Governance structure

In Cambodia my job involves strengthening of the local governance. To be able to do that, you’ll have to understand the structure of the governance system in the country. That’s not really easy… here’s what I got from it now.

Un logoLet’s start at the international level. In Europe, the UN is often perceived as something of no great personal interest that consumes a lot of money. Mostly we only hear about it when there’s a discussion in the Security Council about the conviction of a conflict and/or permission for military intervention. That’s completely different in Cambodia. The UN took over the governance of the country more than twenty years ago and has stayed heavily involved since then. UNICEF, UNDP, UN-V, UNFPA, WFP, they’re all present here and quite often I encounter UN-logo for an organization I didn’t even know existed. Often they do useful work, but the attitude of Cambodians towards the UN is mixed. That is mainly caused by the behavior of individual UN-personnel. To put it mildly, it’s not always very respectful. This week I encountered one in my office that I had, within three minutes, the urge to kick out immediately. My Cambodian colleagues thought he was “aggressive”. Not a good base to get things done.

asean-logo1Below the international level, there is the regional, the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN. There are 10 ASEAN member countries, and the organization is working in three areas. Of course the economic, but also political/security and social/cultural. ASEAN doesn’t have the influence the EU has on Europe, but it is growing. In 2015 ASEAN-countries will integrate further, especially economically, with the abolition of barriers to trade. It’s a chance for Cambodia, but also a threat to the poor farmers. How competitive will their produce be without protection? What does cheap import from neighbouring countries mean to them (of course it happens now as well, but not legal so probably at a smaller scale). What will happen to investments? On a political level the principle of “no interference in each other’s internal affairs” will still be the principle. Without that, cooperation would not be possible in this region.

Coat_of_arms_of_Cambodia.svgAt national level, government comprises of a prime-minister, 10 deputy prime ministers (of which 6 are ministers as well) and ministers. In total, there are no less than 25 ministries, including a Ministry of the Royal Palace. Besides that, there are countless, formal or informal, inter-ministerial organisations en partnerships. Parliament consists of two chambers. The National Assembly is directly chosen by the citizens, the Senate indirect. The national level is the level where all important decisions are taken, where the real power resides.

Below the national level we have the sub-national authorities (I didn’t make it up!), divided into three layers. The Provinces, 25 in total including the capital Phnom Penh, consist of a Council, a Board and administrative staff. None of them is chosen directly by citizens. The staff is formally appointed by the Council. The Council is not directly elected, but indirectly by the members of the Commune Council (see below). The Board is not chosen or appointed by the Council, but by the Ministry of Interior. The strangest is that you would have to be employed by the Ministry to be appointed to the Provincial Board.

meeting with districtAfter the Provincial level it becomes difficult with the names. There are Municipalities, Districts and Khans and after that Communes and Sangkats. Phnom Penh is divided into Khans and the Khans are divided into Sangkats (so our address is Phnom Penh, Khan Chamkar Morn, Sangkat Boeung Keng Kang 1). The other Provinces are divided into Municipalities and Districts. The Municipalities are the larger agglomerations, or the capital of the Province (of which some are very small). The rural area, the largest part of the country, is divided into Districts. Then again, the Municipalities are divided into Sangkats. Logical would be that the Districts would be divided into Communes. In most of the cases that’s true, but… sometimes the Districts have one or a few Sangkats as well. That’s the case when there’s a lot of economic activity, usually tourism, in that area.

Municipalities and Districts have the same structure as the Province, including the indirect election of the Council. The Commune or Sangkat Council is directly chosen by the citizens in the respective area. These Councilors have a busy job, because there is no Board at this level and usually only one or two staff. The Councilors are supposed to do most of the work themselves.

Summarized it looks like this:

governance structure with functions

At an even smaller scale, and not an official part of the governance structure anymore, we have the “villages” (sometimes consisting of a few small settlements), headed by a village chief. These village chiefs often function as liaison between the formal structure and the grassroots level.

This whole structure hasn’t existed very long like this yet, so everyone is still getting used to it and trying to understand who is or should be responsible for what. The Provinces function reasonably well by now, the Communes have received a lot of support and are starting to do their job. Especially the Districts, the youngest layer, only existing since 2009, regularly doubt what they have to do. The Districts are responsible for the democratic development of their area. But that’s the same for the Provinces and the Communes, so what exactly would be the difference between them? In any case, the Districts are supposed to support and facilitate the Communes and to coordinate between the different Communes in the District. Let’s say that several interpretations of their role are possible it’s possible to play a more or less active part. I’ve seen examples of both. So the attention of the Development Partners will be on the functioning of the Districts for the coming years and I’ll see a lot more of them!


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