Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Voters give Commune Councils thumbs up in new survey

Voters give Commune Councils thumbs up in new survey

Voters give Commune Councils thumbs up in new survey

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

borders.

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

they serve.

"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."

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