The Seila program is one of the most ambitious attempts ever taken at decentralization.
In the first of two parts Stephen O'Connell looks at the aims and background
of this attempt to give ordinary people a greater say in the decisions that affect
A five-year experiment in decentralized government at the local and provincial level
has laid the foundation for what Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has called "nothing
less than a revolution in Cambodia's national administrative structure".
The Royal Government of Cambodia's Seila program was established in 1996. It evolved
from earlier relief programs to become a major experiment in both decentralized planning
and grass-roots development.
Seila - meaning "foundation stone" - is designed to foster good governance
and institutional strengthening. With training in proper management, and the instilling
of a sense of responsibility to local needs, it is hoped that authorities at the
provincial and commune level will have a larger, more effective voice in their efforts
to develop rural areas.
By the end of this year Seila will have been implemented in Pursat, Battambang, Siem
Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Ratanakkiri, and Oddar Meanchey provinces - covering 15 per
cent of Cambodia's communes and about 1.6 million people.
But because of Seila's apparent success and popularity in the trial provinces, the
Government has decided to expand the program nationwide.
Kheng said, "Seila has provided the most valuable contribution to the Government
in our efforts to learn, through practice, decentralization and to decide with confidence
to adopt a decentralized management system for commune administration."
Sak Setha, Deputy Director General of Administration at the Ministry of Interior,
told the Post that Seila has effectively provided good governance and transparent
management at the village and commune levels. It has also promoted grassroots democracy.
But the implementation of Seila has not been without challenges. "This is new
program so we cannot avoid problems and we need more training," he said. "We
now face two issues, first, a lack of skilled people and second, we have to find
the financing to implement the program."
The Government strongly supports Seila, said Setha, because decentralization has
proved popular with Cambodia's citizens and civil servants.
At the May Consultative Group meeting in Paris the Government presented a document
to donors outlining the next five-year phase of Seila during which time, if funding
allows, the program will be implemented in 1,200 of the country's 1,600 rural communes.
An advisor to Seila, Scott Leiper, Program Manager for UNDP's Cambodia Area Rehabilitation
and Regeneration Project (CARERE), said the coverage Seila achieves depends on resources
and capacity. The $93 million needed for the next five-year phase has not been funded
Seventy per cent of that budget will go towards investment projects such as schools
and roads, with most of the money being allocated to the communes.
At the provincial level a portion of the budget will finance the strengthening of
public services, as well as developing management structures, training, and capacity
building. The remainder of the budget will pay for the necessary technical assistance
from CARERE and other agencies.
Leiper said Seila's two main goals are poverty alleviation and the development of
good governance. "Does decentralization lead to local development? This is an
assumption that has to be proved. In itself it doesn't. It depends on how you [decentralize].
So basically Seila is about how you do it. ... In the end it will be judged by whether
people's lives changed, both from a point of view of governance and development.
"'Poverty alleviation' is a very misused term. Everybody uses it; that's what
everybody is doing. But in Cambodia when we look at the circumstances that are facing
this country, it is going to take a long time ... It's a goal, but not something
you can expect to achieve in five years," he said.
"Seila is essentially a framework for investment, planning, and management and
financing systems. So it provides an opportunity at the provincial level for agencies
to cooperate better."
Another important aspect of Seila, said Leiper, is the contribution it makes towards
developing a better relationship between civil society and the Government, and between
the Government, private sector and agencies.
"That is really the 'Holy Grail' in development - things working in harmony,
having a plurality of voices, everybody being able to raise their voice and opinion,
but in the end working towards a common objective with a somewhat common approach,"
Much of Seila's work is carried out through Commune Development Committees (CDCs)
which manage development funds.
The CDCs allocate money to projects of their choosing - but local communities must
also contribute at least 10 per cent of all project costs in the form of cash, materials,
Another important aspect of Seila is the creation of commune development plans.
The plans outline the socio-economic situation of a commune, as well as list its
development priorities after extensive consultation with villagers.
Once a CDC has finalized its plan, it is then presented at District Integration Workshops
held once a year. There, provincial departments, CDCs, international organizations
and NGOs meet to match development plans and priorities to the resources available.
Out of this consultation process come signed, temporary agreements as to which projects
and programs will proceed. Finalized plans are then sent to Provincial Rural Development
Executive Committees - made up of Governors and department directors - that are responsible
for the management of funds.
Implementation contracts are then signed for approved projects which detail objectives,
outputs, budgets, and payment schedules.
According to the March 2000 Cambodia Area Rehabilitation and Regeneration Project's
Joint Evaluation Mission report, Seila has made substantial progress toward building
sustainable capacity at province, district and community levels in the five trial
"Most important, perhaps, is that Seila has visibly changed attitudes. From
having been passive recipients of assistance, communities have become more active
and self-reliant actors with a notable degree of self-esteem.
"Likewise the attitudes of provincial and district government staff have changed,
and become more responsive and self-reliant. Seila has made notable progress in promoting
democratic values and good governance," says the report.
Seila has also succeeded in giving women a voice in local government. Two of the
five members on every Village Development Committee must be women. In Siem Reap Province
18 per cent of communes are now led by women.
But the Seila program does have its weaknesses. "[The report team] is less convinced
that Seila has made significant direct contribution to poverty alleviation. Neither
the scope nor the nature of services delivered suggest a significant impact."
The report also cautions that Seila has not reached the point of sustainability and
continues to rely on direction from CARERE staff.
"Whereas ownership features strongly at province and commune level, we find
the national level characterized by weak ownership, an inadequate understanding of
Seila, feeble leadership and limited management capacity."
Overseeing the Seila program at the national level is the Seila Task Force (STF),
a multi-agency body with representatives from the Ministries of Economy and Finance,
Rural Development, Planning, Agriculture, Women's and Veteran's Affairs, Interior,
and the Council of Development for Cambodia.
"From our meetings with them, we gained the impression that there is no clear
consensus as to the Seila program, or to their roles and functions within it.
"While the STF performs a valuable function in providing authority to the program
in the Seila provinces, members vary in their interpretation of what is meant by
acceptance of the Seila concept," says the report.
But because the STF is a relatively new body and its members have varying and, at
times, conflicting institutional loyalties, this confusion might be expected, says
The challenge now will be to expand the Seila program into new provinces - a task
made more difficult if proposed staff reductions take place, says the report
"We fear that excessive staff cuts will undermine efforts to change attitudes
and perceptions, with the result that critical components of the system, such as
the local planning process, may degenerate into little more than a set of administrative
procedures," it says
The report says expanding Seila will not be simply a matter of training people to
use manuals, draw up contracts, and write monitoring reports.
"Replication of Seila is more fundamentally about changing minds and attitudes
in line with basic principles of good governance and democracy."
Trying to replicate Seila in all provinces during the next five-year plan (2001-2005)
might be too ambitious, says the report. "We foresee that one constraint to
replication will be the availability of skilled personnel who not only understand
the Seila concept intellectually, but have also internalized the concept in their
way of thinking about development."
But Kassie Neou, Director of the Cambodia Institute for Human Rights - which provides
good-governance training to officials serving in the village and district development
programs - is more optimistic.
"This society is very closed and has had top-down governance for ever,"
he said. "The Seila program really breaks the ice, starting from learning how
to decentralize and taking personal responsibility. The people who take part in Seila
seem to know what to do and like what they do. Its a good start.
"Decentralization is a huge task. But it has been a success from the very beginning
and should not be stopped half way. It is time to let people make there own decisions,
to be masters of their own life and destiny."
Because of Cambodia's diversity, decisions made by the central government in Phnom
Penh often do not meet the basic needs of people in different provinces. Decisions
for development have to be made at the local level, he said.
Neou believes Seila's approach benefits all. It relieves the burden to the central
Government and it fits the immediate needs of the villagers in different localities.
"[The Government] has seen the positive developments of the Seila project. Provincial
governors and authorities feel relieved when they don't have everything on their
" Not all decisions made by the communes will be approved, but at least some
bright ideas will be among them and that is very helpful to the provincial governors.
"The UNDP will not be here for ever, but they will leave behind something that
will grow. This is the good side of international assistance - don't just give us
food, but give us new ideas, new approaches, the means to make decisions and not
just wait for orders from above."
Neou said there is a growing understanding in the central Government that authoritarian
rule is a thing of the past, but it will be a while yet before the idea is fully
Neou is not expecting miracles overnight. "We can now combat tyranny in a modest
way - it will move slowly, but surely. In the past people only knew how to topple
each other - and that is not constructive."