Local heroes: Cambodian communes fight poverty

Twelve year old Kong Leak used to sleep with his mother and two brothers underneath other people’s houses. The family was homeless and didn’t have enough money for food and shelter. “It was a very difficult time for us,” his mother Soun Nai, 42, says with tears running down her face. “I couldn’t find enough food for the children and they got sick all the time. I couldn’t send them to school. It was a struggle just to survive.”

The family is one of several in Tang Kroch village to have received help from their local commune council through a ‘social services envelope’ scheme, supported by UNICEF thanks to generous contributions from the Japan Committee for UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The commune built them a house on a small plot of land, bought cheaply from a local landowner. They also provided food and clothes for the children, plus a bicycle and school materials so that the two youngest boys could go to school.

The family is still obviously poor. Their house is extremely basic, made from wood and tarpaulin on a packed earth floor, and their clothes are tattered and dirty. Leak’s two brothers, 12-year-old Channra and 17-year-old Sopheak, are not at home. They’re out in the forest looking for fallen branches that the family can use for cooking.

“Our life is much better now,” Nai continues, drying her eyes. “As well as the help from the commune, I earn some money by making charcoal and collecting rice during harvest season. I am so happy that I can send Leak and Channra to school. I want my sons to have a better education than me, so that they can survive on their own.”

Improving services for women and children


Ty Long demonstrates the ‘social mapping’ process
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown


Tang Kroch Commune is in a rural district of Kampong Speu Province. Palm sugar trees line the earth road. It is dry season and the bark and leaves have turned orange with dust from passing vehicles, including a tuk-tuk loaded up with logs. Men wade through a river catching fish in nets, while women work in the paddy fields and children bathe in a muddy lake. A farmer leads a skinny cow on foot by a rope leash. Most homes in the area are wooden stilt houses: the only substantial buildings are temples. Monks sit outside the pagodas, broadcasting Buddhist blessings through a megaphone to passers-by.

At the commune council office Ty Long, focal point for women and children, spreads out a map of the community to demonstrate their ‘social mapping’ process. “We identify families in need based on thirteen indicators,” she explains. “For example, we look for families without access to clean water, where children are not enrolled in school, or where pregnant women don’t visit the health centre. We start by asking the village chiefs for this information. Then we go ourselves to validate it through spot checks.”

The commune uses the budget from UNICEF to provide assistance for poor families, based on their individual needs. “We provide things like rice, clothes, school supplies, medicines and bicycles,” Ty Long says. “UNICEF gives us 14 million Riel per year [$3,500 USD] and we contribute 4 million [$1,000 USD] from our own budget. We have also had training from UNICEF on how to make the best use of the money.”

Reform process


Sambo, 11, with a bicycle the commune provided to help her get to school
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown


For UNICEF, the social services envelope is part of a broader effort to decentralise power in Cambodia, tying in with reforms begun in 2002.  “UNICEF and other development partners are supporting decentralisation,” says Judith Leveillee, head of local governance for child rights at UNICEF Cambodia. “At UNICEF, we want to encourage local decision makers to pay more attention to women and children’s issues.”

To this end, the local governance for child rights programme aims to improve the skills of local government officials and to change perceptions so that commune councils can take greater responsibilities for social service delivery. “We give them the resources for some basic interventions and train them how to identify priorities, plan, budget, organise interventions, and monitor the situation,” Judith says.

The programme is designed to be both transparent and sustainable. Through the social mapping process, local people can see where the money is being spent. “Anyone can go to the commune office and see the map,” Judith says. “They can check that the funds are going to the poorest people, not to the best connected.”

UNICEF is now beginning to scale back direct support to communes and hand over responsibility to the Government. “As they complete the decentralisation process, there will be an increase in funding to the local level. This programme has helped to ensure that communes have the skills to use that money wisely,” Judith concludes.

Making a difference


Leak with his home-made toy car outside the new family home
© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Andy Brown


The social services envelope has already led to obvious improvements in the lives of children like Leak. “I am happy that I can go to school,” he says. “I enjoy reading, writing and maths, and I like to draw pictures. At home, I help my mother with washing clothes and cooking. I have many friends now. I like playing with them on swings and in the school playground. We make toy cars from sticks, rope and tin cans. When I grow up, I’d like to be a factory or construction worker so I can earn a living.”

Nai smiles at her son as he demonstrates his home-made toy car, pushing it round the earth yard outside their house. “We’re so happy and thankful to the commune council for our new life,” she says.

Find out more about UNICEF’s work in Cambodia »

The author
Andy Brown is Digital Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”