Cambodia’s bitter and tragic past has had a detrimental impact on the number of educated professionals available to conduct endogenous research. It is therefore unsurprising that previous studies have found that social science research is frequently conducted by foreign consultants, while donors and external stakeholders often dictate the research agenda. To address this lack of endogenous research, there was still a need to profile the ongoing evolution of the Cambodian research landscape and provide actionable recommendations to build future capacity on both sides of the policy-research community.
With support from the Global Development Network and the ‘Doing Research’ peer review workshop, a research team from the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) undertook a one year action research study to capture – and to help transform – the current state of Cambodian research. In early 2015, a roundtable of experts created a list of 25 institutions to interview, including both rural and urban universities (president, senior academic staff, faculty members, researchers, and students), NGOs, think tanks, donor representatives, and government ministries. Our bottom-up approach focused on giving voice to participants and achieving practical problem-solving outputs. It aimed to reduce dependence on donors in the long term by strengthening the endogenous capacity of the research community and improving collaborations between researchers.
Our findings show that the primary impediment to research is insufficient funds for research, training, and dissemination. The government cannot adequately fund projects necessary to guide policy decisions, as even the national census is donor financed. Furthermore, instructors and students are generally responsible for funding their own projects. Since universities are tuition-driven, instructors are given little time or money to conduct research. This implicitly communicates that research is a non-critical afterthought.
Respondents admitted that many staff lack the ability to conduct research, while dissemination activities are limited. Researchers commonly present findings at academic workshops. Therefore findings, embedded in reports, often overly technical and written in English, remain largely inaccessible to wider audiences.
English proficiency proved another obstacle, preventing many Cambodian researchers from conducting literature reviews and increasing their workload when translating results for publication. With few academic publications, no accessible research database, and insufficient provincial libraries, research outreach is severely limited. And, since reports are written using technical English, it is unclear whom the research is targeting.
Due to funding and human resource limitations, most research is dictated by donors, led by outside consultants, and financed on a short-term basis. Consequently local capacity is stunted and short-term studies do not capture complex societal issues adequately. Donor institutions are often reticent to tackle controversial issues or report results without government consent.
Cambodian research production is at a transitional stage. While we found general ambivalence toward research among older interviewees, younger Cambodians demonstrated a growing enthusiasm and receptivity. Few women participated in our study due to a gender imbalance in senior positions. Equal opportunity policies and equal access to education are needed to reverse this trend. However, Cambodia is improving; as evidenced by the increasing number of female students in tertiary education.
The Policy-Research Environment
Policy-research connections are restricted by entrenched structural challenges. For instance, policy makers often lack the education required to understand reports. Perhaps consequently, scientific research is often not perceived as valuable within this sector. As one government official admitted, “Government policy is not produced through research”. Instead government officials make policy decisions based predominantly on personal connections, entrenched beliefs, and potential profit. Some policy uptake indifference may be due to many researchers gearing their research toward academia.
Some NGOs can exert pressure on the government by publishing polished research that is read by foreign officials. Donor institutions with close governmental relationships can influence policy by avoiding flash point human rights issues and playing an important and constructive role on non-sensitive issues like job creation. However the most troubling human rights issues often remain either ignored or watered down.
The elephant in the room is that taboo, politically sensitive research topics remain too dangerous and difficult for most researchers to attempt. Results that are openly critical of the government are usually self-censored or diluted in order to avoid anticipated political pressure.
Our respondents made many constructive recommendations: increase institutional cooperation; mentor Cambodian staff/students; create collaborative research; plan research dissemination prior to collecting data; incentivise research; fund an accessible national research database; and promote capacity building.
There is cause for optimism. Respondents noted that the government increasingly uses local research on issues like migration flow and job creation. Human rights NGOs continue to have success using their research and international advocacy networks to pressure government on key issues. More universities are creating funds for research through international collaborations and even creating in-house publications.
This research project has provided an essential empirically-based understanding of the state of research in Cambodia and potential avenues for improvement. It also serves as a pioneer model for reciprocal, action research designed to build capacity within the research community. Specifically we went beyond data collection in 3 ways:
- Provided a research methods training course for students.
- Presented results at several institutions to increase dissemination and discussion.
- Created an on-going website to inform people about available funding and serve as a networking conduit.
It is our intention that this project, and the conversations that emerge from it, will play a part in transforming Cambodia’s research environment. There is still much to uncover about research in Cambodia but hopefully this study will provide an impetus for further research.
The final report can be downloaded here.
More information on the Doing Research project can be found at www.gdn.int/dr.
This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.
 ibid, page 88
 ibid, page 81
 ibid, page 47
 ibid, page 117