Working Papers   132

Civil Society Organisations and Youth Civic Engagement in Cambodia

Published: 31-Oct-2021
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Civic engagement is “how citizens participate in the life of a community to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future” (Adler and Goggin 2005, p. 236). In Cambodia, civic engagement has been promoted by civil society organisations (CSOs) since 1993. The organisations covered by the abbreviation “CSO” are many in Cambodia, but they consist of, and are not limited to, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), youth associations, community-based organisations (CBOs), self-help groups and small clubs. There are around 3,000 NGOs registered officially with the Ministry of Interior as local NGOs and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation as international NGOs (INGOs) (Suárez and Marshall 2014). The core development work of many of these NGOs is not focused entirely on human rights, democratic development and governance, and environmental issues: they are also working to improve livelihoods by integrating rural development approaches within their agendas (Mansfield 2008). The exact figure of CBOs remains obscure (Brown 2008; UNCT 2009) as some have not registered officially with the relevant authorities while others have merely emerged to address a particular development issue and then halted operations. CBOs still exist in every village and are visible or invisible to outsiders (Öjendal 2013). Those NGOs and CBOs focus more broadly on local development; however, there has been an emerging trend of NGOs funding youth civic engagement, seeking not only to enhance youth capacity for employment opportunities, but also to engage in democratic development and participation (OECD 2017). The ultimate aim of promoting youth engagement in civic activities is to mobilise young adults to be members of NGOs and CSOs (BBC Media Action and UNDP 2014; Ginwright and James 2002; Rogers, Mediratta and Shah 2012; Terriquez 2015). Past studies have demonstrated that young people tend not to associate with CSOs (UNDP 2010; CDRI 2017; Heng, Vong and Chheat 2014). In the context of funding channelled towards youth programs, the relevant NGOs and CSOs have a role in promoting youth civic engagement.  The question is, could CSOs engage more fully and successfully with youth, not only to promote capacity development for employment opportunities, but also to enable civic activities, especially when those young people are disenchanted? This is coupled with the rise of political pressure on particular civic activities of CSOs after the 2013 national election, and constitutes a core context for this study. At a time of changing “space” for CSOs, this study will address the following questions: 

1) How do CSOs, including organisations, associations and clubs, keep young people engaged?

2) How do CSOs motivate and enrol young people in civic activities at a time when the “space” relating to civil society and polity in the country is changing? and 

3) How can CSOs be supported to provide long-term mobilisation of young people to sustain civic engagement? 

Addressing these questions will contribute to an understanding of youth and civic engagement in an era of changing space, and advance previous studies in the country (Mansfield 2008; BBC Media Action and UNDP 2014; Heng, Vong and Chheat 2014; OECD 2017; Peou and Zinn 2015; Eng and Hughes 2017; Eng et al. 2019). 

This paper draws on comparative discussions with three types of organisation chosen for this study in terms of their strategies relating to, and effectiveness in, promoting civic engagement according to their agenda. The first is an independent organisation – A – receiving funding from international donors. Organisation A’s program activities and approaches to promote youth civic engagement are, however, characterised as “co-optation or integration” as they implement their program with local government/ local authorities, and the ruling party. The second organisation – B –  received funding from international donors but operates its programs independently. The third organisation – C – is classified as State-dependent. It is operated in alignment with the State, and has a central office headed by a senior government official. This organisation’s structure is entwined with the State system, from national to provincial, down to commune and village levels. 

This paper argues that organisation C, the State’s and ruling party’s de facto union of youths, dominates civic forms of youth engagement in Cambodia as its operational activities and branches are affiliated with the structures of the State systems and the current leading political party - the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). With sustained financial and political support, organisation C has been capable of engaging more youths to take part in its activities. Meanwhile, organisations A and B have manoeuvred their strategies of civic engagement through limited “spaces”, leveraging activities under the control and monitoring process of the State.  In this context, organisation C has been more sustained in promoting youth participation in the activities that it has identified, given the diverse sources of financial support it has access to. Organisations A and B appear less sustainable in terms of their strategies to engage with young people and they rely substantially on international donors to fund their activities.

To unpack the preceding arguments further, the remainder of this working paper will begin with: (i) a review of the relevant literature on the “space” CSOs occupy and on civic engagement in Cambodia; and (ii) the detailed methodologies of data collection and data analysis. It will then present: (iii) the empirical results, and (iv) the concluding discussion.

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