Cambodia is rapidly progressing towards its goal of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030. The Royal Government of Cambodia has identified four main strategic policy areas on which to focus its public policies and achieve this goal: human resource development; economic diversification; private sector development and employment; and sustainable development.
The policy decisions in these areas will require knowledge systems that are able to generate and provide access to high quality and timely data, analysis and evidence.
What are the current capabilities of the knowledge system for public policy in Cambodia? How are these systems informing policy decisions and what plans exist to strengthen capabilities for evidence-informed policy making?
To answer these questions, I reached out to Heang Sophea, Program Manager of the Ponlok Chomnes programme of the Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in partnership with The Asia Foundation in Phnom Penh.
Arnaldo Pellini – Can you tell me a bit about your experience in the governance sector in Cambodia?
Heang Sophea – I started to work on governance issues in 2012 when I was part of The Asia Foundation team implementing the Demand for Good Governance project. The project was funded by the World Bank and aimed to build capacity and promote constructive engagement between state institutions and civil society organisations. The goal was to strengthen the accountability of public service providers, and to strengthen citizen engagement in the planning, implementation and monitoring of public services. My role in the project was linked to working closely with civil society organisations and supporting the learning component of the project in collaboration with the Project Coordination office of the Ministry of Interior. In 2013, I took two years off from work and went to Australia to pursue a Master’s Degree in Development Studies. Last year, in 2019, I re-joined The Asia Foundation as a programme manager of a new programme called Ponlok Chomnes: Data and Dialogue for Development in Cambodia.
AP – We met last year at the launch of the Ponlok Chomnes programme in Phnom Penh. Can you tell me more about the objectives of the programme?
HS – The goal of the Ponlok Chomnes programme is to strengthen the capacity of knowledge sector organisations to undertake high quality research that informs public policy and provide evidence for dialogue with government institutions. The programme has the following strategic objectives that, together, will contribute to progress towards the programme goal: provide a better understanding of the characteristics of the knowledge sector in Cambodia; support the capacity development and networking of the research institutions that operate in the knowledge sector; and design and test ways to create spaces for dialogue and engagement between knowledge producers and policy makers.
AP – Why the focus on the knowledge sector and why now?
HS – Let me start with the first question: Why the focus on the knowledge sector? I think that it is widely acknowledged that progress and social development in any society require the contribution of a knowledge sector. Let me explain what I mean. As societies evolve, the development problems that need to be addressed become more complex due to globalisation and influences of fast-changing technology on the economy and society development across the world. Making policy decisions requires a great deal of knowledge to design effective solutions to the problems that the society or the economy face. In many ways, I believe, a strong knowledge sector can help a country to progress in the right direction and, at the same time, make the country become more resilient.
AP – I agree. As the complexity of policy decisions increases, it is no longer possible for a government to avoid investing in the generation and use of data, analysis, knowledge to inform policy decisions. Let me ask you the second part of the question: why now a project on the knowledge sector in Cambodia?
For me, a knowledge sector is like a marketplace for evidence. As a market, it is characterised by the demand and supply of knowledge products to inform policy decisions. The question which underpins the Ponlok Chomnes programme is whether, at this point in time in Cambodia, there is enough demand and supply for a market of evidence [knowledge sector] to start operating. A marketplace where the demand for evidence can be matched by the supply of evidence, so that different forms of evidence can play a more significant role in policy processes, such as policy design, policy implementation, and policy monitoring and evaluation. Since we started our programme, it seems that there is an increasing demand for policy-relevant knowledge products by government institutions, which seems to be met by a stronger capacity to produce and communicate new knowledge.
In Ponlok Chomnes we refer mainly to government actors when we speak of demand for evidence and knowledge products, but we are aware that the demand comes also from development partners, the private sector and civil society organisations. The hypothesis we have is that as the government has developed a vision and strategic plans to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income-country by 2050, it will have to increasingly inform its policies with high quality and timely evidence. I think that Ponlok Chomnes is very timely and has an opportunity to contribute to these processes.
AP – Tell me more about the supply side of the knowledge system?
HS – Since the early 1990s, Cambodian university students have received scholarships to study overseas. Australia alone has provided university scholarships to almost 850 Cambodian students to study at Australian universities. Up until recently, these well-educated young Cambodians did not have many opportunities to share their knowledge and apply their research skills in Cambodia. One reason was that in the knowledge sector, the demand for research and policy-relevant knowledge has been low for quite some time. Fortunately, over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the demand for new knowledge, which has created the conditions for graduates coming from overseas to start engaging with research activities inside and outside the government and to contribute to the development of Cambodia.
AP – It seems that the various elements of the knowledge sector are converging, increasing demand for better capacity in knowledge production and policy decisions to continue the progress Cambodia is making.
HS – Yes, it seems that these elements are coming together. I would say it is the right time to focus on the knowledge sector in Cambodia, given there is a tendency towards higher demand for reliable data from policy makers, coinciding with the higher capacity to supply quality knowledge products from the current pool of human resources.
AP – You mentioned earlier the challenges that fast-changing new technology brings. This applies also to the knowledge sector. Knowledge production is already being influenced and to some extent changed by new digital technologies.
HS – In Cambodia 99 percent of the population owns a mobile phone, many of them are smartphones, and 70 percent of the population has access to the Internet. Given these figures, digital technology can play an important role in social development in Cambodia. Digital technology can create new types of evidence for policy makers. For example, the analysis of massive data that people produce though their smartphones. This provides a great opportunity to collect data in real time on very specific problems. If we look specifically at the growth of the social media community in Cambodia, mainly Facebook users, many may believe that it helps to bring government or policy makers closer to the people, and this growth allows policy makers/leaders to respond on time to some arising issues. However, while digital technology is getting very popular, it seems there are gaps in terms of digital literacy among the population, the young and elderly, and the well-educated and not well-educated. Most of the users may only use this technology at a very basic level, without awareness of other issues, such as privacy and security. These gaps would have lots of implications on data quality, such as intentionally/unintentionally excluding some groups.
Thank you very much, Sophea, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Ponlok Chomnes is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed in this blog are the author’s alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government.