Eak Yuthea Reak went to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Friday clutching a small piece of paper inscribed with seven names. He was there to collect the national exam results of a group of friends who couldn’t bear the stress of finding out their scores in person.
Although only two low-ranking government officials have been disciplined over a massive World Food Program rice fraud between 2003 and 2004, a WFP official said Monday that the UN organization was defrauded during that period in every province where Food for Work programs operated.
Rice was stolen “[in] all the areas we were working in,” spanning 12 provinces, Ramaraj Saravanamuttu, the WFP’s acting country representative, said Monday.
The WFP announced Friday that 15 Cambodian WFP monitors have lost their jobs for failing to report the fraud, and that on March 29 the government paid back its first $300,000 installment of the $900,000 it has agreed to compensate the organization for the stolen rice.
According to Saravanamuttu, the fraud involved provincial or district level officials, though he did not state how many, from the Ministry of Rural Development, and the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, as well as other ministries.
The fraud was perpetrated by government officials who were entrusted to identify roads and canals to the WFP that they said needed to be built or repaired.
The officials, however, were discovered to have been involved in the systematic exaggeration of the amount of work that was needed. The names of “ghost workers” were also presented to the WFP for rice in payment for work that they had not been involved in, Saravanamuttu said.
Roads were repaired, but not always to WFP’s specifications—allowing corrupt officials to cut workloads but order large allocations of rice. Surplus rice ordered for ‘ghost workers’ was sold on the private market.
Saravanamuttu said WFP believes the widespread fraud only took place in 2003 and 2004, although the UN organization cannot be certain.
“It’s very difficult to speculate about what happened before,” Saravanamuttu said.
Two low-ranking officials in Svay Rieng province have been disciplined for their involvement in the fraud but continue to work for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, Secretary of State Veng Sokhon said Friday.
Try Meng, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development said Monday that “several” officials from the ministry who were involved have had their posts changed and responsibilities reduced.
“Provincial people work closely with rice. The ministry is only involved with paperwork,” Try Meng said.
Keo Sothea, an undersecretary of state at the Rural Development Ministry, said on Monday he would head an investigation.
“We want to start to investigate from the high level to the low level,” he said. “The scam involved several departments inside the ministry.”
Sean Visoth, head of an anti-corruption unit at the Council of Ministers which is investigating the role of officials in the rice fraud, said he was too busy to discuss the investigation on Monday.
WFP has revised its operations in the wake of the scandal, and hopes to restart the Food for Work program in May.
Independent private engineers will now survey the programs, and there will be more community involvement to try and increase transparency, Saravanamuttu said.
Saravanamuttu said there is a precedent of similar fraud being committed against WFP in Guatemala in recent years, but it appears to have been less widespread and systematic than in Cambodia.
Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development said top ministry officials should be held accountable for what happened on their watch, and be removed from their positions.
Officials found to be actively involved should face legal action as well as dismissal, he said.
“This leniency has been breeding corruption,” he said. “Now we are corrupting these [international] agencies.”
“It’s not only a question of law, but also morals. The food is meant for the poor,” he added.
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