Economic Empowerment Fellowship – Cambodia – Bickell Part 1

The City of Missoula was invited to participate in the Economic Empowerment Fellowship through the Mansfield Center’s administration of the YSEALI program of the U.S. State Department. Mayor Engen asked me to participate on behalf of the City and I was paired with Mr. Chhair Sokty, a policy advisor to Parliamentarian Yara Suos. Sokty’s interest and action plan centered around learning about American planning and development to apply it to the development of the Prasat Preah Vihear area of his home province Preah Vihear. Sokty spent 4 weeks in Missoula, two weeks of which was spent in the professional exchange with the City of Missoula. Sokty also had a two week home stay with my family at the same time. Most of Sokty’s time with the City was spent in special sessions with Missoula leaders in the areas of planning and development including Mayor Engen, Mike Haynes (Development Services Director), and James Grunke (president of the Missoula Economic Partnership). It was a great experience hosting Sokty and he was eager to learn and attend all of the sessions. I was very excited about the prospect of doing the same thing in Cambodia.

We arrived in Cambodia late in the evening on January 7th. I was lucky in that my wife Lisa was able to join me for the first six days of the visit. We were greeted by Sokty as well as program participant Sokny Kim and program coordinator Huong Sok En. We spent the first full day visiting Phnom Penh including the national museum, the royal palace, Phnom Wat, the Central Market, and the Russian Market.

The next morning, we left for rural Cambodia, principally Preah Vihear province. While in Preah Vihear, we visited the newly constructed parliamentary staff office in Preah Vihear city. This office performs similar functions to Congressional staff offices in the US, primarily helping constituents navigate a particular problem through governmental processes. The new office is very nice and will be able to provide new services including an assembly hall and even overnight quarters with a kitchen for those constituents that had to travel a long way to talk to the office.

We visited a district government office in Sangkom Thmei, a town that is many kilometers away from a paved main road. A district office is similar to a county seat in the US, with the district government providing many of the services provided by county governments, including constituent records such as birth certificates. We met with the acting District Deputy Governor and we compared district government in Cambodia and in Montana. While needing to provide many of the same services, Sabgkom Thmei records are still processed manually! We talked about the fundamental difference between local government in the US versus Cambodia, which is centralization versus de-centralization. The central government of Cambodia provides substantially all of the funding and approvals (such as budget) over local governments where local governments are autonomous in the U.S.

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