Politics of Poverty

Young people get it: Accountability requires political AND institutional responses

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Photo: Isabelle Lesser / Oxfam America

To monitor public revenue, checks and balances enable politicians and government agencies to effectively respond to citizens’ demands.

Omar Ortez is the Senior Policy Advisor on Active Citizenship at Oxfam America.

There is a frequent discussion among professionals and institutions working to improve public financial management about their roles. Should they exclusively play a technical function necessary for economic growth and prosperity? Or is their role also a political one?

But what if improving political accountability could also improve the accountability of how state institutions manage public finances, and vice versa? I traveled to Cambodia late last year and found that this possibility has emerged in Cambodia since last year’s elections. There, we in the international community should not only pay attention to how partisan political negotiations between ruling (Cambodian People’s Party, CPP) and opposition (Cambodian National Rescue Party, CNRP) parties play out [1], but most importantly, listen to the underlying demands for reforms coming from ordinary citizens, particularly young Cambodians.

Over a third of Cambodians are young people. As in many countries, they are struggling to find jobs and opportunities to prosper as Cambodia continues to grow its economy. They are also increasingly aware, and frustrated with, government corruption. It is a generation also willing to mobilize and be outspoken about their concerns.

I had the chance to talk to some of these young activists in Phnom Phen last November. They are advocating against corruption, e.g. petty briberies in the educational system. They also want to see more transparent public spending in the education, agriculture, and health sectors, which helps level the playing field and can enable them and their families to take advantage of economic opportunities.

Oxfam helps citizens to take action to ensure public resources—including revenues from oil, gas and mining, as well as foreign aid dollars and tax revenues—are spent in ways that alleviate poverty.  In Cambodia, Oxfam is enhancing the capacity of local civil society organizations to monitor development policies and expenditures; while helping to protect and amplify the political space citizens need to do this.

As I listened to young people’s stories, a couple of propositions emerged that are of interest to those of us who care about improving the governance of public finances. The first is that young Cambodian activists understand that their struggle is about making democratic political accountability work. A multi-party system only works when politicians of any party realize that they can be voted out of office when large segments of the population do not experience benefits from their policies.

The second, and more profound one, is that young people know that any gains in political accountability needs to be translated into institutional accountability. They know that whatever shape or form Cambodia style democracy takes, it will be more inclusive and stable only when it builds trustworthy institutions in charge of economic, legal, and social policy. This means institutions capable of drawing national priorities from national debates and agreements, and institutions and officials capable of establishing checks and balances that enable them to effectively respond to citizens’ demands.

These are not abstract ideas to young Cambodians, nor should they be to us.

[1] A gridlock between the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP parties has persisted since last July’s polls gave the ruling party 68 parliamentary seats and 55 seats to the opposition. Claiming serious irregularities, the opposition refused to accept the results and has boycotted parliament and held protests demanding the resignation of Hun Sen (in power for 28 years) and new elections.
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