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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

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