Civil society in Cambodia has been strengthened with the help of Swedish aid. That is the opinion of the debaters who have evaluated 20 years of aid to the country.


Democratic aid to Cambodia is not in vain

Swedish democracy aid has had a positive influence in Cambodia, despite the country's government becoming increasingly authoritarian. It is written by Henny Andersen, Karl-Anders Larsson and Joakim Öjendal, authors of a unique study that looks at support over a 20-year period.

Democracy support has become an increasingly important part of Swedish development assistance. Democracy and human rights is the thematic area in which Sida invests the most and accounts for about 30 percent of payments. But there is no clear definition of democracy support, nor are there any established methods for how it can be evaluated. The traditional evaluation methods are based on the premise that it is possible to establish clear causal links between development assistance efforts and results, and are best suited for defined projects for a limited period. Democracy support does not meet those conditions, as it is based on processes throughout society for a long time.

There have generally been few evaluations of aid to a country over a long period, and none of the studies that have been done have focused on aid to democracy and human rights. Spring was recently published study of the Swedish Democracy Aid to Cambodia 1997-2017, on behalf of the Expert Group for Aid Analysis (EBA). It is a unique attempt at a long-term study of democracy aid. Over such a long period, it is necessary to study the political and economic development in the country and, in parallel, the development of Swedish development assistance. The main question for the study is whether, and if so how, Swedish development assistance has had a positive impact on democracy and human rights in Cambodia during these 20 years.

We make no attempt to estimate the effect in quantitative terms, but focus on areas and time periods where Sweden can be assumed to have had a positive qualitative contribution. The purpose is to contribute to learning for future development assistance, and thus not to evaluate the individual development assistance initiatives per se.

One objection to studying the effects of democracy aid in Cambodia in particular could be that the situation for democracy and human rights has clearly deteriorated in the country, especially in recent years. A not uncommon perception is therefore that the aid has been fruitless or even harmful. However, this is not an obvious conclusion because the overall development depends on a number of factors, many of which are much stronger than Swedish development assistance.

Our question is whether Sweden has had an influence in certain important processes and whether this has yielded any long-term sustainable results. We approached the issue partly through an overall analysis of the development of democracy in Cambodia and partly by focusing on three areas that were dominant in Swedish aid to Cambodia 1997-2017: decentralization and local democracy, basic education and a democratic civil society,

In Cambodia, these central conditions for democracy were only weakly developed in the mid-1990s. Our conclusion is that they have undergone a significant development during the 20-year period and that Swedish development assistance has had a positive influence in several respects. Mainly when it comes to democracy from a substantial and participatory perspective, for example through increased political awareness and activity at grassroots level and a strengthened civil society. However, the effects on democratic procedures (such as electoral procedures and an independent judicial system) have been limited.

Support for democratization in a country like Cambodia with a background of genocide and civil war must include support for functioning institutions and the judiciary and should, in order to succeed, be based on an active role in civil society. The risks of failure are great unless a thorough analysis is made of the power structure in the country and the political reality behind official statements and programs. Here we mean that the Western donors, including Sweden, have failed. Sufficient account has not been taken of the informal power and dependency structures that exist at all levels of society. This has led to a fairly technical assistance with a focus on short-term measurable results and an overconfidence in both capacity and institutional development and on the possibility of transferring foreign systems and expertise.

Cambodia's constitution and institutions were largely designed by Western donors and experts based on a liberal model of democracy. It was never fully rooted in the political leadership of Cambodia. During the 20-year period studied, dependence on Western aid has diminished and been replaced by an ever-increasing Chinese influence. Economic development has been positive at the same time as the political system has become increasingly authoritarian. A major step in this direction was taken when the largest opposition party was dissolved in November 2017. The background was that the ruling party (Cambodian People's Party, CPP) felt threatened by the democratic forces supported by, among other things, Swedish aid.

However, the development of local governance, education and civil society remains. This can, if the political conditions change, constitute a force for future democratization. We therefore believe that there is room for continued Swedish assistance to democracy and human rights in Cambodia. But it requires a strengthened approach in terms of flexibility and readiness for change, based on an understanding of the development of political-economic processes at all levels of society.

Read the full report on aid to Cambodia

I The development archive you can read the entire study on Swedish democracy aid to Cambodia.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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