“One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn’t know.”
Albert Camus, The Stranger
The first impression of Cambodia is difficult to digest, despite all the preamble, the reality hits violently. In that sense, especially if you are or claims to be a practitioner, and also aims to contribute their bit to the development of Cambodia please do not stay with the first impression and reappraise everything at the end.
It is difficult not to be tempted to say that nothing works well, that everything is corrupt: the state, institutions, Chinese investors, that the NGO’s are a plague that do not allow better development of Cambodia and conclude that the responsibility lies with citizens who ought to be more active and take the bull by the horns once and for all.
Here it is clear that you did not understand anything, please try again!
The definition of Yiftachel where he talks about the gray cities is a good starting point to begin to observe Cambodia: “Urban spheres lying between full state sanction and expulsion, destruction or death” (Roy,2009, p.9) No doubt that in Cambodia the state it is exceeded, relegating responsibility to other actors such as NGO’s and foreign investors to generate development projects such as the public transport system in Phnom Penh.
Therefore the general perception is that the vast majority of the population is abandoned and not protected by the state.
The space between the state and the expulsion and destruction is a big range of greys that need to be considering as a possible entry points to complex reality. So understanding the reality is more related to nuances rather than two irreconcilable extremes.
That look of blacks and whites was very present before and during the workshop in Cambodia. Understanding that there are outcomes that will be worked in the future, and also that there will be a field trip # 2 to Cambodia there is a responsibility to assume in generate deeper reflections, for that the strategies have an impact and generate a processes of change.
Most glances established the need for a more empowered citizenship, able to be articulated and be an effective counterweight in decision-making at the time of producing the city. Miraftab speaks of Insurgent Planning as the “planning practices that respond to neoliberal specific dominance, those that are counter-hegemonic, transgressive and imaginative”. (Roy 2010, p.8)
This is where it begins to play the ability to identify opportunities to perform. The role of NGOs as mediators in this process of emancipation of the Cambodian people, that seems to be the only possible way today. In that sense it could not always see clearly the importance of this support network, rather what was seen was suspicion on the part of the practitioners.
For example in the case of CDF, who were in sites where there is little presence of this NGO, the response were strategies without these actors, losing the global view of the role played in political and social level in Cambodia.
A suitable criticism of the role of NGOs is the charitable nature of the projects that do not address essence of inequality nor deliver social tools for residents to be able to change reality. This coupled with a weak networking complicates the long term perspective.
Cambodia is possible without NGO’s?
Today seems to be a discontinuous process of interactions between actors, communities and authorities, where the city co production does not exist. Perea define the concept of familiarization as “the process by which the subaltern citizen comes to inhabit, reshape, and rewrite the space of colonizer. The room for familiarization is afforded by the incompleteness pf formal urban system…these have gaps, cracks, and depend on exceptions” (Roy 2009, p.8)
What is seen faintly in various settlements is a logic of resistance, adaptation and creativity to overcome adversity. There is not much networking inside or outside these places. This is important work to do, scaling up these individual initiatives and make it collective in sustainable and transformative projects.
Today the reality tells us more of survivals than resistance in Cambodia but there are always opportunities to trigger processes of radical change and these necessarily seem to pass for understand the complex relationship between communities, NGOs and the state.
Probably the “insurgent citizenship” spoken of James Holston is not just around the corner, but certainly there is strength and creativity in various grays that were observed in those distant lands.
Roy Ananya, 2009, Strangely Familiar: Planning and The Worlds of Insurgence and Informality, Planning Theory.