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NGOs must adapt new development strategies

Dear Editor,

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of NGOs in Cambodia, and their contribution was celebrated recently in the Phnom Penh Post’s excellent NGO Sector Review.

In his recent letter to you (“Kingdom’s NGOs need to adopt new strategies”, May 12), Vic Salas called on NGOs to “rethink the ways that they work”.

We strongly agree with Salas. Indeed, for NGOs working to improve the situation of human rights in Cambodia, last year’s milestone – as much as a cause for celebration – serves as an opportunity to take stock and consider how we can develop new approaches to maximise our contribution to Cambodia’s development and democratisation.

Together with the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression, recent and proposed legislation – including the planned NGO Law – threatens to impede NGOs by imposing worrying restrictions and shrinking the space within which we work.

Meanwhile, the global economic recession is impacting on the funds available to NGOs. In this context, the need for human rights NGOs to self-reflect and develop new approaches is all the more pressing.

Empower rather than lead
In the past, human rights NGOs have often sought to lead rather than empower communities, speaking at, rather than listening to them, and applying a “one size fits all” approach to different local contexts and problems.

This top-down approach creates a relationship of dependency, often fails to address the human rights violations at hand and is unsustainable.

We can truly empower communities by training them on their rights and the ways in which they can claim these rights; by creating the space for them to use this understanding, at public forums for example; by linking them to networks, share experiences and develop joint actions; and by building the capacity of those better placed to empower communities, including HRDs, CBOs and SBOs.

True empowerment will give rise to nuanced local approaches that reflect the needs and priorities of communities. It will help communities understand and demand their rights, and facilitate natural, civic-driven change.

Look at the bigger picture
Intervention to address specific rights violations is often required, but bigger picture analysis of human rights trends and underlying problems is important also. More long-term and wide-ranging approaches will be required if we are to develop a fuller understanding of the problems Cambodia faces and to advocate strongly for their alleviation. There is an urgent need for more thorough research, deeper analysis and the development of new ideas for improving respect for human rights in Cambodia.

Collaborate and be open
We have at times failed to work together and share information, including data on human rights violations. This lack of collaboration is arguably the product of competitiveness, driven by limited and short-term donor funding and perceived self-interest. It only serves to thwart our shared overall aim and weakens us in the face of oppression. We need to specialise and collaborate, developing unique strengths and rights focuses.

In their 30 years’ history, NGOs in Cambodia have been a powerful force for change and progress. However, there is much still to be done.

Human rights NGOs will be a far stronger force for democratisation and the realisation of human rights in Cambodia if we change with the times. It is not easy to drop traditional methods in favour of new approaches, but without this risk there will be no change.

Ou Virak
President, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

Rupert Abbott
Development director, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

Send letters to: or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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