Using economic empowerment to build civic engagement in closed contexts: Lessons from Cambodia

December 6, 2023
An entrepreneur in Cambodia who took part in the WE Act project. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact
An entrepreneur in Cambodia who took part in the WE Act project. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

When Pact began the USAID-funded Women Entrepreneurs Act project, or WE Act, in 2019, we knew that the central challenge would be how to empower Cambodian women and youth to meaningfully exercise their human rights while navigating a context marked by rapidly declining civic space. Nearly five years later, we are proud of what WE Act’s partners – namely local organizations and communities – have achieved.

Funded under the Freedom House-led Human Rights Support Mechanism, WE Act fulfilled its mandate of bringing “new” actors into civic processes and contributed to successful local advocacy initiatives. We credit WE Act’s success to a deliberate strategy of combining economic strengthening activities targeting women entrepreneurs, mostly micro and small businesses owners, with civic strengthening interventions focused on activities such as advocacy and civic education. WE Act supported targeted communities to advance their socioeconomic rights, which were seen as especially relevant to the lives of young women entrepreneurs (YWEs) and other youth, while less sensitive than civil-political rights. As a result, WE Act supported communities and local partners to overcome their fear of participating in advocacy-related processes and built engagement around issues where there were opportunities for constructive dialogue with state and other authorities. 

Using the framework of socioeconomic rights, WE Act supported its partners to mobilize youth and YWEs to achieve results on issues central to social, economic and political marginalization. This meant tackling issues like the absence of social protection for street venders and other informal workers, lack of finance for YWEs and the underrepresentation of youth in local decision-making. WE Act partners, for example, successfully lobbied the government to extend public health benefits to informal workers, won promises from two banks to extend market rate loans to YWEs, and pushed commune councils to codify their commitment to youth participation in local government.

As WE Act closed this fall, we conducted a learning review to critically examine the project’s distinct strategy for promoting civic engagement. Specifically, the learning review focused on two questions: How did WE Act support civic engagement within a restricted political environment?and What does the WE Act experience hold for future programming in Cambodia and similar contexts? 

The learning review found that the WE Act strategy of integrating economic and civic strengthening activities and focusing on key socioeconomic issues was a fit for the Cambodian context, and may be a match for other environments marked by civic closure. The economic orientation of the project meant that WE Act leveraged the interests of new actors and allowed them to engage on issues around which there was maximum space within a closing context.

In hopes that the WE Act “recipe” for civic engagement may prove useful to others working in Cambodia or similar operating environments, we are sharing its seven top-line elements:

1. Lead with economic strengthening. WE Act adopted an approach of early engagement in economic strengthening activities. This approach tapped into young women’s interest in livelihoods and enterprise development support and enabled the project to build trust with business engagement partners, YWEs and key government agencies before investing heavily in civic strengthening interventions.

2. Carefully frame civic engagement activities. Sensitive to local partners’ discomfort and outright fear of advocacy-related activities and engagement with authorities, WE Act carefully framed its civic engagement interventions and chose “safe” language to describe its objectives with the aim of maximizing participation in activities aimed at advancing socioeconomic rights.

3. Prioritize rights-focused capacity development. Because so many project partners – and the YWEs and youth they served – were new to civic engagement, WE Act used capacity development interventions focused on socioeconomic rights as a foundation for building their interest, comfort and confidence to participate in advocacy and other civic processes.

4. Use evidence as a basis for civic engagement. Nearly all civic engagement activities supported by WE Act began with assisting local constituencies to generate data and evidence related to concrete socioeconomic rights issues. Evidence gathering processes built the confidence of local groups to participate in advocacy activities and laid the groundwork for constructive dialogue with state and other authorities.

5. Embrace slow coalition building. WE Act used a slow and steady approach to coalition building, including between civic and business-oriented actors. The project first worked with local partners individually to identify and engage with “their” issues, before fostering collaborations around issues they had in common with other partners.

6. Align civic engagement with an understanding of how the government bureaucracy works. WE Act’s partners drove advocacy activities based on a reading of how to make incremental progress within the hierarchical, consensus-oriented Cambodian government bureaucracy. This included using layered approaches for fostering constructive dialogue and garnering support across multiple levels of targeted ministries, departments and municipalities.

7. Engage private sector institutions. WE Act partners complemented government-focused advocacy with outreach and engagement of private sector institutions, particularly financial institutions. Business association partners were able to leverage their deep connections with the private sector to achieve concrete outcomes related to expanding access to market-based loans for YWEs.

To read more about these approaches and to learn about the project and its partners’ various results and challenges, see our complete WE Act learning review