Notes from the Field

Study Examines Voice, Choice, and Decision in Cambodia

May 16, 2012

On June 3, Cambodians will vote for the third time since 2002 to select their local representatives, or commune councilors. This is a crucial part of the long-term process of decentralizing governance and enabling citizens to play a greater role in decision-making. Cambodia has traditionally been highly centralized, but over more than a decade, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), with the support of donors, such as the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), has worked to develop capable local government institutions that can bring local government decision-makers closer to citizens and promote more responsive and inclusive governance in the long term.

Women relax at home in Cambodia

A series of reforms in Cambodia have helped to decentralize decision-making, however, citizens still struggle to have their voices heard in local development planning. Photo by Karl Grobl.

A series of reforms since 2001, including the development of a basic intergovernmental fiscal transfer system, direct elections of commune/sangkat councils in 2002 and 2007, the passage of core enabling legislation in 2008, and the indirect election of district and provincial councils in 2009, has provided a legal and policy framework for sub-national democratic development. The next critical stage of reform in Cambodia was launched with the adoption of the National Program for Sub-National Democratic Development (NP-SNDD) 2010-2019 in May 2010, and the issuance of the first three-year Implementation Plan (IP3) in 2011.

Decentralization reforms have the potential to enhance democratization and development, but significant governance challenges remain in Cambodia. Citizen voice in local development planning and participation in oversight of publicly funded projects remains weak. Competition between elected councils and local administrators nominated by the central government limits downward accountability. Various aspects of local governance policy and practice can lead to ineffective allocation of the limited resources controlled by decision-makers, and restrict their ability to effectively monitor government spending and project implementation.

To respond to these challenges, policy and practice at the commune level need to ensure that funding and administrative decisions by local authorities reflect community needs and priorities, and thus are built on a solid foundation of participatory planning and community oversight. Government decision-makers and development agencies working together to move forward the process of decentralization need a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges presented from the current system, including an analysis of the influence of formal and informal institutions, central government pressures, relationships between political and administrative structures, and how these might be evolving within changing political and policy contexts and social structures.

To identify and analyze the range of formal and informal institutions that enable and constrain participation and decision-making around the local development fund mechanism, The Asia Foundation undertook a just-released study designed and funded by the World Bank on “Voice, Choice, and Decision: A Study of Local Governance Processes in Cambodia.” The Foundation’s multi-national research team was led by Joakim Öjendal from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and included Robin Biddulph, Mehr Latif, Min Muny, Pak Kimchoeun, and Duong Viroth.

The study focuses on the dynamics of decision-making, participation, and accountability at the commune level. Cambodia’s 1,621 communes represent the most basic level of governance in the country, and elected commune councilors play important roles through their leadership in local development planning and expenditure, as well as selection of village chiefs and district and provincial councilors. One of the core responsibilities of the commune council is to determine the use of the commune/sangkat fund (CSF) (the main intergovernmental transfer mechanism for financing the administrative and development expenditures of the commune councils) and supervise the implementation of funded projects. In the first stage of the study, the research team analyzed how the CSF has been used over the last decade in a sample of 36 communes, and the relationship between these decisions and community preferences expressed through formal participatory processes. In the second, and primary stage of the study, the research team engaged in intensive fieldwork in 12 communes, where they interviewed a broad range of local officials, community members, and other stakeholders to assess the dynamics around decision-making, voice and participation, and accountability.

In reviewing decision-making by commune councils, the study examines how communes determine the allocation of their modest commune development funds, how they undertake appointment of village chiefs and administrative clerks, and how they address critical non-financial matters, such as natural resource management conflicts in their communities. The researchers concluded that a number of factors affect decision-making in the communes studied, including formal policies and guidelines issued by national authorities, the influence of “higher level” actors, and parallel party structures from the national to the grass roots level.

The second crucial area addressed in the study is how citizens exert influence over commune decision-making, both through formally-designed participatory processes and through other informal and representative mechanisms. Among the findings, the researchers concluded that although formal participatory mechanisms are carried out as prescribed, with a concerted effort by commune administrations to follow procedures, these formal processes have limited value as effective, empowering participatory processes for citizen engagement in local development. In one village in Battambang, for example, the village chief told the research team how frustrated his villagers had become with attending meetings from which they received no benefit.

The dynamics around downward accountability to citizens as well as horizontal accountability relationships (commune clerks to commune councils) are also explored in depth within the study. One interesting finding is that local contributions to development projects have triggered stronger accountability relations. In nine of the 12 case study communes, for example, there is some form of active monitoring of locally funded projects, and commune councils attempt to hold contractors responsible for their performance. In some cases, regular local monitoring has been key to ensuring that standards have been met and that the authorization of payments was not a source of local controversy. In one commune in Battambang, for example, in order to justify the community contribution and account for how it was used, village chiefs kept detailed notebooks and reported at village meetings on the amount collected before delivering the funds to the commune council. In two cases in Kampong Cham, the mismanagement of local contributions led to citizen protests and ultimately to the removal of village chiefs.

Detailed presentation of findings on these issues, including illustrative examples from extensive field interviews conducted by the researchers, as well as conclusions about the lessons that can be drawn and recommendations for policy and future research, can be found in the full report online.

As Cambodians vote for their commune council representatives next week, and the government and its development partners continue to develop and implement the next stage of local governance reforms, we hope that the findings in this report help enhance understanding of local development issues and contribute to bringing greater voice to citizens in their communities.

Gavin Tritt is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia and co-editor of the report “Voice, Choice, and Decision: A Study of Local Governance Processes in Cambodia.” He can be reached at gtritt@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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