Educating children, getting quality basic healthcare services at a clinic, or being provided with trustworthy information from your local administration... What seems to be a given in Switzerland is far from that in Cambodia – a country in South-East Asia whose population will soon reach 16 million. Less than a fifth of Cambodians live in absolute poverty (compared with 36% in 2000) but half of the population continue to lead a very precarious existence, mainly because of a lack of quality public services.
The latter fact can be explained by many factors, including the not-so-distant genocidal nightmare perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge (1975-89) and the current political regime, which is somewhat dirigiste and centralised.
A ten-year programme
However, times are changing. And the SDC prefers to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty. Since 2013 it has been funding an extensive programme being piloted by the Cambodian Ministry of Interior to decentralise and democratise public services. The ten-year programme (2010-19) builds on a series of local and regional elections that have taken place since 2002 on the basis of promising new legislation adopted at the turn of the century.
Over the years various administrative bodies have been set up at the communal, district and provincial level, employing a total of 10,000 staff. The challenge for the 'National Programme for Sub-National Democratic Development' now is to strengthen the capacities available to these officials and to make local administrations as citizen-oriented as possible. This could involve establishing one-stop administrative shops capable of delivering multiple services or creating community bodies to register and process complaints.
At the same time, the reforms address several technical issues ranging from human resources management to decentralising taxation. Successful decentralisation also implies maximum coordination between all levels of government and between all line ministries regarding public services (healthcare, education, finance, etc.).
For the SDC another key objective of the programme is the growing emphasis that should be placed on citizen participation – for people to take part in defining needs and priorities. Involving citizens in decision-making is very concrete when it comes to the consultation forums organised at the communal and district level. In the villages, planning meetings are held to give people the chance to talk about how central government subsidies can best be used.
This vision of local governance – participatory and democratic – ensures that state agencies serve all segments of the population, from women to the most vulnerable. It also helps, slowly but surely, to restore people's trust towards the authorities, which has been all but completely eroded after years of civil war.
Coalition of donors
Besides Switzerland a large coalition of donors is supporting the Cambodian authorities' programme of decentralisation and democratisation. Since September 2015, Switzerland has had the honour to co-chair the donor technical group in charge of monitoring progress together with the Asian Development Bank. This gives Switzerland regular opportunities to raise issues it considers to be a priority for the poorest segments of the Cambodian population.