Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Defining democracy



Defining democracy

Defining democracy

Dear Editor,

I read with interest your recent interview with World Bank representative Qimiao Fan ("A Personal Grasp of Poverty", April 3) in which he said the most encouraging thing for him to see in Cambodia has been the improvement in local governance - specifically, that "all parties are sitting there ... working together as the local elected body to make decisions as to whether to build an access road or an irrigation canal or a school building". This is not an inaccurate description of how commune councils make such decisions, but it is misleading to suggest, as Qimiao Fan does, that this is an example of "democracy at the grassroots level".

According to information provided by the World Bank, commune councils spend their funds almost exclusively on three items: rural roads, irrigation and school buildings. This is due in good part not to "democracy at the grassroots level" but to the World Bank-supported Rural Investment and Local Governance Project, under which these items but not others are eligible for reimbursement.

It is true that these decisions are made by local councils with reasonable measures of participation by citizens and non-CPP parties (where there are any), and this is indeed encouraging. But this, too, is not due to democracy blossoming at the grassroots level. Rather, it is because the process for these decisions is meticulously choreographed by donors, especially the World Bank.

The idea of local governance is to give local councils some measure of autonomy in relevant decision-making to enable them to respond to the needs of their constituents. Centrally prescribing overly rigid procedures is the opposite of local autonomy. Local councils lack decision-making power in many matters that often are of the most urgent concern to their constituents, including the management of land and natural resources.

Describing the current situation as "democracy at the grassroots level" mischaracterises the nature of governance in Cambodia, although the description is characteristic of the impoverished vision of "local governance" supported by the World Bank. The problem is not that the World Bank supports local infrastructure projects but that it reduces "local governance" to "decisions as to whether to build an access road or an irrigation canal or a school building", suggesting that this type of decision-making is the essence of "democracy at the grassroots level".  

Stefan Ehrentraut

Phnom Penh

MOST VIEWED

  • Tourists urged not to skip trip

    The Ministry of Tourism has called on international tourists not to cancel trips to Cambodia, but urged them to adhere to several dos and don’ts when arriving in the Kingdom during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ministry released an eight-point instruction manual on Wednesday published

  • The taxman cometh – Cambodia’s capital gains tax casts the net on individual taxpayers

    In a country where only limited personal income tax existed, the new taxation law beginning January 1, 2021, will make taxpayers out of Cambodians, whether they are ready for it or not About two years ago, a little known amendment was made to Article 7 of the Law

  • Cambodian-American gets Star Trek treatment

    Kevin Ung, a Cambodian-American whose family escaped genocide during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, was recently selected from thousands of applicants to participate in the Television Academy Foundation’s inaugural 2020 Star Trek Command Training Programme, a course intended to give hands-on filmmaking experience

  • Cambodia seeks to be transport hub

    Cambodia is working on several fronts to modernise its transport infrastructure and services, concentrating on opening new international gates to relieve and balance traffic congestion at its borders, Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said on Thursday. This is part of the Kingdom’

  • Deminers unearth ancient lion statue

    Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) director-general Heng Ratana told The Post on Tuesday that a statue of a lion was found by mine clearance experts while they were digging for a development project. It was sent to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts last

  • PM: West unfair to Cambodia

    Prime Minister Hun Sen released a message celebrating the International Day of Peace on Monday, saying that some major powers and western countries had been systemically cooperating to put political pressure on Cambodia as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Hun Sen said pressuring