How Did So Much Manage to Buy So Little?
by Stan Starygin
With a financial crisis looming over the tribunal, it is time we asked the question of why it is happening and why the so-called “Cambodian side” of the tribunal is about to go in crisis mode on salary payments.
UNDP, in its audit about half a year ago, scratched the surface on the issue of hiring, salaries and raises of the staff employed by the Cambodian side of the tribunal. As the UN did not probe into the nature of financial allocations and subsequent raises, it questioned whether such raises were warranted in the first place and, of so, what the Cambodian government’s rationale for these raises was. In its response at the time the tribunal stumbled through the answers and, in my opinion, failed to provide solid rationale for such financial activism.
Raises aside – although they deepened the dent in the Cambodian government’s tribunal budget – it makes one wonder why the salaries of the Cambodian tribunal staff are as high as they are. Let’s unpack this a little. It is a well-known fact that civil society salaries in Cambodia are far higher than anywhere else in the economically comparable countries of the region. Some argue that it is only fair to pay Cambodian staff at least a portion of the salaries of their international colleagues. Fairness has nothing to do with that. The sky-high salaries – compared to Cambodia’s level of economic development – were introduced by the UN in the early 1990s and drove the salaries of the few international NGOs which at the time operated in Cambodia. This resulted in Cambodia being, perhaps, the only place in the world I have ever worked in where so-called ‘professional interpreters’ ask for $250 a day in exchange for a few hours of broken English that the customers often end up failing to understand in full. High as they are, salaries in Cambodia’s internationally-funded civil society are a far cry from the new rung on the salary ladder added by the tribunal.
Why did the tribunal decide to pay such inflated salaries? What was the justification for spending such a significant portion of what was hailed to be a shoestring budget from the outset? The Cambodian side of the tribunal argued that salaries had to be that high because of the yawning gap between the salaries of the tribunal’s international employees and those hired by the Cambodian government. The Cambodian side of the tribunal never got around to explaining exactly for what reason the salaries of one group had to approximate the salaries of the other besides, perhaps, arguing that officers of the court would feel that it was unfair for the Cambodian side to get less. No one asked one important question, “why did the Cambodian side deserve the same salaries?” This is not a racist argument, this is an argument of qualifications, the quality of the vetting process and the size of the pool from which the two sides had to draw candidates. Let’s compare some of the variables: (1) qualifications required for UN recruitment are incomparably higher than those at the national level in Cambodia, (2) there were no allegations of backdoor dealing in UN recruitment which were raised and never investigated in Cambodian government recruitment, (3) the pool of candidates the UN could draw from was literally the entire world, the pool on the Cambodian side was a poorly educated nation of 14 million. Why should the salaries be the same if the requirements for employment are not the same? Isn’t the idea of remuneration grounded in offering higher salaries to those with superior qualifications and lower salaries to those with inferior ones? The other widely circulated argument was that the Cambodian side of the tribunal would not be able to find personnel to staff its offices, if salaries were any lower. This argument is untenable too. There are plenty of Cambodian professionals working for NGOs for less than $1,000 a month and who would be happy to offer their services to the tribunal, if given a chance, for even less than their current salaries but for a chance to work in an internationalized court.
Many other options of paying lower, but still fair, salaries could have been explored but weren’t. Why? Is it normal practice in Cambodia’s civil society to offer candidates much higher salaries than organizational budgets can sustain? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. In all other projects, organizations sometimes return unspent monies to the donor, rather than asking for more to cover shortfalls. The tribunal’s philosophy was, why don’t we get the ball rolling and then money will come pouring right in! Guess what, it didn’t.