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Contention, as Government Touts ’09 Growth

Cambodian officials and independent analysts found themselves at odds last week on whether the country’s economy grew or shrank last year.

At an annual meeting of the Cambodian Economic Association on Saturday, Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Finance, announced the economy had maintained a sliver of growth in 2009, about 0.1 percent.

The estimate was preliminary, with results expected in mid 2010, but the agricultural, financial and service sectors had helped create the positive growth, Hang Chuon Naron said.

However, independent economists disagree, citing the negative effects the global downturn has had on Cambodia’s main economic drivers.

“Growth as a whole for last year is going to be negative,” said John Nelmes, resident representative for the International Monetary Fund, in a phone interview. “Our estimation right now remains minus 2.75 percent, because almost all sectors are affected.”

The IMF, Asian Development Bank and World Bank have all projected a shrinking economy for 2009, at 2.75 percent, 1.5 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. Despite those estimates last year, the government predicted 2 percent growth. (The ADB and World Bank stand by their numbers.)

Cambodia’s chief earners, garment manufacturing and tourism, were both hit by the global economic downturn. And that could hold lessons, Nelmes said.

“It’s important, I think, to have a good understanding of what happened in the economy in 2009, because that would help the government to be able to set its economic instruments in the way that helps the economy to grow again and helps improve livelihoods in Cambodia,” he said.

The IMF marked a slowdown in all sectors, he said. Industry shrunk 9 percent, and service fell 5 percent, while agriculture grew between 3 percent and 5 percent and tourism crept up 1.7 percent. Cambodia had enjoyed economic growth rates as high as 10 percent in the years preceding the global crisis.

The IMF is projecting economic growth in 2010, Nelmes added.

“I think that the World Bank, ADB and IMF estimates are probably neutral, rather than the government estimation,” said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association. “Based on what happened to our economy, the economic growth of 2009 was not good. It will be negative.”