Written by Louise Coventry.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia are wholly reliant on foreign funds: All funded NGOs in Cambodia receive foreign funding. Moreover, NGOs in Cambodia have emerged under the sponsorship of local patrons and foreign funders: Most owe ‘their existence to the influence and financial support of international donors instead of being the consequence of the gradual opening up of democratic spaces or the scaling up of grassroots organisations’. With few exceptions, NGOs are unlikely to have an empowered constituency.

Political elites in Cambodia may concur that NGOs are a potential threat to the political order, but for different reasons. Securing a more equitable distribution of state resources diverts these resources from existing state-business partnerships necessary to oil the wheels of political patronage.

NGOs in Cambodia often do not conform to mainstream (Western) understandings of how civil society should behave. NGOs in Cambodia are likely to continue relying on long-standing patterns of patron-client relations and generally prefer to engage in mutual assistance and service delivery rather than advocacy. This situation forces an acknowledgement that mainstream (Western) conceptualisations of civil society have low relevance and applicability to Cambodia.

The functional equivalent of civil society in Cambodia is complex patron-client connections. Cambodia, like much of Asia, is dominated by such networks and ties. These ties entail a powerful sense of obligation, reciprocity and indebtedness. Patronage networks are not funded or supported by international donors. To the extent they are acknowledged, they are likely to be framed only as problems to be overcome.

Donors generally fund civil society organisations, in this case, Cambodian NGOs, as if they are an unproblematic given. Their enthusiasm to promote democracy leads many international donors to make normative assumptions about the relationship between civil society, development and democratisation. Donor discourse and practice reifies civil society as a natural and historically inevitable component of a developed capitalist economy, capable of engendering increased democracy. These assumptions manifest themselves in often naïve initiatives to strengthen civil society, leading some theorists to suggest that civil society is a neo-colonial project driven by global elites in their own interests.

Until the nineteenth century Cambodia had no durable, functionally important groups or voluntary associations aside from the family and the Buddhist monastic order, or sangha. Lay positions associated with temples or ‘wats’ offered the only avenue for community participation and leadership outside of the family. Less than 4 percent of Cambodian non-government organisations (NGOs) were founded in the 1980s or earlier. Longstanding NGOs generally trace their history back to the international NGOs that worked in refugee camps on the Thai border after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodian NGOs have grown exponentially since 1991, to the point where the conception of civil society in Cambodia is commonly conflated with the presence of NGOs. How should we understand this rise? An extreme neoliberal view may regard increasingly strident NGOs as a potential threat, powered by vested interests intent on diverting public resources from efficient private investments into rents or collective goods. Alternatively, NGOs can also be seen as co-opted by neoliberalism, filling gaps in services and carrying the agenda of international financial institutions and donors. Political elites in Cambodia may concur that NGOs are a potential threat to the political order, but for different reasons. Securing a more equitable distribution of state resources diverts these resources from existing state-business partnerships necessary to oil the wheels of political patronage. Mainstream liberals would regard the rise of NGOs in a Tocquevillean sense, as the inevitable upsurge of a progressive and entrepreneurial middle-class straining against the restrictions of the state. The World Bank and other multi- and bilateral donors seem to regard NGOs and civil society as a potential store of entrepreneurial energies and would-be allies against governments, bureaucracies and elites that resist market reforms and ‘good governance’.

Contemporary investment in civil society in Cambodia by the World Bank and other development organisations takes two forms: social capital construction, often framed as capacity building, and administrative and political decentralisation. The underpinning assumptions are that decentralisation will liberate society from the constraints of centralised authoritarian control. In addition, it is argued that local powerbrokers, criminals and partisan groups will be depoliticised through capacity building programs and that hyper-decentralisation (as promoted through microcredit and small scale participatory infrastructure creation), will penetrate through the uncivil elements of ‘civil society’ to mobilise atomised individuals at grassroots level. This approach confuses the relationship between democratic transition and civil society. Hughes, for example, argues that creating individual opportunities further atomises society rather than building political communities. This effectively vacates political space to the state and undermines civil society. Simultaneously, investment in capacity development avoids measures that upset existing power relations and therefore ignores how existing power relations underpin and perpetuate poverty and marginalisation.

The above analysis illustrates that international actors and donors do not have a sufficiently nuanced and theoretically rich understanding of how best to engage with civil society and NGOs in Cambodia. Many argue that NGOs are the creation of, and driven by, the imperatives of international donors: The weakness of civil society in Cambodia makes it extremely vulnerable to shifts in donor funding and/or pressures to professionalise, sometimes called ‘NGO-isation’; (Yacobi 2007). This situation is far from ideal and sets the scene for much mutual misunderstanding.

Misunderstandings are apparent in practice, notwithstanding the presence of so many committed, well-intentioned and hard-working donors, donor representatives and NGO professionals in Cambodia. These misunderstandings include:

  • Donors (inadvertently or otherwise) pressuring small, informal civil society groups in Cambodia towards NGO-isation. Donors often struggle to determine how best to apply a ‘light touch’ in supporting emerging civil society groups. One of the results of NGO-isation is the shifting of the focus of organisations away from constituents and towards donors.
  • NGOs abandoning or rewriting their vision and mission in the face of changing donor priorities (discussed above).
  • Donors being unable to find NGOs to partner with, thus resorting to partnerships with known poor performers in order to disperse the required level of funding.
  • NGOs being established as a vehicle for self-enrichment or as a status symbol, for example, by a senior NGO staff member whose ambitions for leadership have been thwarted in another similar NGO.
  • NGOs founding their governance mechanisms on exchanges of favours, consistent with models of patronage: ‘I’ll sit on your board if you sit on mine.’

NGOs in Cambodia have significant revenues, are perceived as a lucrative opportunity for employment and deliver services that would otherwise by the responsibility of government. They have made many significant contributions to national development in Cambodia. But the potential of a genuine partnership between donors and NGOs is far from realised. It is time for donors to reflect more critically on the context for civil society in Cambodia and the perverse if unintended impacts of their investment in civil society groups. It is also time for NGOs to review their role in civil society. The powerful sense of obligation, reciprocity and indebtedness engendered by patron-client ties can surely be leveraged more creatively to build a better society for all.

Louise Coventry is a PhD candidate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University). Her research explores the governance of civil society organisations in Cambodia. Currently, Louise is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and she works as an organisational development consultant and facilitator across Southeast Asia. Louise spent six years in Phnom Penh working with civil society organisations on peace-building and capacity development issues. Image credit: CC by Sodanie Chea/Flickr.



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