At first glance it's hard to see why the June 27th release of a 72-page report with
the straightforward title Commune Councils in Cambodia: A National Survey of Their
Functions and Performance with a Special Focus on Conflict Resolution is generating
so much enthusiasm.
It's a standard report, filled with tables, percentages and explanations. Funding
came from USAID, and the Asia Foundation commissioned the Center for Advanced Study
to conduct the nationwide public opinion survey. It's not even the first survey about
commune councils since the historic elections in February of 2002, but it is the
first representative survey about the roles, responsibilities and performance of
commune councils (CC) in Cambodia.
"This report got me really excited," said Hans Van Zoggel, an advisor to
the Ministry of the Interior who has worked in Cambodia for 13 years and insists
he is usually too busy to talk to reporters. This report made him change his mind.
"When I first saw this report, I was like 'Whoa man, people have to start reading
this! This really for once tells what is actually happening on the ground.'"
What is happening on the ground, according to the survey, is that most Cambodians
are optimistic about the performance of their commune councilors and the future of
their village, commune and country.
The survey goes beyond a positive reflection on commune councils. The function and
performance of CCs are thoroughly examined, with special attention to people's understanding
of their council and participation in projects. Because commune councilors reported
spending a significant amount of time on conflict resolution, the nature of disputes
is explored, as well as mediation and resolution within the commune and beyond its
The survey covered all 24 provinces of Cambodia and included data from 310 communes
(out of 1621 in the country.) All non-CPP-chaired councils and all female-headed
commune councils are represented. This was done in an attempt to guarantee nationally
representative results. The report was released at a conference held at the Sunway
Hotel and attended by almost 100 NGO and development workers.
The survey found that decentralization in Cambodia seems to be working. Commune Councils
are trusted more than provincial and national governments, people are generally pleased
with the performance of their councils and see improvements since the 2002 elections.
A large percentage of Cambodians contribute directly to development projects in their
communes, either through money or labor. Corruption, nepotism and the "elite
capture" of development projects do not appear to be major issues in the communes.
The survey is very positive, but also highlights areas where progress is needed.
Many villagers feel there is not enough face-to-face interaction with their elected
officials, though any interaction is much appreciated. Everyone from NGO workers
to villagers, and perhaps most significantly the commune councilors themselves, agrees
that natural resource management is a big concern. The lack of civil servants was
also an issue; each commune has one clerk who bears all administrative responsibilities,
for which they receive about $12 a month.
In addition, commune councils still feel subordinate to higher levels of government,
despite the fact that they are legally independent. This means that commune councilors
do not feel empowered to carry out their mandate.
Roger Henke, one of the authors of the report, says he hopes politicians actually
listen to the contents of this report, instead of crowing about the positive results.
He's particularly interested in the lack of contact between councilors and the people
"This is a very clear message ... politicians that pick it up should have no
trouble getting re-elected," he said.
Seasoned NGO workers say they were not surprised by the findings of the report. The
one exception is the prevalence of youth gangs, the problems they bring to villages,
and commune councilors difficulty in dealing with these conflicts. Some fear this
indicates a larger problem for Cambodian society as a whole.
The report runs counter to the beliefs of NGO workers new to Cambodia and also to
the opinions of a lot of Phnom Penh intellectuals. Henke finds this encouraging.
"Reports like this ... remind city officials that the assessment of the general
population is maybe a little different from the much more critical assessment here
in Phnom Penh," he said, adding, "If you go out and ask regular Cambodians,
they overall have a positive opinion about developments in their country."
And Van Zoggel is emphatic that the report speaks to more than just intellectuals
in Phnom Penh, policy makers or NGO workers. "It's also very important to the
councilors, to let them know 'you're doing really well, generally people are really
satisfied with the work you are doing,'" he said.
Some feel that this is an important step in the evolution of a democracy, and there
are plans to carry out a similar survey in a few years. Dr. Jaqueline Pomeroy, of
the Asia Foundation, was cautious about the report's impact
"In general, we all spend a lot of money and a lot of effort gathering information,
and then it just sits there," she said, during a question and answer period
at the release.
Henke thinks politicians would do well to familiarize themselves with the report's
findings. "In more advanced democracies, politicians actually pay for polls
like this," he pointed out. "They might be very disappointed in what comes
out, but they know you'd better base your political strategies on what people actually
think than on your own pipe dreams."