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Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh during a demonstration on Labour Day in 2013.
Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh during a demonstration on Labour Day in 2013. Sreng Meng Srun

Support grassroots: study

A new study is advocating a bottom-up approach to the Kingdom’s NGO scene, calling on international donors to alter their support strategies and foster the independence of grassroots initiatives taking off at the local level.

The draft report, which was published last week by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and is now open for comment, studied seven urban and rural community efforts considered successful in helping locals assert their rights to land, fair working conditions or freedom of assembly.

“The report examines how this kind of activism could do a great deal to change local governance patterns by bringing the communities’ voices and priorities into decision-making processes,” said principal author and Stanford clinical lecturer Stephan Sonnenberg. “It also looks at how international donors could either stifle or constructively support and enable this movement.”

One of the case studies cited in the report was the Workers’ Information Center (WIC).

The WIC’s work is mostly concentrated on seven drop-in centres in Phnom Penh, where garment workers usually reside. In the centres, workers are educated on their rights and included in the process of crafting strategies for addressing grievances.

What makes the WIC unique, however, the report said, is its bottom-up approach in choosing programming priorities and its donor acceptance strategy where they only align with partners whose philosophies are consistent with their goals.

According to the report, the “side-by-side relationship” WIC has with its donors is lacking in most partnerships between grassroots and international groups. The tendency of international donors to focus on their own goals instead of community-driven ones is also another issue.

“In terms of funding and accountability, we need to include the voices of the people affected by the problem in designing a course of action,” said Collette O’Regan from People’s Action for Change, an NGO that works with Cambodian community-led groups.

“International organisations don’t always know the situation really well, or the players. So rather than outside agencies or bigger NGOs setting the agenda and telling the local what to do, we should listen to the communities more instead.”

To create a better cohesive approach, the report recommended that international donors initiate constant communication with local groups, conduct “rigorous social audits at the outset of proposed projects”, introduce grievance mechanisms and design exit plans that will perpetuate long-term self-sustainment.

Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) head of development cooperation Kristina Kuhnel agreed, saying that SIDA employs two intermediaries to be more effective in their development work.

“Having intermediaries is a more effective way of reaching grassroots organisations, because they are better placed to support their peers as they have a better understanding of what is happening on the ground,” Kuhnel said.

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