barometer 2007’.

“About one in 10 people around the world had to pay a bribe in the past year; reported bribery has increased in Asia-Pacific and South East Europe.”