Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Report measures ten years of advocacy

Report measures ten years of advocacy

Report measures ten years of advocacy

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.

Advocacy in

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

been weaker.

"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.

However, the

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 boat.

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".


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