Harnessing Social Accountability to Address Corruption at the Subnational Level in Cambodia

  • Caryn Fisher

Overwhelmingly, IRI’s Vulnerability to Corruption Approach (VCA) found that citizen participation and engagement are critical to addressing corruption and advancing Decentralization and Deconcentration Reforms in Cambodia.

October 2016 marked twenty-five years since the end of the conflict in Cambodia. Since that time, the country has undergone a period of significant growth for both the economy, as well as a now-flourishing civil society. However, the government’s desire for rapid economic growth and strong foreign investment paired with the inability to absorb the massive influx of foreign aid that followed the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 also fostered an environment in which corruption could thrive within all levels of government. Recognizing this threat to the trajectory of the country, the Government of Cambodia – encouraged by the international donor community – initiated political and administrative decentralization efforts in 2001, followed shortly thereafter by the adoption of the Strategic Framework for Decentralization and Deconcentration (D&D) Reforms in June 2005. With the commencement of these reforms, the Government of Cambodia made headway towards the goal of bringing the government closer to the people in order to better address their needs in a transparent and accountable manner.

In August 2016, IRI conducted a VCA  in Cambodia to examine progress made by the government and donors to institutionalize D&D reforms and tackle corruption at the subnational level. Overwhelmingly, IRI’s VCA found that citizen participation and engagement are critical to addressing corruption and advancing D&D Reforms in Cambodia. The Institute’s findings speak to both the importance of robust citizen participation in ensuring that subnational government officials are held accountable to providing adequate services to their constituents and operating in a transparent manner, but also to the challenges that remain in ensuring that citizens’ voices are heard.

A key part of the Institute’s findings resulted from hearing directly from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on their progress for the Implementation Plan for the Social Accountability Framework (I-SAF), as well as meeting with Sangkat and Commune Officials to discuss the challenges they face in ensuring citizen participation in budgeting, local development projects, and service delivery. While much progress has been made, it was clear from conversations with local officials and NGOs that both supply and demand sides still need to undertake improvements to better advance D&D Reform efforts. For example, on the supply side, subnational officials would benefit from increased capacity building assistance related to operating in a transparent and accountable manner – particularly in regards to transparent budgeting and procurement – and also improving their responsiveness to citizens. By increasing their ability to be open and receptive to their citizens, subnational officials would support a safe space in which citizens feel comfortable and confident sharing their issues and concerns.

On the demand side, IRI found that citizens still lack the knowledge and the mechanisms by which they can fully engage and participate in local decision making. Citizen participation is further restricted by limited implementation and utilization of Ombudsman Offices (also known as People’s Offices), resulting in the lack of a formal avenue in which citizens can petition the government or report instances of corruption. IRI found that as a result of lack of citizen engagement – and therefore a lack of a citizen oversight – processes such as budgeting and procurement at the subnational level were left open to potential instances of corruption. Citizens would also benefit from the adoption of the Whistleblower Protection Law, currently being drafted by Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit, that would protect those reporting instances of corruption from retribution and repercussions.

Moving forward, efforts to increase and improve citizen participation are essential to the long-term success of I-SAF and anti-corruption efforts. The government and NGOs need to continue to tackle challenges on both sides of the governance equation to ensure that the government adequately meets the needs of its citizens in a transparent and accountable manner.

IRI’s Vulnerabilities to Corruption Approach methodology supports anti-corruption efforts, particularly at the subnational level, by identifying corruption-related risks and gaps in government processes and supporting government responses to these issues. The Cambodia VCA was conducted over a one-week period and included 16 group interviews with 40 individuals from national and subnational levels of government, civil society organizations, media, and international and domestic non-governmental organizations.

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