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Cambodia Lags Behind Many UN Development Goals

Cambodian villagers for countryside line up as wait for a medical check-up outside the children hospital of Kuntha Bopha, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. A deadly form of a common childhood illness has been linked to many of the mysteri

Cambodia has managed to reduce poverty in many parts of the country. But the country is falling behind on many of its UN development goals, as the deadline for the goals fast approaches.

There are eight so-called Millennium Development Goals, aimed at improving living standards and health around the world. UN countries will report the progress of these goals in September.

Cambodia has managed to improve its economy, but its education, women’s empowerment, child and mother health, and environmental sustainability are all lagging behind.

And while the poverty rate has been reduced to 18.9 percent, in 2012, exceeding its target of 19.5 percent, in some parts of the country it is still much higher. In Ratanakkiri province, for example, the rate is 28.6 percent.

“In the past few years we have been extremely successful in reducing poverty,” said Theng Panhathun, director general of Ministry of Planning. “This is the reason why the UN has recognized Cambodia as a role model in reducing poverty quickly and achieving many goals.”

Many challenges remain, however. Cambodia has increased households using iodized salt, for example, but malnutrition among women and children remains high. Child labor is higher than the national target, 8 percent.

Children are also affected by poverty. Many drop out of school to seek work, including overseas, before Grade 9.

Government officials say they are working to make improvements.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said in an interview he expects a 74 percent enrollment rate through Grade 9 soon. “We have achieved other indicators, like literacy, the net admission rate, and the elimination of gender disparity.”

Unicef, meanwhile, points out that many of the nation’s poor, indigenous or disabled are not receiving the same level of attention.

In terms of empowering women in public life, Cambodia is behind, as well. Not enough women are involved in politics. “They have set the targets, but why are these not achieved?” asked Thida Khus, director of the women’s group Silaka. “This is because they don’t have special means to ensure that women receive roles and opportunities to represent the people.”

The government is aiming for 30 percent women in the legislature and 25 percent representation at the local level. It is only at 20 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively.

In environmental protections, Cambodia is also behind. Millennium Goal 7 aims at having 60 percent forest cover, and many experts challenge the government’s estimates that it had retained 57.59 percent cover by 2010. Satellite imagery from researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, show continued loss of cover—7 percent from 2000 to 2012.

In land titling, the government’s plans are stalled. The goal was to have 65 percent of the land parcels with titles by the end of the year. The Ministry of Land Management claims to have distributed 3.8 million land titles—but rights groups say as many as 770,000 people have been victims of land grabs or forced evictions, something government reports do not take into account.

Still, Cambodia is ahead in some areas. It has successfully reduced its HIV/AIDS prevalence, down to .6 percent, more than a full point below its 2015 goal of 1.8 percent.

Safe water in urban areas reaches 80 percent of the population, a goal the government met four years ahead of schedule.

And Cambodia has been successful in mobilizing foreign development assistance, loans and grants—part of a goal to have richer nations play their part. Cambodia receives more than $1 billion annually, more than double what it received in 2001.

“This money has contributed to building big infrastructure that enables smooth traffic for commercial exchange and businesses,” said Chan Sophal, director of the Center for Policy Studies. “This has led to 7 percent economic growth annually.”

Chan Sophal said if the money were managed transparently the results could be better. “I’d say it would be more effective if the government used it more carefully, by paying close attention to quality and costs of the infrastructure built using the loan or official development assistance.”

Meanwhile, the government appears to have lowered its goals in recent reports. Literacy for the young, between 15 and 24, once with a 100 percent goal, has been modified to 94.5 percent. Maternal mortality has been adjusted from 140 deaths per 100,000 live births to 250. Land titling has been adjusted down from 65 percent to 43 percent.

Theng Panhathun said the government is committed to achieving the remaining goals, even if it misses the 2015 deadline, “by putting in place a quick and winning framework.”

That includes stable economic growth, improving human resources, protecting natural resources from development, promoting gender equity and increasing access to drinking water, he said.