A few years ago there was no Khmer word for the term 'advocacy', says a report
assessing the first ten years of advocacy work in Cambodia.
Cambodia: Increasing the Democratic Space examines how effective NGOs have been
in promoting those issues that affect the disaffected and dispossessed people
many local NGOs represent.
These days NGO workers employ the term
tasumateh, which means to struggle for an idea. Even though that term is
considered problematic, it is a small measure of the progress made in the last
ten years, says Pact Cambodia which wrote the report.
"A lot of people
thought it was time to take a broad view on what works and what doesn't," says
Kurt MacLeod, Pact's country representative. The report reviews eight campaigns
conducted over the last decade.
One of the motivations behind the report
is to help NGOs identify which lobbying techniques succeed. A Khmer language
version to be published in July will be tailored to local NGO staff looking for
strategies, lessons learned and useful techniques.
The disillusioned in
Cambodia have traditionally had few avenues of complaint, and little knowledge
of techniques, to ensure their grievances are heard by government. Outside of
the human rights sector very few advocacy activities were carried out in
Cambodia before 1995.
MacLeod says that techniques are still nascent and
local NGOs need to develop the skills to influence government policies and
"A lot of NGOs are saying that advocacy is still more like
education or consciousness raising," he says. Campaigns dealing with condom use,
domestic violence and corruption have had some success.
"Prior to 1994
there was no Khmer term for 'domestic violence' and the word 'corruption' was
not openly used," the report states. The fact that those words are now in the
Cambodian vocabulary, it continues, is a testament to the "myriad of advocacy
and democracy activities that have taken place thus far".
government, however, is another matter.
"There is a need for civil
society to [learn the techniques] to influence policy-making," MacLeod says.
"Often there is a deep canyon between government and civil society in Cambodia,
and [government] representatives need to understand they have to answer to a
So which campaigns work? Those issues that have a direct
impact on a large group of people are most likely to succeed. Resource conflicts
such as those over fisheries, forestry and land have tended to garner strong
support, whereas commitment to more abstract goals like electoral reform have
"Fisheries reform has been a needs-based campaign with a lot
of local support from the people affected. There was very good information
collected, excellent networking and good cooperation between government and
civil society," says MacLeod.
However the campaign fell at the final hurdle when advocates failed to lobby
the minister to endorse the changes.
The campaign for electoral reform on
the other hand was well organized with clear aims, but was ultimately
unsuccessful. While a coalition of electoral monitoring organizations found
widespread support for electoral reform ahead of the commune elections, there
was little depth in the commitment to change.
Russell Peterson of NGO
Forum argues that, while the desired changes to the law were not put into
effect, the campaign was nonetheless useful.
"It didn't achieve its
goals but it did help to open up the space for democracy and increased the
ability of NGOs to engage in advocacy," he says.
MacLeod emphasizes the
need to start early and follow a campaign through to the end.
early, know the issues, and make sure civil society is involved very early," he
says. "Don't wait for the draft law to come out because then it is too late.
Then press for enforcement. A lot of campaigns go up to the point where the
legislation is passed, then forget about enforcement."
According to the
report, NGOs have learned to be dependent on donor-enforced conditionalities to
persuade Cambodia's government to act. That, says Peterson, is a double-edged
"Cambodia is a very donor-dependent country and donors play a
heavy role in setting the agenda. On the one hand NGOs feel that they need donor
conditions because of their own weakness in raising issues with the government
but on the other they are concerned about the loss of government sovereignty,"
he says. "If the government only listens to donors then there's a loss of direct
dialogue with the Cambodian people."
MacLeod agrees, saying that while
conditionalities are a short-term measure, long term sustainability "will have
to come from the Cambodian people".
Civil society organizations were
first allowed to register in 1992. There are now between 200-400 local NGOs
operating in Cambodia, along with 250 international NGOs.
report found that in some cases the NGOs themselves are the impediment. In most
countries, advocacy at the grassroots level is based around volunteerism, but
many local NGOs in Cambodia are professionalized and at times wary of rocking
The report cites one example of an unnamed local NGO stifling
an impromptu forestry protest. Angry villagers in Cambodia's northwest
confiscated illegally cut logs with the aim of laying them on the Phnom
Penh-Battambang road to alert the public to the illegal destruction of the
However, the NGO advised the villagers to simply leave the logs
in the forest and, the report concludes, the villagers "lost a major publicity
opportunity due to poor advice from an NGO".
While Pact hopes its report
will improve civil society's lobbying techniques, MacLeod says that for advocacy
to be truly effective the government has to learn to listen to its
"Multilaterals have placed consultation with NGOs as a
condition of development assistance," the report states, but cautions that this
has "not been fully embraced by the government, as shown by the lack of
procedures that require feedback from non-government stakeholders".