Abby Edwards, Aishwarya Jadav, Arin Kerstein, Alvin Siagian, and Shuyang Wang are second-year master’s students in the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies international development program. They worked with DAI from September 2022 to April 2023 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 an assessment of the Cambodian digital ecosystem and the digitalization of ISAC partner civil society organizations (CSOs). The team interviewed civic engagement experts, Cambodian CSOs working to implement the ISAC project, international organizations working in Cambodia, Cambodian content creators, and citizens in multiple ISAC target provinces. This post summarizes their key findings and recommendations.

As more people access online platforms in Cambodia, CSOs are exploring new and innovative ways to disseminate important information to citizens. Our research focused on ISAC’s use of digital methods to share information about primary schools, health centers, and local public administration so citizens can hold local governments accountable for delivering public services. In a country where the level of civic engagement is generally low, the wider dissemination of information on citizen rights in these three areas can significantly contribute to creating an informed and engaged citizenry. Despite this potential, however, several constraints prevent CSOs from fully utilizing the digital tools available to them and increasing citizen engagement online with their content. Our team worked with DAI to both identify these constraints and to provide recommendations to ISAC’s partner CSOs so they can better connect with citizens and improve civic engagement outcomes using digital methods.

Current Cambodian Digital Ecosystem

The first set of constraints on CSOs stems from the current state of digital engagement in Cambodia. While more Cambodians overall are now digitally connected than in previous years, our research found that this does not mean that all Cambodians are digitally connected. Therefore, high connectivity rates across Cambodia do not necessarily translate to an overall increase in digital civic engagement in ISAC target areas.

  • Despite high connectivity rates in Cambodia, many citizens in ISAC target areas still lack either digital access or literacy. This is particularly the case outside of major cities, where citizens often do not have access to high-quality internet connections and typically share phones. Senior citizens also risk being left behind in this digital transition, even if they are generally more civically engaged than young people, because they lack the knowledge to access online platforms that facilitate digital civic engagement.
  • Even among citizens who are active online, users rarely engage with or create content related to civic education. Instead, citizens typically only engage with, or create, online content that they either see as entertaining or directly relevant to their lives. For the latter, this content often focuses on local happenings or people who they know.
  • There is also a tendency for Cambodians to self-censor their opinions online and offline. This not only explains the reasoning behind low levels of civic engagement in the country but also indicates that any CSO programming to increase digital civic engagement will run into challenges due to the public nature of social media.

ISAC.jpgPhoto: ISAC/DAI.

Digitizing CSOs

The second set of constraints on CSOs relates to organizational factors within CSOs and the communities they serve. Beyond the broader constraints stemming from Cambodia’s digital ecosystem, CSOs face their own challenges in digitalizing their information dissemination efforts.

  • Generally, a lack of resources and technical capacity impacts the ability of Cambodian CSOs to share information on social media. Interviews with representatives from these organizations have highlighted the role of staffing constraints in this regard, with most CSOs lacking a dedicated IT or media staff. In addition, current permanent CSO staff working across these organizations may also have knowledge gaps about how to best utilize these platforms for their work, like not knowing how to develop a social media strategy or how to interpret metadata and social media analytics to inform future digital approaches.
  • Prior to ISAC’s push for digitalization, almost all CSOs interviewed relied on in-person methods of information dissemination. Despite an uptick in digital technology usage overall in Cambodia, our research found that in-person dissemination methods (e.g. community meetings, door-to-door campaigns, etc) may be more effective than digital approaches when it comes to improving rights-related knowledge. This could be because in-person communication allows people to engage in more profound conversations or because it encourages behavioral changes in a way that social media often does not. The fact that many citizens still rely on in-person methods to get information about local government services demonstrates this disparity. While digital approaches may not be as effective in increasing rights-related knowledge as in-person activities, our research showed that they can reach a larger and more diverse audience, particularly among those who are less likely to engage with in-person approaches such as persons with disabilities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and people who identify as LGBTQI+. This indicates that hybrid online/offline approaches may be the most effective approach to disseminating information that promotes civic education, as they allow CSOs to both access a wider audience while allowing opportunities for deeper engagement among as many citizens as possible.

What We Recommend

Bearing in mind our findings above, our group has provided three recommendations that CSOs can follow to improve their digital approaches in their future dissemination efforts.

  • CSOs should enhance digital literacy and engagement among citizens to strengthen digital civic engagement. The first step is to embed digital literacy training within CSO programming, which can teach citizens basic digital skills and help them become more informed social media users. Next, CSOs can begin encouraging citizens to become more actively engaged with social accountability content online. To do this, they can embed a clear, specific call to action in social media posts, which can vary from simply asking users to share the post to encouraging citizens to attend upcoming community meetings. These steps can help CSOs invite users to participate in the digital civic engagement process in line with the ISAC program’s goals.
  • CSOs should increase their utilization of social media and combine it with in-person methods when appropriate. Within each CSO, this means identifying and utilizing outreach methods and channels based on user preferences. To do this, however, CSOs will also have to increase their capacity to use social media analytics and metadata to design and iterate on their overall approach. Alternatively, CSOs can also look into collaborating with content creators to create more engaging and relevant online content. Recognizing that certain demographics prefer in-person information dissemination strategies, CSOs should not abandon in-person approaches, especially in areas where it is still more effective. Online and offline approaches have their respective utility, so it is important to balance in-person and online approaches.
  • CSOs should support community-run social media groups for increased digital civic engagement. A prominent form of organically generated digital civic engagement is social media groups, which Cambodian citizens often use to share updates on local happenings or other shared interests. CSOs can take advantage of this existing footprint by collaborating with the moderators of the group to provide additional technical support and disseminate information on public services. Also, because citizens who participate in these groups are already active social media users, CSOs can effectively use their limited resources to encourage even more local citizens to join these groups. In this way, digital civic engagement can organically increase.

Overall, our research underscores the realities faced by CSOs in Cambodia’s digital ecosystem when digitalizing their information dissemination efforts. As such, designing effective strategies within this context will be crucial as CSOs begin to harness the opportunities presented by Cambodia’s increasingly online population.