Impact of Decentralisation on Cambodia’s Urban Governance
Decentralisation has been pursued as a mechanism to strengthen local democracy and enhance service delivery within local government. There are high expectations that its promises can be realised through local citizens’ engagement in local decision-making processes that deal specifically with issues of local importance. Instituting local-level participatory processes empowers citizens and communities to voice their opinions on local issues, demand responses from local governments, and hold local authorities accountable for the decisions they make.
Through devolution of power and resources to local government, decentralisation affects the way local politics is conducted in both rural and urban areas. At a theoretical level, there is little discussion on the applicability of decentralisation in the urban context, where socioeconomic characteristics and political and functional roles are distinct from those of their rural counterparts. In spite of that, the role of autonomous local government has been campaigned for and promoted ever since decentralisation began to gain currency in developing countries’ reform agendas.
Locally elected government has been instituted in Cambodia since the first council elections in 2002, yet little is known about how local urban authorities, known as sangkats, conduct public affairs. The study seeks to fill this knowledge gap by examining how the reform is affecting local urban governance, especially related to people’s participation in local planning, and the sangkat’s ability to respond to local demands and its downward accountability. Although it has distinct characteristics, urban government adopts the same policy framework established for the decentralisation reform. Sangkats receive regular budget transfers from central government and implement their annual investment plans and development plans as prescribed by the national legal and policy framework.
With modest resources of a few administrative staff and a meagre budget, sangkats have played an important role in the development of small-scale infrastructure in their localities. This is even more remarkable considering that projects can take several years to complete, as the cost often exceeds the sangkat’s annual budget. Public officials make determined efforts to engage local people in planning processes. However, the study noted the common perception held by many urban local councillors that “urban people are too busy to take part in local meetings and planning”. Some councillors claimed that their inability to deliver development and reconcile people’s expectations is a leading cause of declining citizen participation. Similarly, lack of resources and power has limited their ability to be accountable to their citizens; sometimes they could only pay lip service to their responsibility for mobilising resources to support local development. Basic services such as water supply, electricity, sanitation, and slum upgrading are beyond their control. Therefore, there is very little that sangkats can practically do to improve the delivery of these services apart from de facto intervention, though they are keenly aware that people tend to hold them accountable.
This study provides a picture of urban governance in Cambodia through sangkat councillors’ perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses in the exercise of their roles as local representatives. These identified weaknesses can inform policy debate and efforts to design mechanisms that strengthen sangkats’ ability to serve their citizens. Sangkats’ current powers and human and financial resources do not correspond to the scope of work, outputs and services expected of them. Without vested authority and adequate resources, civic participation in local policymaking and thus the legitimacy of sangkats will be weakened. The current challenge is intrinsically linked to and will be addressed by the ongoing discussion on functional assignments to various sub-national governments including the sangkat.