Notes from the Field

Cambodia’s First Forum for Development Ideas

October 20, 2010

In the enormous hotel conference room early the morning of September 21, I couldn’t help but be ecstatic – hotel staff had been frantically adding chairs right up to when we were to start – and by then almost 500 people from civil society, government, the donor community, along with students from a dozen colleges and universities around Phnom Penh, had crowded into the room.

Cambodia's first forum for development ideas

Almost 500 people participated in Cambodia's first "Forum for Development Ideas."

They were there for the very first “Forum for Development Ideas.” At the opening session, we had just heard a moving rendition of Cambodia’s national anthem sung by a local choir – a pleasant and unusual change from the standard recorded version – and all were seated and waiting for the opening address by H.E. Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, Cambodia’s Minister of Interior. His speech launched the Forum for Development Ideas (DI Forum), and marked an important milestone in the Demand for Good Governance Project (DFGG) that began in 2009 with funding from the World Bank.

After enduring the devastation of the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia has made remarkable progress over the past 30 years. Key indicators of human welfare have improved steadily, and more than a decade of 7+ percent growth, along with dramatic increases in foreign investment, have helped to deliver increasing prosperity. Significant challenges remain, however, and improving the quality and effectiveness of governance is central to Cambodia’s long-term growth and development.

The DFGG project aims to foster citizen demand for good governance by enabling increased citizen participation in the public sphere and strengthening the ability of citizens and civil society to hold the state accountable. Building on the government’s reform strategy, DFGG provides an opportunity to promote constructive engagement and new models for partnership between citizens and government by introducing and testing new tools and approaches, such as citizen reports cards, alternative dispute resolution, citizen monitoring committees, and innovative media programming that enable citizens to engage more effectively with government. One of the most important missions of the DI Forum, and the DFGG project, is to inspire new thinking and creative responses to the challenges of building more transparency and accountability in Cambodia. With 60 percent of its population under 24 years old, Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in Asia. It will be this young generation leading the country into the future, so it was rewarding to see so many of them engaged in trying out new ideas.

Over the course of the project, $3.5 million worth of grants will be made to civil society organizations across Cambodia. Recipients include large organizations working in multiple provinces, and small grassroots groups focusing on local issues. Grant applicants and recipients of earlier small grants work in at least 20 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces, and include regional networks, youth groups, and media organizations building the capacity of investigative journalists and the awareness of local communities about key issues. DFGG partners are actively developing approaches that promote access to information, respond to or monitor government action, mediate engagement between the state and citizens, and support new partnerships between state and non-state institutions at the national, provincial, and local levels. For example, grantees in three provinces have provided citizen feedback on commune development plans, and citizen monitoring has enabled groups in communes from four provinces to provide user data on health centers to local governments who are searching for ways to improve community health care services.

One of the most interesting aspects of the DFGG project is the competitive process for selecting grantees. Grant applications are received by The Asia Foundation’s secretariat, who ensures that the applications are complete and meet the project’s eligibility criteria. The applications are then submitted to the project’s independent grant-making committee (GMC) for their review and decision. The GMC is made up of eight civil society representatives and three government representatives who were selected by a search committee composed of representatives from the Royal Government of Cambodia, the World Bank, The Asia Foundation, and Cambodian civil society. These governance and social accountability experts review and rate applications, and meet to decide which applicants will be funded by DFGG. Periodic, small grant rounds provide funding up to $15,000 for focused projects lasting 6-12 months, while the medium and large grants funded through the DI Forum provide up to $150,000 for up to two years.

The two-day DI Forum hosted by The Asia Foundation and Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior highlighted success stories from the first round of grant recipients and provided learning and networking opportunities for organizations working on governance and social accountability. The participants joined plenary sessions on local government reform and civil society engagement and participated in practical workshops. One participant from an applicant NGO was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with her peers from other organizations and learn from their presentations on civil society engagement with local governments. One student volunteer from the Youth Resource Development Program, who worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for two days straight, asked me to be sure that we invite him to volunteer again at the next DI Forum.

The heart of the DI Forum was the NGO exhibition, which showcased the 33 short-listed applicants (out of 120 applicants) of the medium and large grants competition. Each applicant set up a booth where they presented their project designs and their successes in related projects.

Cambodia's development forum

The heart of the development forum was the NGO exhibition, which featured booths where grant applicants presented their project ideas.

Some booths used videos to tell their stories, others used creative diagrams to explain how local governments interact with citizens, while others displayed local handicrafts and agricultural products. While the seminars and presentations helped make the DI Forum a learning experience for participants, the NGO exhibition was the primary platform for networking, allowing finalists to share ideas and approaches with each other and discuss issues and experiences of mutual benefit. The DI Forum also presented a unique professional development opportunity for university students to meet with civil society practitioners and learn more about the nonprofit sector. Hundreds of participants marched through the halls, and none of the exhibitors had any promotional materials to transport home after the forum was done.

The DI Forum also served as a critical part of the grant review process. During the Forum, each applicant was interviewed by members of the grant-making committee, and the interviews will be key factors in the final selection process. To promote transparency and information sharing, the DI Forum was open to all development stakeholders, including government officials, civil society organizations, development partners, and members of the general public, providing all an opportunity to browse the booth displays, talk with short-listed candidates, and share their own ideas.

One of the best things about the DI Forum was the energy that the younger participants brought to the halls. More than 150 university students joined the conference, and 75 volunteers from the Youth Resource Development Program helped set up booths, shepherd attendees from workshop to workshop, and keep things running smoothly. Given that it will be these young people leading the country into the future, it was fitting and reassuring that they were so eager to make a meaningful contribution to building more transparent and accountable governance in Cambodia. And from what I saw at the DI Forum, this generation is ready.

Gavin Tritt is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at gtritt@asiafound.org.

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