July 8, 2010 — Every month Phrang Seyhou, 25, and her team go from village to village in Banteay Meanchey’s Toeuk Thla Sangkat compiling a list of villagers’ concerns and needs. Then they submit their findings to Sangkat council members.
“We randomly select 15 or 20 villagers from each village and ask them for information,” says Ms Seyhou, who is disabled. “What we mainly want to learn about is what villagers want their local authorities to provide.”
Ms Seyhou is a member of a youth group in Banteay Meanchey province supported by the People’s Center for Development and Peace (PDP-Center), a Non-Governmental Organization that works on building liberal democratic ideals, respect for human rights, transparency, peace, and promoting well-being among people and youth in both urban and rural areas. With $6,500 support from the World Bank’s Civil Society Grant in 2009, PDP-Center focuses this support on building civic engagement in local governance processes and building the bridges between local authorities and their constituents.
Ms. Seyhou and her team have identified four main things villagers want of their local authorities: they want them to build roads, an irrigation system and a kindergarten; and they want a solution to the problem of migration from the country to other countries, such as Thailand.
The team submitted these findings to Sangkat council members for their consideration for the Sangkat development plan. One of the four findings has been answered already: Sangkat funds have been used for an irrigation system covering three villages. The Sangkat is still considering ways to address the other three concerns.
The First Deputy Sangkat Chief of Toeuk Thla, Houv Sovann, says he welcomes youth involvement and sees their activities as a good collaboration with his authority.
“We welcome their support; they help us to know more about our community’s needs and concerns,” he said. “We do not feel that they give us more problems to solve.”
Mr Sovann acknowledges that his Sangkat has limited ability to reach all people to learn their needs and concerns, and says the youth group meeting directly with people helps bridge this gap. He also feels that youth groups establish trust between local authorities and their constituents and help villagers to speak up.
Farmer Chan In, 54, a resident of Dei Lo village, in Touek Thla Commune, Banteay Meanchey province, feels happy with youth groups who come to meet her to learn of her needs. “I am very happy because they come here and bring our concerns to our Sangkat authorities,” she says. “I don’t have the confidence to talk to them [Sangkat authorities] directly.”
Besides helping communities, the youth program also helps young people to get better experience of community development and help them with their educational skills. Most of them are studying at university, majoring in community development.
“Volunteering here is helping my study a lot,” says Ing Borei, 22, one of the youth group members and a second year student at Banteay Meanchey University majoring in Community Development. “My class teaches me the theory, but here I learn real issues.”
Borei’s teammate, Kean Sengly, also 22 and a second year two student, says volunteering has helped him identify personal mistakes, for example, crazy driving on his motorbike. “I want my community to praise me,” he says.
Volunteering has helped change the way of some Cambodians of the older generation look at youth.
“I used only to see young people as causing problems; I didn’t trust them,” says an elderly villager, Chan In. “Now I see there are some good young people who are helping us and our community. They have good ideas and have better knowledge than us.”