In villages throughout Cambodia, local councilors and communities are telling officials how the government can better meet their basic needs, holding public meetings that are proving instrumental for government efforts to raise people's standards of living.
These meetings are part of a six-year local governance support project sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union (EU), finishing in 2011, which has organized forums in all eight regions of Cambodia, including its 23 provinces, the capital and more than 70 districts.
"Strengthening local governance means, looking at the demand and supply sides of accountability mechanisms and improving the ability of officials to be more responsive to local residents' concerns," said Patrick Duong, coordinator of the UNDP/EU Cambodia project Strengthening Democratic and Decentralized Local Governance. "These forums offer citizens and local councilors a place to voice their concerns and services needs directly to local and government representatives, and have been essential to strengthening grassroots democracy and improving people's lives in Cambodia."
In July 2010, villagers in the southwestern province of Preah Sihanouk made their way through torrential downpours to participate in a community planning meeting, where they brainstormed projects to provide and improve schools, roads, wells and latrines.
"Whatever suggestions or concerns you have, or what kind of development projects you want to see coming to our neighborhood, please just raise your hand and speak freely," said local council chief Yoan Chhieng at the meeting of about 35 men and women. "As we are currently putting together a community development plan for 2011, we want to hear what the people have to say."
In Mr. Chhieng's commune of O'Chrov, only about 10 percent of the 1,000 families have latrines. There is only one health centre, which also serves the neighboring commune, thus providing for a combined population of 2,000 families. He says involving villagers in the dialogue is essential to building trust and mutual understanding.
Across Cambodia, community meetings like this are helping to decentralize decision-making and better identify what the real needs of local residents are. Based on their information and concerns, authorities can then draw up priorities and plans more effectively.
That decentralization process thereby fosters a bottom-up approach to identifying development needs, which can then be addressed through top-down decisions by administrative districts, divided into communes and quarters (sangkat) that are then further divided into villages.
Despite significant economic progress in the past decade, Cambodia relies heavily on external aid for development. People living in the countryside still lack access to basic necessities like roads, clean water, and sanitation.
"Our needs concern us -- we cannot just leave it up to the commune chief," said Ms. Heng Vipheak, a 48-year-old resident of Ream village, in Ream commune, about 35 km from O'Chrov. "Sometimes he may have 10 ideas for developing the village, but we the people may have even more."
The list of wants and expectations at community meetings is usually quite long. Local officials have to go through several steps before they are ready to present projects and bid for funding from the central government, development partners and nongovernmental organizations.
Even before funding has been secured, however, fostering a strong relationship with local communities has been a crucial step in reforming local governance to implement those projects effectively.
The Cambodian government's National Strategic Development Plan (2006-2010), and its update to that plan for the period of 2009 to 2013, acknowledge that decentralization of political power and de-concentration of administrative authority are prerequisites for poverty reduction.
In 2003, Cambodia set national benchmarks with reference to the Millennium Development Goals, committing to halve levels of poverty and hunger by 2015, among other targets.
UNDP has supported Cambodia's decentralization and de-concentration reforms since 1993, when it assisted with the repatriation, resettlement and reintegration of refugees from the camps on the border with Thailand.