The photo depicts a chart which mapped how comfortable the participants were with 6 different topics from the workshops, at the beginning of the session and at the end of the session.

By Sakshi Jain

Susadei chnam thmai! Happy Khmer New Year!

Welcome to my fourth and final blog! It has been a fantastic few months, and in this blog, I will talk about a project that I worked on over these past 6 months – one that has been very close to my heart, and, as a working adult – my first baby. 😊

Through studying economics in my undergraduate degree, and participating in a co-op term in the Public Policy Department of the Government of Ontario (Ontario Public Service), I developed a deep interest in public policy. As a result, I decided to pursue graduate studies in public policy and loved every minute of it.  Over the course of my graduate degree, policymaking as a field of study began to form a special place in my heart.

Youth make up close to 70% of Cambodia’s population, and as such it is imperative that they be more actively involved in policymaking in the country. During my first few months at UNDP Cambodia, my supervisor and I conceptualized a workshop for young Cambodians, especially those with minimal education, since in Cambodia the mean years of education is a total of 4 years, and most young people have very few years of education under their belt.  This workshop would provide a crash course of sorts in policymaking. This project was special to me for two reasons – not only were we hoping to introduce young people to a topic that I am very passionate about, it was also the first project that I got to manage independently. I became the key focal person for this project and oversaw it right from its conceptualization through implementation stages.

We worked with a local organization called Advocacy and Policy Institute. The key goal with this workshop was to make it as interactive, two-way and youth-centric as possible – no boring hour-long keynote speeches, no one-way lecturing. Since we weren’t sure of young people’s interest in this topic, our initial goal was to recruit 50 youth and train them. Imagine our surprise when we put a call for applications out and received close to 600 responses! That spoke volumes about how much young people value such opportunities, and their willingness to engage in the policymaking process.

We put together a 3-day workshop, made specifically for people with little to no background in policymaking. Each day, we started with one young person, sharing their story – what their expectations for the workshop were, why they thought it was important for young people to be involved in policymaking, and if they had ever engaged in such a process in their lives. The workshop covered a plethora of topics, ranging from an introduction to policymaking and its crucial steps, understanding the importance of participating in such a process, learning how to conduct research, critical thinking, debating, presentation, and many more subjects.

The participants first identified topics they thought were important and most urgent with respect to youth employment in their city or province. Then they were divided into groups to work on their chosen topics. While the workshops were entirely in Khmer, seeing the excitement on the faces of the youth as they engaged with each activity made me so happy and proud. My favourite part of these workshops was the ‘One-minute Talk’ session that was held on the last day. Participants were given a topic and they had to talk about it in-front of a camera for one minute – essentially arguing for the importance of the topic or refuting it. Topics ranged from discrimination faced by LGBTQ youth in the workplace to the importance of including youth with disabilities in Cambodia’s workforce. These videos were then played back, and each individual received feedback from their peers and mentors on their delivery, presentation, and oral communication skills.

At the end of the workshop, those participants who wanted to continue to engage with policymaking, expressed their interest in being trained further. Over the next four weeks, they were taught essential research skills and how to write a policy brief/background paper, as well as how to organize a meeting with local decisionmakers from municipal and provincial governments. At the end of the four weeks, a policy dialogue was held where the young people presented their ideas to municipal- and provincial-level government employees and received feedback on their research. Our hope for this dialogue was for the youth to be able to practice what they had learnt, and for it to lead to more long-term active engagement of youth in policymaking processes at the municipal and provincial levels.

We sent out feedback forms at each stage of this cycle to make sure there was no miscommunication, that young people completely understood the scope of the project, and that they were able to actively participated in shaping it. We had a huge retention rate at the end of the workshop, with almost everyone wanting to move to the next stage of writing policy briefs/background papers.

All in all, it was a fantastic exercise with many lessons learned and friends gained along the way! I am extremely grateful to UNDP Cambodia and my supervisor for the experience I gained through this project. I concluded my internship with UNDP Cambodia at the end of February 2019. I had an absolutely fantastic time – learning about programmes, working at the grassroots level, exploring the country and its neighbours, practicing some broken Khmer, and drinking lots of coconut water.

My only regret was that I wasn’t able to get much policy experience and be able to see some of my other projects through. I especially wanted to be able to be more involved in continuing my macroeconomic research estimating returns on investment in the cassava crop as well as researching the return on investment in the TVET education sector in Cambodia. So, I was very pleasantly surprised – and grateful – when I was offered the option of staying on for a few months after my internship ended, which would allow me to see most of my projects to completion, while also assisting on another cool project. So of course – I agreed. 😊

Currently, in my position as International Socio-Economic Policy Consultant at UNDP Cambodia, I assist the National Economist with a variety of projects, including the ones I mentioned above. In addition, I am assisting the Royal Government of Cambodia with writing its Voluntary National Review Report, to be presented at the United Nations High Level Political Forum in New York in July 2019. Since the adoption of Agenda 2030 in 2015, all member countries have been encouraged to undertake a Voluntary National Review to understand the country’s progress towards achieving the 2030 agenda and learn best practices from other countries. This year, the Forum focuses on SDGs 4, 10, 13, 16, and 17. Cambodia has adopted all 17 SDGs as priorities, adding an 18th – a mine free Cambodia by the year 2030. My role entails supporting the National Consultant and the Ministry of Planning with writing the report, ensuring it is in line with UN guidelines, and assisting with the organization of national level consultations between line ministries, civil society organizations and other stakeholders to get input on the VNRs. I’ve been in this role for about a month now, and just as with my previous project, I am learning a lot! This is also great because now I am getting to learn more about policymaking in a developing country context – hence fulfilling my original wish to gain experience in both programming and policymaking. 😊

This brings us to the end of my last blog. I hope to do many, more interesting things in the future but the last few months have taught me that I love this life and I would love to work in many other country contexts in the future. So, to conclude this blog, my three key takeaways from the last 6 months are:

  1. More than your educational background, more than any accolades you have, what matters most is how adaptive you are. It is always better to be ready for complications and have a plan B, or C, or D for that matter.
  2. It is so important to learn about the country you’re in and put every experience in context of the culture and history.
  3. Coconuts are a person’s best friend.

Thank you very much for reading, and for sharing this journey with me! I hope to go on to do more interesting things in the future – and hope to keep writing about them. If you’d like to keep in touch, or if you’re travelling to Cambodia and would like tips (I have many!) please feel free to reach out via my Linkedin! 😊