Reform Needed to Reduce Cambodian Poverty

By Chak Sopheap, Guest Commentary on UPI Asia

Niigata, Japan–Cambodia is among the world?s poorest countries. While parts of the economy are making considerable progress, more than 30 percent of the population still live in extreme poverty. Though the government has proposed many strategies ? the Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, Cambodia Millennium Development Goals and the National Strategic Development Plan ? there is little progress in improving people?s living standards.

On the U.N. Development Program?s Human Development Index (2007-2008), Cambodia is ranked 131 out of 177, just above Myanmar but below Laos. This is a slight improvement over 1995-2005. Cambodia?s economic growth rate has been in double digits in the past few years, which has helped reduce poverty from 34.8 percent in 2004 to 30.1 percent in 2007, according to World Bank figures.

Prolonged civil conflict, internal displacement and discriminatory development processes are the main causes of poverty in Cambodia, made worse by high population growth. Poor people face inadequate opportunities, low capabilities, insecurity, exclusion and vulnerability. Although more than 70 percent of Cambodia?s population is employed in agricultural production, between 12 and 15 percent have no agricultural land.

This figure could be even higher with the current speculation, land-grabs and evictions for both rural and urban communities. Also, most peasants work small land holdings that don?t even provide enough food for their own consumption.

Apart from land, many families face a shortage of capital and a lack of knowledge and skills. They lack access to other natural resources such as forests and fish. Poor health is another major cause of impoverishment and other forms of social deprivation. The cycle of poverty, ill health, and high healthcare costs cripples poor Cambodian families.

The poor have little access to basic social services and facilities, with many living in remote areas. Illiteracy is also a barrier, as the poor are excluded from the development process.

Women in Cambodia do not enjoy equal access to education, paid employment and ownership of land and other property. Ethnic minorities are disadvantaged due to lack of representation at the management and legislative levels, and because of language barriers.

Lack of access to government information and decision making has prevented the poor from participating in community activities, contributing to gaps between government policies and their implementation. Also, the poor are not able to understand the law, unaware of their rights and vulnerable to exploitation and corruption.

Government policies aimed at reducing poverty will not work without collaboration from grassroots people, civil society organizations and donor communities.

An active grassroots civil society would ensure that citizens? diverse voices are articulated and heard by local governments. It would also act as a check on local government action and ensure that it complies with the wishes of citizens ? a community-based monitoring function that enhances accountability. Both roles would promote pro-poor governance.

Poverty reduction is one of the mandates of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and has become their joint focus since 1999. Their continued financial and technical assistance is crucial to both government and civil society organizations.

There are huge grants from major donor countries and agencies that prioritize agricultural and rural development, human rights issues, decentralization, disability and rehabilitation, disarmament and demobilization, education, electoral reform, fishery and forestry sectors, gender and women?s participation, governance and transparency, health and HIV/AIDS, landmines and unexploded ordinances in affected communities, land reform, microfinance, resettlement and rights of affected people and the rule of law. If these sectors are effectively implemented they will contribute to poverty reduction.

Since the early 1990s NGOs in Cambodia have been heavily involved in post-conflict reconstruction, emergency relief work, repatriation and resettlement of refugees, and assisting with the implementation of basic services and infrastructure. NGOs work hard under difficult conditions in many sectors and geographical areas where the Cambodian government has outsourced, ignored or failed to provide assistance.

Despite their contributions to government policies, the activities of some such groups ? especially those that advocate civil rights or fight corruption ? are obstructed or denied by the government in the name of protecting national security and social order.

The central issue here is thus a lack of cooperation between the government and civil society organizations. For donor agencies, there is no communication and coordination so funds can be channeled properly to avoid task duplication, and no common fund-requesting procedures to facilitate the organizations? work.

In addition, there are donor-driven agendas to which NGOs often have to conform to maintain their funding. Such shifts may not be appropriate for the NGO in terms of expertise, or for the particular development needs of the various communities. They also create conflicts of interest among civil society organizations in approaching the funding sources, which ultimately contributes to a lack of collaboration between them.

Furthermore, there are many challenges for grassroots people to exercise their role. A small oligarchy of high-ranking government officials, army generals and rich entrepreneurs are dominating the country politically, socially and economically. The National Assembly and the Senate do not fulfill their functions effectively and hardly take any initiative on their own. The judiciary system, which is not dependent from the executive power, provides the rich and mighty with impunity. All TV channels and most of the radio stations and print media are controlled by the government and do not report fairly on the opposition parties.

The corruption rate is very high in Cambodia; corruption is one of the main sources of human rights violations and poverty determinants. Instead of being properly consulted, rural and urban community leaders are intimidated and pushed aside. In most cases, the courts do not protect their rights to fair trial. Grassroots activists who try to resist are arrested and charged excessively.

The poorest and most disadvantaged parts of society have limited opportunities to exercise their civil and political rights. They neither know about their rights nor how to advocate for them. The failure of the authorities in protecting their rights, and the excessive use of force by security forces, sometimes lead to counter-violence. Thus it is necessary for civil society organizations and donor communities to lobby the government for administrative and judicial reforms and empower the grassroots in order to tackle poverty and violence.

Poverty reduction requires a strong government role with collaboration from civil society. The Cambodian government should first work toward a clean, highly competent and courageous leadership. Second, Cambodia must develop a highly educated, development-oriented, non-corrupt, efficient bureaucracy. The National Assembly should enact laws against corruption and should strictly carry out such laws.

Third, all civil society and government stakeholders interested in the development of the country should work toward a culture of mutual collaboration, through extensive community consultation, rather than through pressure exerted by powerful groups or lobbies.

Ultimately, the Cambodian government should enforce reforms of the administrative, legal and judicial, military, economic and financial branches to improve living conditions of the Cambodian people. Only if these reforms are implemented will poverty reduction policies be feasible.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

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