Cambodian Think Tanks: The Limited Space for Policy Influence

As the world has been changing, the making of public policy need to adapt to the current climate of political and economic system. In this regard, the participation of different other actors, particularly think tank groups, in policy-making has become justified. It is widely believed that think tanks could fill gap in such policy formulation and implementation, and provide more inputs to the government to redirect the action plans that address the needed objectives of the public policy program.

Over the past decade, there had been a slight increase in number of Cambodian think tanks, and there have been only a few seen active and devoted to their research activities for the sake of public policy improvement. However, to a more or less extent, their roles have seen insignificant, thereby being overlooked by policy makers and public. This has raised a contentious views on the Cambodian think tank’s space with regard to policy influence.

Recently, there has been a slight growth of Cambodian think tanks registered and run by educated Cambodians and scholars. In the same pattern, they do research and policy analyses covering a wide range of socio-economic, political and cultural issues as well as foreign policy in order to influence policy makers through publication, seminar and so on. On the one hand, this has shown their contribution to policy development. Therefore, they have received more attentions. A particular case in point is that some think tank executives holding leadership and management positions have been invited to some important events and meetings arranged by the government counterparts to share their insights on public policy.

On the other hand, they have seen relatively not powerful in shaping the current policy-making and implementation. There are several underlying factors that make limited space for Cambodian think tanks in advocating public policy. Firstly, the inconsistency in research activities is one of the reasons. Nearly all of Cambodian think tanks are financially supported by external and informal local sources whose funding is so limited for research operation. This is a setback for every think tanks in the country. Therefore, the research findings and analyses are not substantial in advocating policy.

Secondly, a lack of human resources to produce good research and analyses for policy influence is another factor. Most Cambodian think tanks have a limited number of best trained researchers and policy analysts. Some researchers have other jobs to do rather concentrate on their core work because the incentives provided are relatively low compared with benefit they make with some part-time jobs outside. This drawback corroborates the earlier statement regarding funding insufficiency. This has kept Cambodian think tanks unable to carry out their research smoothly and consistently.

Thirdly, lack of effective communication in conveying research findings to policy makers and public is also included. In this regard, Cambodian think tanks tend to be not proactive in disseminating their messages. Even though some organize seminar and then make publication of the research result to reach out their audiences, this does not really attract policy makers and public in a larger extent.

Last but not least, trust has also become a factor making a limited space for Cambodian think tanks in influencing policy. Some policy makers are not convinced about the research findings. They claim the results incredible and biased. In some case, they politicize the issues and consider the result as invalid. This has also made a lingering grudge between researchers and policy makers which has no use for policy-making process.

Despite of having a controversial debate about the space for policy influence, Cambodian think tanks still play a vital role in shaping policy-making and direction. However, they need to improve the present condition of the research. Enhancing the capacity of the research skills and policy analyses on a range of social, political, economic and cultural subjects as well as foreign policy issues is a necessary task the think tanks need to initiate. This will gradually improve the quality of the research and analyses. Moreover, they need to increase the modes of communication in conveying research outputs to the policy makers and public. It is better if the researchers use multi-approach to communicate their findings such as seminar, public lecture, academic conference/proceedings, publication, and panel discussion etc.. All of these can be done both offline and online. Finally, Cambodian think tanks need to mobilize resources that enables the sustainable research management and operation. For example, diversifying sources of funding is important to tackle the sustainability issue. The financial support from the government is really significant. It is now noticed that a few Cambodian think tanks have started addressing this downside.

To sum up, Cambodian think tanks need to maintain its independence and integrity in conducting research and policy analyses which serve the public interest as a whole. They need to collaborate with other relevant partners including public institutions, non-governmental organizations and private sectors as well as the media organizations to improve policy development and implementation. Multi-stakeholder engagement approach must be promoted in the process of public policy advocacy.

1

Dr. Phon Kaseka is the Director General of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (IHSS) of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

2

Dr. Toch Sothiary is a researcher of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences. His research interests focus on the area of International Relations and Politics.

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