The Implications of Closing Civic Space for Sustainable Development in Cambodia

Published on 30 April 2019

This report on Cambodia is one of a set of four country case studies designed to study the implications of closing civic space for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The case study was commissioned in response to the wave of legal, administrative, political and informal means to restrict civic space and the activities of civil society actors in countries around the world in the past decade. Based on a literature review and conceptual framework developed for the study (see also Hossain et al 2018), the report documents changing civic space in Cambodia. The country is characterized by a centralised political system where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the dominant ruling class. Development policy has prioritized high-growth goals, with documented violations of land, labour and freedom of speech rights in the process. The case study documents the impacts on specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) objectives, including no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), decent work (SDG 8), gender and economic equality (SDGs 5 and 10) inclusive communities (SDG 11), life on the land (SDG 15).
The study found that: Since the near-defeat of the ruling party in the 2013 elections, which was attributed in part to a partisan or pro-opposition civil society and media, civic space has become narrower and the fit between civil society and the state has become more difficult and more contentious; There was evidence of CSOs and related programmes which made contributions to inclusive forms of development, including, but not only, in terms of service delivery; China’s emergence as a development actor in Cambodia appears to be changing the normative environment within which policies on civil society and thinking about its role in the development process are made; Key areas of recent rights violations related to land grabbing and unsustainable land management, labour rights, particularly in the vital global export sectors, and media freedom, where the scope to report independently on problems of corruption or macroeconomic management has been squeezed; Impacts of shrinking civic space can be traced through to: SDG 2 (Zero hunger): food production and small scale agriculture are likely to be affected, particularly among indigenous and minority populations facing the effects of land grabs and policies supporting agricultural commercialization; there is limited space for civil society actors to influence policy, although various efforts at monitoring are made; SDG 5 (Gender (in)equality): the impacts on women’s groups of new regulations restricting advocacy work and mobilization are particularly harsh. Curbing Cambodian women’s organizations is likely to impact adversely on critical areas where women’s development is at stake, including with respect to practices of gender discrimination, boosting women’s participation and land title security, and urban women’s safety; SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth): industrial workers have limited rights, low pay and poor working conditions; however, workers’ rights to organize are very limited, and in practice, labour leaders are subject to violence and intimidation. Cambodia remains low in global value chains, using suppression of (mostly women) workers’ rights to keep wages low; SDG 10 and SDG 11 (Inequalities of income, between rural and urban areas, and within cities and urban communities): economic inequalities are widely understood to have increased, because of the pattern of growth which favours big development projects and dispossesses the less powerful. NGOs have played an important role in supporting inclusive urbanization in a process of rapid real estate development, including in highlighting disparities and priorities for action and actively defending citizens’ rights, but restrictions on media are deepening rural-urban differences; SDG 15 (Life on Land): in a context in which the political elite is closely connected to actors with interests in forests and timber, conservation has been adversely affected by restrictions on civil society’s ability to monitor or campaign effectively against land grabbing, large-scale agricultural concessions and hydroelectric power dam construction. The report concludes with some discussion of the implications of these findings for Cambodia. The present study offers important, albeit limited, insights into the impacts of restricted and repressed civil society on key development outcomes, and highlights issues on which further analysis may help to build the developmental case for civic space in Cambodia.

Cite this publication

Schröder, P. and Young, S. (2019) ‘The Implications of Closing Civic Space for Sustainable Development in Cambodia’, mimeo, IDS


Patrick Schröder

Research Fellow

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Sokphea Young


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