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Decentralization: moving power to local levels

Decentralization: moving power to local levels



A dam in Kandal province. District governors say decentralization is helping them to taylor development projects to the needs of their local community.

The opposition calls it political maneuvering. The government says it is important

administrative reform. Hardly anyone else has ever heard of it.

But decentralization has been quietly transforming local government across the Kingdom

since the first commune elections five years ago and now the pace is picking up.

The law aims to give more responsibility to local levels of government, in what some

people are calling the most profound change to the Kingdom's administrative landscape

since UNTAC arrived in 1992.

Officials from the commune, district and provincial level told the Post that having

more power and more responsibility has already enabled them to respond better to

the needs of their constituents.

"When you have an itch, you are the best person to know where to scratch,"

said Chhoeung Chho, Commune Chief of Roka Khpos commune, Sa Ang district, Kandal

province. "It's the same with politics."

The latest development came January 15 when constitutional amendments sailed through

the National Assembly, paving the way for the passage of the so-called Organic Law,

which will redefine the functions and structure of government at the sub national


The draft Organic Law will be submitted next week to the National Committee for Decentralization

and Deconcentration before heading to the National Assembly, said Sak Setha, director

general of administration at the Ministry of Interior.

Chhoeung who has been a commune chief since 1992 said it took him and his colleagues

a while to explain to villagers what was happening with decentralization. But now

the villagers understand what their rights are and what the local and national levels

of government can do for them.

"The villagers know they have the right to raise their demands, that we will

listen to their demands, that we can give a specific response to help with their

needs, and that if we cannot provide what they demand we can explain to them,"

he said, before breaking into laughter as a crowd of people were poking their heads

in his door. "I always have a queue of villagers outside my door now."

The governor of Siem Reap province, Sou Phirim, told the Post on 24 January that

compared to 1993 when all decision making power was held at the province level, there

has been a significant shift of power to the commune and district level.

"Even if it is not perfect we have reduced the administrative bureaucracy which

has helped reduce under the table fees and long delays while decisions were made,"

he said. "We [at the province level] now have more input from lower level government,

who are closer to the people and so help us to plan service delivery better so we

can improve the living conditions of the poor."

Khem Chan Kiri, governor of Sa Ang district, Kandal Province, said he sees many advantages

to continuing with decentralization.

"We can make decisions faster and deliver services to the commune better,"

he said. "But at the moment we still cannot make decisions entirely by ourselves,

we still have to get the approval of the province."

Already, the increase in his day-to-day decision making power from decentralization

has helped him to get an irrigation system and a new road - both of which were requested

by local residents.

"We [at the district level] have been given more power from the province level

and we start to work as a coordinator between the commune and the province,"

he said. "Because we work better together now we can get more benefit from the

development process and make sure we are delivering the services that local people

really want - like the irrigation system."

The Ministry of Interior's Sak Setha said that decentralization has been a success

all across the country.

"Based on progress thus far the government decided to speed up reform at the

upper level - district, provincial, line ministries," he said. "We hope

this reform will provide better opportunities for our government to provide services,

and help local people better develop their communities."

Despite criticism from opposition parliamentarians (18 Sam Rainsy Party MPs abstained

from the January 15 vote) and some civil society groups wary of further CPP consolidation

of power, the constitutional amendments were approved by 88 of the 107 lawmakers

present on January 15.

The amendments make possible the reorganization of the Kingdom's administrative boundaries.

Previously, Article 145 of the constitution specified that Cambodia's territory was

"divided into provinces and municipalities. Provinces are divided into districts,

and districts are divided into Khans, and Khans are divided into sangkats."

The amendment changed that to say "the territory of the Kingdom of Cambodia

is divided into the capital, provinces, municipalities, districts, khans, communes,


This change was necessary for technical reasons to allow for the passage of the Organic

Law which will create new elected councils at provincial, municipal and district


"We had to wait for the constitutional amendments before we submit the law to

the National Assembly otherwise it would have been unconstitutional," said MoI's


Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, who is also head of the National Committee for Decentralization

and Deconcentration (NCDD) told the National Assembly that towns such as Siem Reap

and Battambang will be designated cities and run directly by their respective provincial

governments. The aim is to improve service delivery for the growing cities.

Eventually there may be changes in the way the line ministries - such as Health,

Education - deliver services at the local level with each ministry handing certain

functions to local government if it could be more effectively administered at that

level. It is currently not clear exactly what the changes will be as the organic

law is an umbrella law that will require a raft of further legislation governing

the functions to be transferred from Phnom Penh elsewhere. That process could take

over five years.

Decentralization has to proceed "step by step" said district governor Khem,

adding he was confident the administrative change "will help many people especially

in delivering services."

The draft law stipulates that the district councils will be elected by the commune

chiefs - and so will be accountable to them.

Siem Reap provincial governor Phirim said he thought "the process will improve

when we have district councils. We have changed our attitude from being controlling

to being a provider of services," said Phirim.


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