A program that teaches villagers how to develop a commune’s economy will be expanded as part of the government’s continuing efforts to decentralize the public administration.
The Seila program, a pilot decentralization project jointly operated by the UN Development Program and Carere, will be available in 100 communes in seven more provinces next year.
The program will reach communes nationwide by the end of 2005, when it will be available in more than 1,200 communes in 17 provinces, according to a proposal prepared by the Seila Task Force. The expansion is expected to reach three-fourths of the country’s 1,600-plus communes.
About 1.6 million people in 220 communes have been part of the pilot project currently operating in the Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces.
Government officials and experts said they expect the Seila program will be a model for soon-to-be elected commune councils in managing socio-economic development projects. Elections for commune councils, seen as the most crucial decentralization initiative for the country, are scheduled to take place next year.
The government for the first time plans to set aside nearly $1.5 million from the national coffers next year to finance the five-year program, which is estimated to cost $95 million.
Under Seila’s initiatives, a commune development committee in each commune will be established to manage planning, financing and implementing local development activities. With support from the UNDP/Carere, the committee will take full responsibility to develop their own communities.
The development activities include small-scale irrigation projects, rural road construction and livestock improvement efforts.
A UNDP evaluation team found earlier this year that Seila, a Khmer word meaning “stone foundation,” has succeeded beyond expectations, said Peter Robertson, UNDP/Carere deputy program manager. He credited the learning-by-doing approach for the program’s success.
Robertson said, however, that a national policy on decentralization should be better developed to coordinate Seila’s expansion and the establishment of commune councils .
The government is supposed to do it its own part by pushing the efforts to hold commune elections, forming the National Committee for Support to the Communes, and creating the Commune Revenue Fund to manage commune budgets, according to the plan.
Paul Freer, an economic observer at International Management & Investment Consultants, said he welcomes Seila’s expansion.
“Most of the [national and international] money doesn’t filter into peoples’ needs,” he said. “They can receive real support if the decentralization system works.”
Though the Seila program is providing useful training in local economic management, some question whether it will widen the differences in the ability to manage a commune between areas where the program does and does not exist.
And experts said they fear that those communes where the Seila program doesn’t exist will have a difficult start because they lack the financial and technical support provided by the program.
Still, any training is better than nothing, since most Cambodians have little knowledge of all the aspects that are part of running a commune, Robertson said. “If you provide technical support, people can do many things for themselves,” he said. “What they lack is a [well-established] system and confidence to implement projects.”