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NGO Law off to worst possible start!



Outdated? “Children should be seen but not heard?”
Cambodian school children pictured in 2002 - the "traditional" expectation is for them be dutifully patient; regimented; compliant. Girls even today find themselves pressured to follow the traditional women's code "Chbab Srey".
 
This is my Op-Ed in the Cambodia Daily on 17 July 2015, but with illustrations and sources of reference added above and below.  My premise is that Cambodia's ruling party, in trying to retain control, is turning the clock back to the days of absolute patronage/dependency, when people "knew their place in Society".  They hope that this will make for a compliant electorate, unlike the one in 2013.

Enacted in haste, the NGO Law Is Off to the Worst Possible Start
By John Lowrie

The debate over the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) has been disappointing. So many core issues have not been addressed. The ruling party seems to be reasserting a contention that only “we know what is best for people.” Time will prove whether this is right or wrong. In the meantime, many citizens could miss out if NGO efforts are curtailed, as has been suggested by donors.
Seventeen years ago, I arrived in Cambodia en route to Haiti. I saw a job advertisement in The Cambodia Daily, applied and was appointed, having stayed ever since. I was tasked with reviewing and fundraising for major national projects.
One was intended to benefit all the nation’s schoolchildren. It was supported by the Royal Government, as well as many donors and development experts. Only one thing was missing: Nowhere were children actually involved. “How can they contribute?” I was asked incredulously. “They are children!”. [1]
A few years later, I moved on to working with Cambodia’s many people living with disabilities.  We were planning a ceremony to raise awareness of sensory disabilities. Only one thing was missing: Our members living with disabilities and their carers were sidelined, passive observers while those who knew best, public and NGO officials, deliberated for them. “How can they contribute?” I was again asked incredulously. “They are disabled -- they can’t communicate, they’re deaf, dumb and blind!” [2]
By now, you get the picture. So you will not be surprised that time and time again, NGO workers like me encounter the same issue, most notably with vulnerable groups. They include former refugees and displaced people and, in more recent years, indigenous peoples, or ethnic minorities. [3] In fact, I would have to say that the most patronizing, condescending and dismissive treatment has been meted out to these “First Peoples of Cambodia,” who actually pre-date the Khmer. [4]
World Association of NGOs (www.starkampuchea.org.kh)



The work of most NGOs is to create space and opportunity for greater choice in life for the people they work with, who would not otherwise obtain such benefits. In this sense, it is an exact opposite philosophy to regimes that are ideologically committed to policies, or deluded in thinking that only they know what is best for their country and people. Oddly, if ever a country learned the cruelest of lessons that this cannot be so, then surely it is Cambodia? 
Cambodia’s ruling party should reflect.  
Reasserting strict controls over aspects of society, especially without safeguards to guarantee justice, is no way to win hearts and minds. Memories are short. Back in 1998, if it was not for the valiant efforts of NGOs supported by the international community, national elections may never have gone ahead and its rule legitimized after the turmoil of 1997. [5] Even in its best election year, 2008, the CPP only obtained 47.3 percent of registered voters. In 2013, that dropped to just 33.3 percent, reflecting a serious loss of trust.
Trust is just as important to NGOs as it is to politicians, probably more so because they need to retain the confidence of their donors as well as their beneficiaries. The question is whether Lango, having been legislated with undue haste, can build trust. By disregarding the wishes of so many parties, surely it’s off to the worst possible start.
So where do we go from here, and in the run-up to the next election? Given how much political capital has been invested, the NGO law is unlikely to be a law passed but rarely acted upon, like the 2006 Monogamy Law. Current official administrative arrangements for NGOs are likely to continue -- either fraught or unproblematic depending on their particular relations with authorities.
Probably, the government will wait to see what happens with the emerging community groups, especially young people who enlivened the 2013 election scene. The spirit of the NGO law is likely to be used more than its letter, at least at first, as officials at local level continue to stymie activism.
Meanwhile, other factors will be monitored, the ones that helped deliver CPP previous victories. First, how divided is the opposition? Will the CNRP split apart? Will Funcinpec be resurgent? Will new parties make inroads? Secondly, will there be another crisis, rallying nationalism, as happened with anti-Thai riots in 2003 and the Preah Vihear conflict in 2008?
If easy victories look likely in both the commune and national elections, NGOs may enjoy a reprieve. But will it last long, or just put off the evil day?

John Lowrie has worked in Cambodia since 1998 as a country representative for three international NGOs and an adviser to seven local development and human rights organizations.



Notes of Clarification; Sources of Reference, and Links


[1] This was a human rights teaching methodology (HRTM) project intended for teachers to be able to teach human rights.  The programme gave sessions directly to primary; junior high and senior high school as well as in the teacher training colleges.  The training consisted of theoretical and practical sessions, provided in primary and secondary schools, as well as teacher-training colleges. Oddly, the practice sessions were with fellow teachers, not actual children, even though sessions often took place in group (cluster) schools in during normal term-time.  After some resistance, we persuaded the practice to be with real children, and though we had to reinforce learner-centred methodology, it was clearly a success.  Children and teachers at first wanted to stay in their comfort zone of rote-learning and “what my teacher say” rather than critical thought; conceptualisation, and active participation/facilitation.  Such belief persists today, often based on “Asian Values” but are losing traction, especially with young people embracing ICT with knowledge no longer the preserve of elders.  For more details about the HRTM project, two published works can be accessed. One was drafted as it was underway, the other after it came to a premature end here.
A scan of the original print film photograph of the first HRTM practice session in 1998 involving actual children, with teacher-participants behind observing their colleague practising her new skills.  As you can see it went down very well, overcoming previous reservations, to be a standard element in methodology.

[2] This story with pictures is already written up in this blog.  Once allowed to take part in the ceremony planning and its proceedings, the disabled people proved to be creative and capable, most notably the Mistress of Ceremonies.

[3] Refugees who returned from the camps in Thailand have faced problems with authorities.  Often this is due to them aligned with former foes, Khmer Rouge and Royalist.  My former INGO Ockenden has worked with them and we wrote up their story in the booklet pictured and accessed here.

[4] The displacement of indigenous people from ancestral lands is now on such a vast scale that it is placing their existence in similar doubt as during the forced “Khmerization” of the Khmer Rouge period.  My take on this earlier in 2015 was widely published and can be accessed here.

[5] For a good inside story of the enormous challenges of the 1998 elections - many still pertinent today - go to Journal of Democracy article “Conducting Cambodian Elections” by my colleagues at CIHR Kassie Neou and Jeffrey Gallup.  If you cannot access a soft-copy, please let me know. You can also read my paper about election neutrality and integrity.


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