University of Sussex
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Working with and between citizens and a neo-patrimonial government: how has an NGO’s contextualised rights-based approach influenced Cambodians’ agency in fulfilling their rights to development?

posted on 2023-06-08, 18:40 authored by Rikio Kimura
Mainly from the perspective of transformative learning (TL), the thesis explores how the rights-based approach (RBA) by a Cambodian NGO has influenced rural citizens’ agency in fulfilling their rights to development and, consequently, has brought about social change. The study was conducted in particular contexts where for the last decade there have been decentralisation reforms and land grabbing, both of which have come into existence as a result of the conjunction of neo-patrimonialism (as a patronage-based practice by the Cambodian government) and such global forces as the influences of aid donors and the increase in global resource demands. The literature indicates that RBA as a western-conceptualised and confrontational approach is not likely to work, especially in relation to the often authoritarian governments of developing countries. Hence, this study has chosen a Cambodian NGO—which has modified RBA to fit the rural context of Cambodia—as a case, so as to explore the potential and limits of RBA in a highly repressive and complex context. In order to explore the context-specific yet multi-scalar phenomenon of the agency and structure relationship, I utilised a grounded theory ethnographic study inspired by critical realism and employed the expanded framework of the TL theory, further complemented by the Freirean approach and Gramscian thought. Furthermore, in order to delve into how the exercise of citizens’ agency is constrained by structures, this study also situates TL’s rather active view of agency in the critical realist’s moderate view of agency. This thesis argues that the Cambodian NGO, by working closely with government, has made full use of and further widened the democratic spaces made available through decentralisation, in order to create spaces conducive to TL, and has harnessed its multi-faceted and process-oriented rights-based empowerment approach in order to enhance citizens’ agency to claim their rights. However, the thesis critiques the fact that the NGO has not enabled citizens to become aware of and to contend against the deep-seated practice of neo-patrimonialism that is hidden behind the democratic façade of the decentralisation process and that has engendered land grabbing, with the result that the NGO has been promoting 'thin' rights. Finally this study reveals the possibilities of TL through RBA in the highly oppressive and resource-scarce context of rural Cambodia, yet casts doubt on its replicability as it appears to demand the mobilisation of a number of enabling factors in order for TL to occur within such a context.


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