Enacted in Haste, the NGO Law Is Off to the Worst Possible Start

The debate over the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) has been disappointing. So many core issues have not been addressed. The ruling party seems to be reasserting a contention that only “we know what is best for people.” Time will prove whether this is right or wrong. In the meantime, many citizens could miss out if NGO efforts are curtailed, as has been suggested by donors.

Seventeen years ago, I arrived in Cambodia en route to Haiti. I saw a job advertisement in The Cambodia Daily, applied and was appointed, having stayed ever since. I was tasked with reviewing and fundraising for major national projects.

One was intended to benefit all the nation’s schoolchildren. It was supported by the Royal Government, as well as many donors and development experts. Only one thing was missing: Nowhere were children actually involved. “How can they contribute?” I was asked incredulously. “They are children!”

A few years later, I moved on to working with Cambodia’s many people living with disabilities. We were planning a ceremony to raise awareness of sensory disabilities. Only one thing was missing: Our members living with disabilities and their carers were sidelined, passive observers while those who knew best, public and NGO officials, deliberated for them. “How can they contribute?” I was again asked incredulously. “They are disabled—they can’t communicate, they’re deaf, dumb and blind!”

By now, you get the picture. So you will not be surprised that time and time again, NGO workers like me encounter the same issue, most notably with vulnerable groups. They include former refugees and displaced people and, in more recent years, indigenous peoples, or ethnic minorities. In fact, I would have to say that the most patronizing, condescending and dismissive treatment has been meted out to these “First Peoples of Cambodia,” who actually pre-date the Khmer.

The work of most NGOs is to create space and opportunity for greater choice in life for the people they work with, who would not otherwise obtain such benefits. In this sense, it is an exact opposite philosophy to regimes that are ideologically committed to policies, or deluded in thinking that only they know what is best for their country and people. Oddly, if ever a country learned the cruelest of lessons that this cannot be so, then surely it is Cambodia?

Cambodia’s ruling party should reflect.

Reasserting strict controls over aspects of society, especially without safeguards to guarantee justice, is no way to win hearts and minds. Memories are short. Back in 1998, if it was not for the valiant efforts of NGOs supported by the international community, national elections may never have gone ahead and its rule legitimized after the turmoil of 1997. Even in its best election year, 2008, the CPP only obtained 47.3 percent of registered voters. In 2013, that dropped to just 33.3 percent, reflecting a serious loss of trust.

Trust is just as important to NGOs as it is to politicians, probably more so because they need to retain the confidence of their donors as well as their beneficiaries. The question is whether Lango, having been legislated with undue haste, can build trust. By disregarding the wishes of so many parties, surely it’s off to the worst possible start.

So where do we go from here, and in the run-up to the next election? Given how much political capital has been invested, the NGO law is unlikely to be a law passed but rarely acted upon, like the 2006 Monogamy Law. Current official administrative arrangements for NGOs are likely to continue—either fraught or unproblematic depending on their particular relations with authorities.

Probably, the government will wait to see what happens with the emerging community groups, especially young people who enlivened the 2013 election scene. The spirit of the NGO law is likely to be used more than its letter, at least at first, as officials at local level continue to stymie activism.

Meanwhile, other factors will be monitored, the ones that helped deliver previous CPP victories. First, how divided is the opposition? Will the CNRP split apart? Will Funcinpec be resurgent? Will new parties make inroads? Secondly, will there be another crisis, rallying nationalism, as happened with anti-Thai riots in 2003 and the Preah Vihear conflict in 2008?

If easy victories look likely in both the commune and national elections, NGOs may enjoy a reprieve. But will it last long, or just put off the evil day?

John Lowrie has worked in Cambodia since 1998 as a country representative for three international NGOs and an adviser to seven local development and human rights organizations.

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