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Poverty Reduction a Mixed Success, as Countryside Rates Remain High

A young Cambodian woman rides near slum homes on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, file photo.
A young Cambodian woman rides near slum homes on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, file photo.

Cambodia’s efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger have yielded mixed results, despite the government’s claim it has reduced the poverty rate ahead of a UN deadline.

Poverty reduction is the top priority among the country’s eight UN Millennium Development Goals, pledged at a summit in 2000 and coming due in September.

Cambodia has a poverty rate of 18.9 percent, according to government figures, better than the 19.5 percent goal it set for itself.

“Overall, for Goal 1, which is poverty eradication, we achieved it before 2015,” Theng Panhathun, director general of Ministry of Planning, said.

But many people remain near the poverty line, vulnerable to natural disasters, such as flooding, that could put them on the other side of it. Meanwhile, poverty is very high in the countryside: 27.9 percent, in Oddar Meanchey province, near the Thai border; 28.6 percent in Ratanakkiri; 25.2 percent in Preah Vihear; and 26.1 percent in Mondolkiri.

Outside of Phnom Penh, other places saw a decline in poverty to low levels: 10.9 percent in Preah Sihanouk province, a coastal vacation spot; 11.9 percent in Kandal province, which abuts the capital; and 14.3 percent in Svay Rieng province, which borders Vietnam.

While Cambodia has made some strides in poverty reduction, it is lagging on other goals, such as child nutrition and labor. High rates of child labor remain, and the country is off track for preventing underweight and stunted children under five. In some provinces, this figure reaches upward to 50 percent of children, higher than national figures 15 years ago.

“Lack of progress is explained partially by diarrhea prevalence, improper complementary feeding and inadequate improved water and sanitation,” UNICEF said in a recent report.

“We have reduced the poverty rate, but on the nutrition front, we have not achieved it,” Theng Panhathun said.

Thida Khus, whose Silaka organization tracks Cambodia’s UN development goals, said the main reason the country is behind is that public services are not reaching the people who need it. “Road infrastructure, education, and health services do not reach them,” she said. “Training to give people knowhow on creating businesses and reducing poverty is not there. In the provinces where poverty is high we see an impact on children’s health, as well.”

The poverty line is defined as an intake of 2,200 calories of food per day, or an income of $1 per day in rural areas and $1.50 per day in urban areas.

But Thida Khus said the line should be drawn at $2 per day, to reflect realities on the ground. That would put the poverty rate much higher. “Our commodities are not cheap any more,” she said. “Our food is even more expensive than in some developed countries.”

Meanwhile, the economic growth rate continues to be high, reaching at least 7 percent per year in the last three years. But Chan Sophal, an economist and director of the Center for Policy Studies, said the growth is not evenly distributed.

“It is normal in the first step of economic growth, those who are rich become richer, and those who are poor remain the same or see slight improvement,” he said.