YI: Observers have told me that a number of factors have affected the development of Cambodia. One is poor governance, the lack of transparency and corruption. These are serious problems. What should be the priorities?
Chhith Sam Ath: Governance and transparency are very important for Cambodia. In order to tackle this there must be separation of powers, implementation of existing laws and increase economic opportunities for poor and vulnerable groups which for a large part means investing heavily in poverty reduction: in agriculture, rural development and social safety nets. However, the Government should bear in mind that increasing economic opportunities is only one dimension of improving people's livelihoods. Reducing poverty depends as much on whether poor people have the ability to effectively voice their concerns with the authorities regarding their opportunities for economic progress. By expanding citizens' involvement in and influence over how they are governed, democracy brings principles of participation and accountability to the process of human development. The expansion of political freedom that comes with democracy is a desirable outcome in itself, but democratic institutions and processes are also critical to the achievement of human development. A well-functioning electoral process in a multi-party democracy makes politicians more likely to respond to people's needs and aspirations. Only when the poor and vulnerable have the chance to draw attention to the difficulties they are facing, and are able to seek some sort of justice, can equitable growth occur.
YI: But are people participating in the decision-making process? Are they going to vote? Have they voted in the last election? Are people aware of their rights?
Chhith Sam Ath: Most people are aware of their rights but not all come to vote in the elections. Economic needs and social needs are two different things. They would like to see more development projects. It means they would like to see improvements in the form of development projects.
YI: So people are speaking out on the programs that affect them in the community?
Chhith Sam Ath: Yes, they are. But they should be more effective.
YI:I think that is a common problem in many developing countries. Let me ask you now, you are the executive director for the NGO Forum on Cambodia. What is this association, who are its members and what are its objectives?
Chhith Sam Ath: The NGO Forum is made up of more than 18 non-government organizations, with a combination of local and international, exists for information sharing, debate and advocacy on priority issues affecting Cambodia's development. It has an important role to highlight the impact of development processes and economic, social and political changes on Cambodians. So, the main objective is to give rights to the poor.
Its vision is to have a well-informed and empowered population participating in a strong and vibrant civil society, to benefit the poor and the vulnerable in the country.
YI: And what is the relationship between the civil society and the Cambodian government today? Do they trust each other?
Chhith Sam Ath: It depends on the issues that civil societies are working on. Those working on development assistance and service delivery seem to be more trusted than those who are working on issues of human rights, democracy and advocacy work.