FAO in Cambodia

They meet, they talk, they decide: how self-managed groups are building grassroots resilience in rural Cambodia

Flash flood from upper stream of the village

In late August 2022, heavy rains flooded the lower areas of the Kok Chan village, Cambodia, threatening crops and roads, especially the main pathway used by farmers to go to their rice fields. Under the serious risk to the population and their livelihoods, villagers were able to rapidly assess and manage the situation thanks to their organization into Dimitra Clubs (DCs) – informal groups of local women, men and youth who discuss common issues and determine ways to address them by acting together using local resources.

“Our club met to explore local solutions for the road repair and maintenance, considered as a priority at the community level, also engaging with the other club of the village,” explained Ms Vat Veasna, a woman who leads one of the local DCs. “Then, we convened a meeting with the whole community to share the main results of our reflections. In the village meeting, we explained the causes and effects of the problem, discussed possible solutions and the resources needed.”

As it was a community problem, the whole community had to be involved in the solution. And so it happened: they decided to collect financial contributions for buying the necessary materials to repair the road urgently, obtaining 560,000 Riels (about USD 140). For two days, the community joined forces to build a 15 meter-wide and 20-meter long concrete floor and rebuilt a 50 meter-long dike, in a collective effort that engaged both women and men. Throughout the process, the DCs informed local authorities about their initiatives, who provided them full support.

The action – of foremost public interest – effectively boosted the community’s resilience against similar climate shocks that occur now and then. With literally hands on work, villagers took the opportunity to clean the local nursery’s playground to ensure their children play in a nice and safe space, removing debris and wild weed and bushes along the roads. Since then, the clubs have also encouraged waste management activities in the village as a way to prevent risks and damages involved in future downpours.

The DCs have proven an effective, sustainable and inclusive way to address the community issues in Kok Chan, where many applaud their work that is estimated to have benefitted more than 2,500 people. “I’m delighted to have Dimitra Clubs in our village. So far, their achievements have received appreciation from the villagers as well as from local authorities at all levels. They have been able to encourage people to work together using their own resources in a voluntary manner,” stressed Mr. Tok Tam am, the village leader.

Members also show pride of belonging to the groups: “today our club is well recognized by Kok Chan villagers, who also increasingly take part in the activities we organize to solve common issues that affect our lives,” said a smiley Ms. Vat Veasna, whose village is inhabited by 344 families mainly relying on farming and livestock breeding.

The first Asian experience, one year on

In Kok Chan, as well as in other 20 villages in Cambodia’s provinces of Siem Reap and Banthey Mean Chey, the FAO-Dimitra Clubs approach was launched in 2021 – for the first time in an Asian country. A total of 40 Dimitra Clubs have already been set up in both provinces, accounting for 1,187 members – half of them women. The approach, developed in the 2000’s by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is considered a successful model to enhance people’s empowerment and gender equality through community engagement. In Cambodia, it is being piloted through an FAO partnership with the Village Support Group (VSG) NGO and in collaboration with the local authorities.

When FAO brought the approach to Kok Chann, 60 inspired villagers voluntarily decided to form and take part in DCs. Given the local interest and needs, FAO and VSG trained nominated leaders on the principles of the approach and a variety of skills for self and collective development (community engagement, facilitation, analysis and organization). During the process, the clubs of the village identified six main issues to be addressed in their community: i) poor road conditions; ii) poor waste management; iii) domestic violence; iv) presence of gangs; v) low access to clean water; and vi) lack of technical know-how to grow crops and raising livestock.

“This approach has brought about collective responsibilities among the villagers to solve common issues. Even more, the Dimitra Clubs have also served as a learning platform that gives women the opportunity to have their voices heard, which empowers them,” explained Vat Veasna.

Through the DCs, women are considered on an equal basis with men and are developing self-confidence and leadership skills to engage in community decision-making and as agents of change in collective efforts to improve the well-being of their communities. Agriculture is a frequent theme among the clubs’ discussions alongside climate change, nutrition, access to education and health, infrastructure, and women’s status as well as any issue of interest raised by the members.

After one year of implementation of this innovative approach, it is time for the stakeholders, in particular the Dimitra Clubs’ members, to reflect on the process, including the successes, challenges and lessons learnt. This is why FAO is organizing, in collaboration with VSG, two provincial DC forums to take place at the end of November in Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces. During these events, delegations of the 40 DCs in Cambodia will exchange and enrich their experiences while showcasing their achievements to various stakeholders (local authorities, development organizations, the media, etc.).