It’s a new year. It has also been six months since I actually started my work in Cambodia. I have been blogging about quite a few things, but haven’t touched on the bulk of my daily life in Cambodia. This has been deliberate. Most of you that also know me professionally will recognise that I am very careful about interpreting my work. I wanted to really take the time to deeply understand my work and the environment before attempting to explain what I’m doing and how it fits in the larger picture.
The adjustment to working here has been ongoing and I’ve had some real opportunities to see different angles of what the world is up to in Cambodia. I work for a civil society coalition called the Working Group for Partnerships in Decentralisation (WGPD) [btw – I developed that website and most of the content on it!] It’s essentially a network of NGOs across the country that work on governance issues, specifically about the transfer of power and responsibility from the national government to local governments. Cambodia is currently implementing its strategy to decentralise power and decision-making through a very well developed plan – but of course it’s a lot messier than it looks on paper.
I feel very fortunate to be working on this project. The network is beginning to blossom. Although it has a decade of history, the reality of inconsistent funding has created more active times than others. Last year it received funding to move ahead for three years. So to some extent, we are resurrecting a group and trying to build upon it.
The goal of our work is essentially to bring together a collective voice of civil society and advocate to different levels of government. We are trying to speak on behalf of real people that are most affected by policy decisions. This is done by engaging local NGOs who are mandated to serve their communities across the country. Cambodia has a dark history of repression. The culture of a loud and strong civil society has been stifled for years through unbelievably traumatic events and repression that are hard to begin to imagine. But a change is definitely taking place. Young people seem to be getting bolder and the old regime seems to be weakening to some extent – partly through politics, partly through social change, and much through modern mediums of communication – Facebook is a civil society explosion. I have also seen the older Khmer Rouge-surviving generation stand up and speak out on issues important to them, especially about land issues and injustice. It is an exciting time for civil society.
It’s wonderful to use my skills to speak up for some of the most silenced people in the country. I went to a rural village a few months ago and heard women and children talking about how to get more active in influencing their local councils. Their stories were taken to a council by representatives in order to get the local governments to recognise and make changes at the local policy level. I had a chance to document some of this in a good practice brief and share with others who might want to try it in their communities. It really inspired me to watch a 14 year-old girl lead the group of mothers and children, assuring them that their voices were not only important, but vital to shaping a healthy community.
Challenges abound both structurally and in the everyday life of trying to get things done. It’s sometimes disheartening to see how human nature can lead us to focus on the short term personal benefits rather than the larger societal shift we’re seeking. Power dynamics exist everywhere. However, I haven’t seen them play out so visibly as I have here in my project. For a network on governance, I have been often disappointed to see organisational governance as one of the biggest challenges. It won’t be a surprise for those who have worked on previous network projects with me to find out that my Board is… well let’s use my most blunt adjective – dysfunctional. Getting buy-in from a Board is a tedious exercise in diplomacy, but it’s possible even in the most tense group of people, particularly when they are passionate about their own distinct views. However, when you have a less engaged Board with very limited voices, the goal shifts from buy-in to convincing anyone to speak up in support. Nevertheless, we are in the process to hopefully shape a new future of leaders. We shall see the results in a few months with a bit of campaigning in an election period led by yours truly. If we can manage to bring in the right people, the network just might focus on the voices of the grassroots we are so trying to empower. One of my own biggest challenges has surprisingly been working with the volunteer organisation based in Cambodia. Although I’m here with a Canadian organisation (made up of wonderful people who supported the process until my departure), I’ve been administratively working through another organisation here in partnership. It’s been a very tense and challenging relationship, but I’ve found some value in observing this and arriving at the conclusion that even when we come for very different reasons to contribute to something bigger, you will always find yourself in a field of differing interests that can threaten to shake you from your underlying intentions to do good and to work hard for the cause you signed up for. It has been an important lesson in volunteerism for me that you can’t lose those initial ideals that brought you, even when you may find yourself being dragged in very different directions by different players.
Despite this and other structural challenges of developing a network, I can’t emphasise enough how much I love my actual placement and the network I am working in. It is a true joy to work with a team and come together to think out how we can go about our work and best bring voice to the people who need it the most. It only takes a few minutes to talk with real people facing real issues to put work into a more grounded perspective.
To me, success in this work would be a stronger network, far more unified, and with an ability to gain more recognition with government and international donors. I’m not gonna lie – we’re seen as a bit of a mess. But we are coming together and I can really see an identity coming to shape. I’ll continue focusing all my effort to solidify this network and work to help some of the most vulnerable and silent voices to speak out and contribute to change for the better. Governance is not an easy area to manoeuver in Cambodia. But you simply must remember that governance is really just about the people.