Local Governance in Cambodia

Cambodians exercise their right to vote in the 2008 National Assembly elections. Compared with previous elections, the 2008 elections were marked by lower levels of violence and fewer spoiled ballots, and by a better understanding of electoral processes among officials and the general public. Photo: UNDP Cambodia

A nation in need of reconstruction

Few countries have faced such monumental challenges as Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge regime. Shattered infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and limited subnational governance capacity remained barriers to stability long after the 1993 elections.

As Cambodia rebuilt, UNDP provided support through a programme that began with refugee resettlement and evolved into a nationally owned, decentralized governance programme focused on participatory local development — an initiative that became enshrined in law.

A flexible and progressive partnership

From 1992 – 1995, UNDP collaborated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to promote peace, reconciliation and the reintegration of displaced people. Targeting the communities where the displaced were being resettled, the project focused on rehabilitating infrastructure; improving basic services; and increasing employment, food production and income-generation opportunities.


  • The underlying objective was building the national capacity of the Cambodian people and of the country’s institutions – virtually destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s – to enable full national management.

In 1996, UNDP shifted its focus to the longer-term challenge of local governance, sustainability and participation. The Seila Programme — a UNDP partnership with the UNDP-administered UN Capital Development Fund and the UN Office for Project Services — began as a policy experiment to help subnational authorities assume ownership of a participatory and transparent local development process. By 2002, the programme had supported the election of commune councils in all 1,621 communes (district subdivisions) in the country. Within two years, the Government extended the systems and capacity development mechanisms developed under the programme to the entire country. By 2004, over 2,000 subnational officials and 12,000 commune counsellors were performing functions focused on governance, capacity development and the delivery of local infrastructure and services.

As commune-level reforms deepened, the demand for reform at district and provincial levels increased. In 2005, the Government adopted a strategic framework for decentralization, including a national decentralization committee. By May 2008, 106 of the 193 district governments were receiving block grants, setting priorities with the commune councils in their jurisdiction and overseeing implementation of infrastructure and service delivery projects. One year later, subnational councils were elected in all provinces and districts. Since then UNDP has supported the design of a 10-year national programme on democratic development at the district level.

Throughout this process UNDP helped build an impressive international partnership. While the annual programme grew from US$15 million in 2001 to $90 million in 2010, UNDP’s financial contribution averaged 3 percent throughout, while it continuously provided the bulk of technical assistance.

Making a difference: the transformational impact

UNDP assistance led to real improvement in local lives. Vastly improved access to markets and services resulting from thousands of small-scale commune projects has contributed to the decrease in poverty from 35 percent in 2002 to 25.8 percent in 2010.

A programme-based approach was adopted in Cambodia to reduce the transaction costs of aid management, incorporating many of the systems and procedures developed by UNDP. As UNDP’s own support is phased out, its advisers have been directly contracted by the Government, extending UNDP’s legacy into the future.

The complexity of democratic development reforms — which involve both political and administrative dimensions — requires a transformation in attitudes and practices at higher levels of government, and well-designed capacity development strategies to support the gradual transfer of functions to district administrations. While the Government’s own financial contribution to the new programme has increased to 70 percent, substantial international funding is still required for the early phase, until domestic resources can adequately cover needs.

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Lessons Learned

Several lessons emerge from Cambodia’s experience:


A strategic analysis and vision carried the programme: From the outset, there was a consistent two-pronged vision: improving the relationship between civil society and the local state, and local level poverty alleviation. This vision was articulated at the community level, in national policy and in the international community.


A chain is as strong as its weakest link: The programme continuously worked at all levels of administration to ensure that roles and functions were appropriately assigned and to engage all levels of government in the reform process. The programme acknowledged that local political processes could not be divorced from national process.


Holistic programmatic thinking: UNDP worked simultaneously on three interrelated dimensions: concepts, systems and structures, and delivery of investment and services.


Flexible implementation within a strategic focus: Starting small, the programme consistently aimed at subnational governance reform, while piloting approaches that moved the agenda forward and upwards. International experience was modified to fit local circumstances, informed by input from stakeholders. The result was a high degree of national ownership.


A flexible and learning-oriented management style: ‘Learning by doing’ was practiced in virtually all areas and phases of the project. Given the unstable context, and the original low knowledge base, this approach was a necessity.


Donors willing to take risks: Beginning with UNDP, and later with the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, flexibility and responsiveness to evolving opportunities and challenges were permitted, without the restrictions often imposed by design and logical frameworks.


The value of decentralization in post-conflict countries: Both in Cambodia as a whole and particularly in the former Khmer Rouge-held territories, decentralized and participatory planning, decision-making and implementation contributed to local-level peace and reconciliation.