Where Decentralisation Meets Democracy: Civil Society, Local Government, and Accountability in Cambodia
Cambodia has been moving towards Decentralisation since the first commune election in 2002, which initiated Decentralisation reform. This historic event was the start of a process aiming to improve democracy in Cambodia. A core principle of the Decentralisation reform is to promote a culture of participation and trust between the state and civil society and, via this process, to rebuild the state from the bottom up. In this process, narrowing the historical gap between authorities and the general public is of vital importance. Enhancing commune council accountability to answer for the use of authority also becomes a key process.
Decentralisation has enabled the establishment of local democratic institutions, but democratic politics are yet to develop locally. Individuals are still unable to speak their minds freely, and political discussions rarely occur openly. Although this is due more to prevailing social norms than to open political suppression, it hampers the development of a vibrant political democracy at the local level. In contemporary rural Cambodia, one observes a growth of Community Based Organisations (CBOs), which may have a greater ability than individuals to demand accountability from the local state. CBOs also have their limitations, however, making local accountability uncertain. Hence this research is centred on the primary question: To what extent do community-based organizations enhance the accountability of local government?
The critical issues to be explored emerge from “unpacking” the accountability concept, where three different modes of accountability are identified, each focussing on the “demand side” of accountability. Three communicative relations need to be qualitatively improved in order to establish accountability in rural Cambodia, namely between people and the CBOs, between CBOs and the commune councils (CCs), and between CCs and the wider political system. These are operationalised as follows:
i) Participation in and mobilisation for CBOs: Do people broadly engage in or support the goals of the CBOs? Are CBOs truly local and do they pursue local interests? To what extent do they exist as associations?
ii) Partnership and interaction between CBOs and local authorities: How do CBOs and local authorities interact? Is there a growing partnership between the local state and civil society? Are there other local authorities that can be called upon for assistance in dealing with emerging problems?
iii) The power of local authorities in the political system: Have the local authorities possess the political power to deliver? Do they communicate properly with relevant actors? Could they act in a more dynamic way in the political system in order to fulfil their mandate?
Three CBO associations were selected for this study, namely: School Support Committee (SSC), Community Fishery (CF), and Forest Community (FC).
The core conclusions of the study state that the key institution of the decentralisation reform, the CC, has come a long way towards acknowledging and exercising accountability. The Cambodia Development Resource Institute Executive Summary major weaknesses are twofold and are to be found above and below the level of the commune council itself. First, civil society is not yet sufficiently capable and organised to demand accountability effectively. This is particularly true regarding individuals, but also when CBO intermediaries are involved. Second, CCs are not getting the support they need from ministries, which is hardly surprising. While the CCs have been operating on the basis of progressive democratic decentralisation reform since 2002, the district and provincial authorities have not had any recent major overhaul of their formal mandates. The second leg of the reform—deconcentration—is still being developed and its implementation is not expected to start until 2008. This law is intended to—as is apparent in draft versions now surfacing—democratise provincial authorities, harmonise ministries with commune council concerns, and open up rural areas for dynamic development work. Whether that will happen, however, remains to be seen.
The recommendations are presented in three different areas: 1. Civil society: The small-scale development work within communities regarding education, awareness, rights and obligations must continue. Cambodia needs more time to strengthen democracy, including local development. CCs could receive considerably increased funds. Moreover, a sense among CCs, NGOs and CBOs of strong dependency on international agencies needs to be changed. 2. Commune councils: CCs need a better correspondence between their responsibilities and resources. A decree establishing mechanisms for tax collection could help to achieve this. CCs still need more time to fully adapt to the new mandate, including enhanced clarity on the private (individual and political parties) and public sphere (citizens). 3. Deconcentration or sectoral Decentralisation: Since one of the key weaknesses of the accountability chain is the CCs’ limited influence in the wider political system, it is recommended that the ongoing deconcentration reform is hastened as much as possible, and designed to allow considerably improved accountability between the various state agencies operating at local level.
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