Development work can be politically effective even in an autocratic country. A Cambodian NGO has demonstrated this by educating citizens about their legal rights and thus combating poverty in the Southeast Asian country.
Can one do meaningful development work in a de facto one-party state? Can one take initiatives to strengthen social and citizen participation as well as individual rights? It is possible, although it is not always easy, say Socheat Lam of the Advocacy and Policy Institute (API), a Cambodian non-governmental organization, and Jan Noorlander, the program director of CARE, Cambodia.
Lam was in the German city of Bonn on Tuesday, November 27, to receive an award on behalf of API for its work with CARE Germany. The award was also given by CARE.
API has been widely recognized for its contribution to strengthening civil rights in the Southeast Asian country. Apart from other activities, it also focuses on raising awareness about citizens' rights in relation to state benefits, Lam told DW.
"In the past ten years, people have paid arbitrary transaction fees, for example. API works with the community and government to ensure transparency so that people pay less or nothing at all to access basic public services," Lam underlined.
"This is a major improvement for people who earn only a few dollars per day, who, in the past, paid 10 to 20 dollars for several public services," he added.
Right to state services
In other words, poverty can be alleviated by educating citizens about their legal rights and claims. Development organizations use the term "social accountability" to describe it.
CARE's Noorlander explains the project in detail — what the term "social accountability" means and how people's attitudes can be changed. "People now feel much more comfortable expressing their grievances than in the past. For instance, a man wants to have a doctor available for 24 hours a day when his wife is delivering a baby, but there is no doctor available. Another example: Kids go to school but the teachers are absent half of the time."
"So people now can complain, but that can pose a challenge to the government that wants to control everything and doesn't want to hear citizens' voices too often," Noorlander told DW.
CARE and API said they are working together with the Cambodian government on these issues. However, the space for citizens' mobilization and participation in local politics is decreasing, despite the government's claims of decentralization.
In the July election, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, managed to further consolidate his position by eliminating the opposition in parliament and clamping down on civil society.
Read more: Cambodia further drifts away from democracy
The government's desire to control everything has become stronger, Noorlander said. The activist added that a new NGO law, which came into force a few years ago, is in itself not an exception, as there are certain rules for NGOs in the West too. "But for NGOs, implementing their work in Cambodia has become very difficult and expensive, and the bureaucratic hurdles are many," he noted.
Every CARE-API project report, for instance, must now go through the desk of a government office before it can be published, he said.
A tricky subject
"We face a lot of challenges at the grassroots level in promoting a democratic dialogue and discussions. But we still try to raise awareness on the issue, albeit it is a very sensitive topic in the country," Noorlander explained.
"Social accountability work allows us to reach out to the government also. We can deal with sensitive issues by complementing them with less sensitive ones," said Lam.
Yet, there are many challenges in promoting democratic debates and practices at a local level in Cambodia, admitted Lam.
In October, the European Commission threatened to withdraw Cambodia from a preferential treatment agreement on duty-free goods, called Everything But Arms (EBA), if Cambodian authorities did not take measures to improve democracy and human rights in their country.
EU action would hit the poor first
Noorlander cautiously welcomes the EU stance. "We applaud that the EU speaks out against what happened in the run-up to the July polls. The dissolution of the opposition party is unacceptable and the EU has been very clear about it," he said.
"At the same time, we have pointed out to the EU that some 800,000 people working in the garment industry — 80 percent of which are young women — would be affected (by calling off the EBA). The potential withdrawal of the EBA would directly affect the livelihood of these women. If they lose their jobs, they will have to look for other professions and may end up becoming prostitutes," the Cambodian expert said.
"I think the EU is aware of the issue and acknowledges the dilemma," he added.
Lam also hopes the EU will not act upon its threat because the measure would first and foremost hit the poor sections of society.
As for the greater development in Cambodia, both experts believe the Southeast Asian country's youth can play a big role in it. They point out that Cambodia's youth have not experienced the Khmer Rouge atrocities and the subsequent political turmoil that lasted until 1998, and that is why they have not internalized the strategy of "survival through silence." Both agree that young people in Cambodia have a different world outlook and will not allow the authorities to suppress their democratic rights.