Maura Joul, Annie Kemmerer, Baker Lu, and Billy Taki are second-year master’s students in the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) international development program. They worked with DAI on the Innovations for Social Accountability in Cambodia (ISAC) project, implemented by FHI 360 and funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to conduct a landscape assessment of digital literacy and security education and training initiatives in Cambodia. The team interviewed digital security consultants, content creators, training providers, local civil society organizations (CSOs), international organizations, and industry experts in Cambodia. This post summarizes their key findings and recommendations.
CSOs in Cambodia are experiencing rapid changes in response to COVID-19. The pandemic forced Cambodian citizens served by CSOs into the digital world, leading these organizations to shift their communications and programming to virtual platforms. Although Cambodian CSOs successfully aclimated to the rapid digitalization, the move to virtual has increased digital security issues in the country.
Addressing Structural and Capacity Issues
Despite the acceleration of digitization, our research found that CSOs often lack sufficient digital security and digital hygiene skills for several reasons:
- Rural provinces lack systemic digital programming and reliable internet connectivity compared to the capital’s more advanced digital infrastructure and digital ecosystems.
- Key stakeholders such as the government, training providers, and content creators do not adequately disseminate or exchange information on important issues, content, and players in the digital training ecosystem.
- Due to funding or hiring constraints, many CSOs lack permanent, trusted IT staff members.
- CSOs lack internal training about digital literacy and security and do not have access to external training tailored to their needs.
In this context, donors and other funders can address these constraints and improve the digital literacy and security ecosystem in Cambodia in numerous ways:
- Increase programmatic investment outside Phnom Penh. Increased investment in digital training outside of urban centers can address gaps in local capacity, resulting in a larger digitally literate population capable of using digital tools and operating safely online. Some options for reaching CSOs in rural provinces include systematizing ad hoc training programs, traveling conferences, and public information campaigns.
- Support knowledge sharing among key stakeholders. Greater information and knowledge sharing about digital security and digital literacy initiatives among relevant stakeholders can help improve programming, increase transparency, and potentially bring more funds into Cambodia’s digital development space.
- Allocate more funding for IT staff. Many CSOs have a clear, urgent need for upgraded internal IT capacity, specifically for full-time IT staff person who can build trust by maintaining an ongoing relationship with other team members. Funders can address this need by approving project-specific IT staffing requests, approving budgets with higher overhead rates to accommodate organization-wide IT staff, or requiring that all organizations applying for funding have demonstrated access to IT expertise. These solutions could lead to improved digital hygiene practices across Cambodia’s CSO community.
- Fund and support internal and external IT training programs for CSOs. CSOs can further lower their risk of falling victim to digital threats by ensuring that all staff is adequately trained on crucial digital literacy and security topics. While IT personnel can implement this training, access to external training is necessary for CSOs lacking these internal resources.
Improving the Quality of Digital Literacy and Security Training
Our team also identified several challenges across digital literacy and security training programs in Cambodia:
- Low levels of pre-existing digital literacy and critical thinking abilities limit the effective transfer of digital literacy and security skills to trainees.
- Training providers often lack the time and resources to assess trainee progress and skill retention due to small teams and limited funds.
- Training providers are often hesitant to take advantage of pre-existing content and instead use time and resources to design new content for each training.
- CSOs often lack an understanding of the laws and regulations applicable to their digital work.
Below are specific actions that training providers and individual content creators can take to address these challenges:
- Promote hands-on and relevant learning over memorization. Hands-on and scenario-based learning can elicit critical thinking, ensure that participants understand the “why” behind taught concepts, and promote a broader understanding of how and when to apply these skills. For organizations seeking to include a virtual component in their training, it is essential to emphasize that learners can ask questions and interact with content constructively.
- Focus on training both hard skills and intuition. Digital security curricula must be deliberately designed to foster judgment and critical thinking skills. Staff members must be trained to be constantly vigilant, understand why certain actions are preferable to others, and be aware of potential consequences.
- Use follow-up mechanisms to assess and reinforce behavior change. With COVID-19 driving training online, follow-up has become even more important. Follow-up mechanisms include surveys, mentorship or coaching, a volunteer help desk, and social media groups.
- Carefully adapt international content for local audiences and invest in producing high-quality Khmer language training materials. Training providers can lean on existing resources to reduce unnecessary duplication and channel their efforts toward carefully translating and contextualizing important concepts from international content.
- Include legal and regulatory content in digital security training. Training CSOs on digital regulations relevant to their work helps protect them against potential legal vulnerabilities.
- Collaborate with key stakeholders to increase engagement, cross-promote, and share best practices. While employers can mandate training attendance, active participation and engagement are much more difficult to elicit. Thoughtfully selecting a like-minded partner can help increase the perceived value of new digital literacy and security training programs while amplifying outreach efforts.
As Cambodians come online, developing digital literacy and digital security skills is increasingly important. This also holds true for Cambodian CSOs, which need digitally literate and vigilant staff members to maintain their organizations’ online safety and reputation. Funders and training providers play a crucial role in supporting the digital upskilling of Cambodian CSOs and the broader population, which can help improve social accountability for public service delivery in the country.