Two boys competed in a mobile phone typing contest in March 2015 to showcase how fast and easy typing in their native language, Khmer, can be with the Khmer Smart Keyboard, an app developed with assistance from Development Innovations. / Chantheng Heng, USAID

Two boys competed in a mobile phone typing contest in March 2015 to showcase how fast and easy typing in their native language, Khmer, can be with the Khmer Smart Keyboard, an app developed with assistance from Development Innovations. / Chantheng Heng, USAID

Walk down any street in bustling Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and among the many motorcycles, tuk tuks and food sellers, inevitably you will see young Cambodians using their mobile phones!

With two out of three Cambodians below the age of 30, Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in Southeast Asia, and Cambodian youth are embracing new technology such as smartphones and tablets as they become more affordable to communicate in ways that are having a profound impact on society.

Around the world, these technologies are allowing people to self-organize and connect with one another like never before.  As a result, in many countries regular citizens — whether as part of formal civil society organizations, or as bloggers, citizen journalists or human rights activists — are flourishing and lending talent and expertise to drive political, social, and economic development.

This year’s theme of International Democracy Day — Space for Civil Society — is an opportunity to reflect on how USAID is leveraging this wave of new communications technologies in its programming around the globe. These technologies are fostering improved access to information for citizens even in the most repressive countries and creating space for civil society to develop.

Phone empowerment

Although power of citizen voices is growing stronger, backlash countering transparency and access is growing across the globe.  According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than 100 new laws restricting freedom of association, assembly, and expression were proposed in the last three years alone. Galvanizing civil society, democratic governments, and private philanthropy to push back against these restrictions is at the heart of President Obama’s Stand With Civil Society initiative.

In Cambodia, USAID is working with the International Republican Institute through the Accountability and Governance in Politics program to help inform voters. The program aims to strengthen multi-party competition, support public demand for reform, enhance the accountability of elected officials, and increase youth civic engagement and women’s participation in the political process.

Access to the internet is increasing rapidly across Cambodia and outpacing the research on total users, especially for young people using free wi-fi available at many locations across the nation’s capital. / Chandy Mao, USAID

Access to the internet is increasing rapidly across Cambodia and outpacing the research on total users, especially for young people using free wi-fi available at many locations across the nation’s capital. / Chandy Mao, USAID

Take Ell Lavy, for example. At 31 years old, he drives a taxicab in a village in the province of Siem Reap. Since he lives in a remote village far from the town center, it is difficult for him and his family to get news — especially about political issues.

But now, he is learning all about Cambodia’s various political parties and their platforms by calling hotlines run through an interactive voice response system supported by USAID. The hotlines allow citizens like Ell to stay plugged in, even in areas with limited Internet access. While he is an avid listener of the radio, the hotlines allow him to get more detailed information about each political party.

“I didn’t know that I could use my phone to get this information,” Ell says. “When I called and listened, I heard a message about the party and about the lawmaker in my province of Siem Reap. Before, I had only heard information like this when I was studying at school in Phnom Penh.”

Since the launch of the interactive voice response system in August last year, more than 45,000 calls have been made. Political parties, recognizing its value, have been waging an aggressive campaign promoting the hotlines on social media and are seeing an increase in their use by up to 5 percent each month. Political parties are in the process of entering into direct relationships with telecom providers in order to continue this service themselves, making the endeavor sustainable.

Young 5D Lab members access training and use video production equipment and software to create and edit videos at Development Innovations. / USAID

Young 5D Lab members access training and use video production equipment and software to create and edit videos at Development Innovations. / USAID

These technologies go beyond helping increase political participation. In Cambodia, citizens can also use their cell phones to improve health outcomes and protect the environment. Similar interactive voice response systems are being used to reach people with HIV and to share vital information to women in remote areas regarding hygiene, breastfeeding and child care. Cambodians have begun using cell phones to document illegal logging practices for local authorities in their communities.

As the 2017 commune election and the 2018 general election approach, the hope is that young people in Cambodia will be more tuned into the political sphere and ready to make their voices heard to shape the future of their country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean-Marc Gorelick is the elections and political processes team lead in the Office of Democracy and Governance in USAID’s mission in Cambodia.