Armed with knowledge, a ‘citizen leader’ in Cambodia makes a difference

February 13, 2017

It’s a sweltering afternoon in northwestern Cambodia, but the heat doesn’t seem to bother Ngek Lyna. She’s at the front of a small meeting room, energetically calling on citizens and jotting notes on a whiteboard.

“What else?” says Lyna, who is in her early 20s, slight and usually smiling.

She points to a man near the back. The ice factory nearby still isn’t draining its runoff properly, he says, and water is flowing everywhere.

“Ah, yes,” Lyna says, nodding.

She is what Pact calls a citizen leader. A few years ago, when she was about 19, she volunteered to take part in Pact’s PROCEED project. Funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, PROCEED is improving transparency, accountability and citizen inclusion in Cambodia’s sub-national governance. Working through local NGOs, PROCEED helps both citizens – these are the citizen leaders – and local government officials understand and fulfill their roles and responsibilities. In addition to trainings, the project provides lasting support and hands-on coaching and mentoring.

Citizen leaders in Thma Koul district gather for a network meeting.

Before PROCEED, officials rarely listened to citizens’ concerns, and citizens often were too afraid to voice them. The public usually wasn’t even invited to local government meetings.

That is where citizen leaders like Lyna come in. Across Cambodia, PROCEED works in 12 districts, each of which the country divides into communes. From each commune, PROCEED selects citizen leaders to receive in-depth training on how to effectively engage with local government councils.

Lyna, who is from Thma Koul district in Battambang, says she was interested from a young age in helping her community, but she didn’t know how.

“I would see problems, but I didn’t know how to address them,” she recalls. “And I was very shy.”

Through PROCEED, she learned that local councils are required to include citizens in their proceedings. She learned how to facilitate meetings with her neighbors and other citizen leaders to decide together on issues to be raised to officials, and she learned how to raise them.

Today, no longer shy, Lyna is the deputy head of Thma Koul’s citizen leaders network, which brings all of the district’s citizen leaders together.

“What else?” she asks, writing the ice factory issue on the whiteboard.

After she and the other citizen leaders finish their list, they begin winnowing it to their most pressing concerns, which will be raised at Thma Koul’s next district council meeting.

Lyna takes a break with other citizen leaders during a recent network meeting.

It’s a process that’s become easier as local officials have become more receptive.

In addition to inviting citizens, councils that have worked with PROCEED now hold their meetings closer to villages and report on their activities. They include time for the public’s comments and questions, and bring technical line staff from government departments to help answer them. They are hosting public forums on specific issues and are even subject to performance evaluations by constituents.

Another Pact project, TRANSMIT, recently developed an app to help Cambodians track concerns they’ve raised to officials.

“Because PROCEED is also training the councils on their responsibilities, the relationships have improved,” Lyna says. “We have changed, and the government has changed. Before, they weren’t holding public forums regularly. If they didn’t feel like it, they’d just skip it. Now they know the procedures.”

She offers an example.

“Recently, we raised the issue of bumps in the road that were caused by flooding. Very soon, the council worked to fix it.”

But Lyna is quick to add that the problem was not the government’s alone to solve.

“The issues in the community, they are our issues,” she says.

“So they are ours to raise. Not anyone else’s.”