Cambodia: (Preăh Réachéa Anachâk Kâmpŭchea) An Assessment of Development Potential

Theoretical Foundations of Development

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Theoretical Foundations of Development

To assess Cambodia’s development potential, it is useful to examine Cambodia’s current state in the context of development theory. Comparing and contrasting the work of various scholars will enable us to form a unique definition of development and aid us in forming our own development proposal.

Early attempts to reduce poverty in the Third World approached development from a largely economic standpoint. Modernization theorists viewed development as a universal, linear process and tried to transfer the experience of Western development and success onto the Third World. However, the application of modernization theory did not solve the problems of poor regions as Western scholars had predicted. In contrast, the lack of a comprehensive definition of development led to mistakes, misunderstandings, and often mishap in “undeveloped” countries.

Better explanations for Cambodia’s underdevelopment can be found in radical theory and the planning school. Radical theory focuses on the need for a strong middle class to ensure that the state acts in the interest of its citizens. The radical school is useful in explaining Cambodia’s current state of underdevelopment because Cambodia has virtually no middle class. Without the pressure of a strong middle class, the government has had little incentive to protect and uphold the public’s interest. This is demonstrated by the fact that Cambodians do not have very much freedom to voice their opinions or exercise their civil and political rights.

Variants of the radical school such as modern dependency theory and world systems theory also help to explain Cambodia’s underdevelopment by highlighting the importance of a country’s linkage to the global system. Looking at Cambodia’s 2-gap (See Appendix), one can see that the country is dependent on foreign aid and loans that have contributed to Cambodia’s national debt and are likely to be unsustainable. Before Cambodia can progress, radicals would claim that it must break this relationship of dependency on the West and change the overall nature of its linkage to the global system.

Like radical theory, the planning school views the state as an important agent of development. Theorists who subscribe to the planning school emphasize the state’s ability to provide appropriate regulation of the market. Since the market alone cannot provide for sustainable development, the state is needed to provide necessary requisites for development such as access to healthcare, adequate education, collection of revenues, and national defense. This theory is useful in explaining Cambodia’s current state since the state has not played the necessary role required for progress. After evaluating the areas of health and education, it is clear that the Cambodian government has not been able to provide its population with access to proper health care or schooling. Currently, government spending on these areas is noticeably low in comparison to neighboring countries, Thailand and Vietnam. As noted in the 3-gap (See Appendix), the current administration has also failed to properly collect taxes and other revenues (which decreases available funding) because it lacks enforcement. In order for substantial progress in development, both radical theory and the planning school thus support a significant increase in the state’s role.

Towards Development

In order to assess and alleviate Cambodia's obstacles to progress we must formulate a working definition of what development means. Drawing from the work of Amartya Sen, we define development as reducing deprivation and expanding opportunity (Sen). Deprivation refers to absence of basic necessities, such as adequate food, water, health care, shelter, employment, education, and access to basic infrastructure (Moon; Seers). In addressing issues of poverty, these basic needs must first be met. Opportunity refers to the broader spectrum of human capabilities and potential. Specifically, this approach seeks to empower individuals and enable people to shape their own futures.

Our definition of development places people, as opposed to wealth, at the center of each of our objectives. Development is a complex, multi-dimensional concept that requires a multi-pronged approach. For the purpose of this paper, we will look at several key variables: income, education, health care, and political rights. Key to this approach is the recognition that development strategies must be specifically crafted to the unique social context of the country under evaluation. No single variable can truly describe the current conditions of a country or society. However, taking into account multiple variables, it is possible to gain an accurate portrayal of the particular problems and potential solutions available.

Defining development as opportunity enables us to create a sustainable project proposal that allows us to address and hopefully ease economic, social, and political dilemmas. Recognizing In viewing development as the combination of economic, social, and political opportunities we can more sincerely understand and approach the needs of Cambodians today.

Measuring Development

The following report is an assessment of Cambodia’s development potential. Through this analysis, we will highlight priority areas and offer possible solutions. As radical theory and the planning school teach us, development means much more than economic growth. Using our definition of human development (i.e., reducing deprivation and expanding opportunity), we will examine four aspects of Cambodian society- political development, the economy, education, and health.

Political development:

The effects of the Khmer Rouge can still be seen in Cambodian politics, and have shaped the way administrators in the country rule over their citizens. As Evan Gottesman, author of Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge, writes, “Cambodia’s leaders have accepted a new level of political discourse, but they do so only to the extent that it does not jeopardize their power. This strategic, self-serving adaptation has, in fact, been the hallmark of their rule since 1979 [the fall of the Khmer Rouge]” (Gottesman). After seeing how quickly the Khmer Rouge rose to power, it is understandable that Cambodian politicians feel the need to secure their positions. However, the government’s refusal to acknowledge criticisms has limited the freedom and futures of Cambodians. Despite a relatively smooth political transition within the past fifteen years, the country lacks the necessary opportunities for expression and freedom from corruption.

Though its history is plagued with political strife, genocide, and terror, Cambodia operates today as a parliamentary representative democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The constitution of Cambodia was promulgated in 1993, and guarantees universal suffrage to both men and women at 18 years of age. The Global Integrity Report 2008 gave Cambodia a score of 86 out of 100 for public participation in elections and received a score of 75 for election integrity. Though the elections were by no means perfect, Cambodia’s score of 75 is rather striking considering the United States received a score of 82 this past year, and that an exceptionally high score is 92 (Canada). Neighboring countries Vietnam and Thailand scored 62 and 56 respectively, making Cambodia more developed in this aspect of political life.

Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihamoni, operates more as a symbolic figurehead than as an actual political leader. The government has executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, with Hun Sen acting as Prime Minister. “His [PM Hun Sen’s] Cambodian People's Party (CPP) uses its control of the National Assembly as well as the military, courts, and police to remove and outmaneuver all opposition” (The UN Refugee Agency). The CPP has also guaranteed political victory by rewarding citizen support with “gifts,” such as bags of rice, from numerous headquarters scattered throughout Cambodia. Even if opposing parties managed to overcome both formal and informal government barriers, it would be nearly impossible to compete with the widespread resources and influence the CPP has managed to gain over the years.

Even with its tremendous progress, Cambodia is not considered to be anywhere close to an open and accessible democracy. In the words of Gottesman, “…Cambodian democracy often seems like an abstraction. The government ignores reports of corruption and human rights abuses. The courts remain corrupt, politicized, and for most citizens, geographically inaccessible and prohibitively expensive. Soldiers and police are never prosecuted for abuses, prompting nongovernmental organizations to write lengthy reports on the problem of impunity, reports that themselves are ignored” (Gottesman).

In its 2009 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House characterized Cambodia as being a country which is politically “not free.” Out of a possible score of 7 (with 7 being the worst), Cambodia received a 6 for political rights and a score of 5 for civil liberties. The government does not tolerate criticisms of the state or fully recognize freedom of speech and long periods of detainment for political opposition are commonplace (The UN Refugee Agency). In 2008, Transparency International ranked Cambodia 166 among 180 countries for high levels of corruption (Transparency International). In comparison to its neighbors, Cambodia was measured to have higher levels of corruption than Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos (Transparency International) (See Figure 1). The Global Integrity Report 2008, which also measure levels of corruption in governments, has categorized Cambodia’s integrity as “very weak.” The score assessed for Cambodia (pictured above) is 46 out of a possible score of 100, and in comparison to 50 other diverse countries, Cambodia scored well below average. Additionally, Global Integrity gave Cambodia a score of 22 out of 100 for public access to information. This is largely due to the fact that the media in Cambodia practices self-censorship and fears governmental repercussions.

Socially and politically, discrimination against minorities, especially Cham Muslims, is a widespread problem. Women, who were once highly respected in ancient Cambodia, are today the victims of prevalent economic and social discrimination. Domestic violence and rape commonly occur, yet police attention or justice is either rare or non-existent. Sex trafficking has become a colossal problem in Cambodia. Due to little or no economic prospects, Cambodian women from the countryside move to cities such as Phnom Penh to earn a living through prostitution. Additionally, prostitutes have been brought into the country from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam to work in cities where “sex tourism” turns big profits. Traffickers purposefully addict their workers to drugs in order to ensure that they will remain dependent on the brothel for income, drugs, and livelihood. In February 2008, legislation was passed to enable police raids on brothels, however, studies have shown that police have abused this right to bribe and blackmail prostitutes and brothel owners (Global Integrity).

Displacement and forced evictions have also violated the rights of Cambodians, especially within this past year. Issues of land ownership are heavily debated in a country struggling with the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed all property deeds during its reign. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, families who survived the genocide began squatting on available land, with no evidence of their previous property. Today the government has the final say on approving or rejecting claims on land ownership. Amnesty International estimates that in 2009, at least 27 forced evictions affected 23,000 people, all of whom were among the nation’s poorest. Additionally, 150,000 Cambodians are estimated to be at risk to losing their rural property. All of these involuntary relocations have been denied by the Cambodian government, with 150 land activists being detained (Amnesty International, 2009). As of 2009, the anti-corruption law was not passed, despite the pressures faced from international donors of aid to Cambodia. Over 40 NGOs and over a million Cambodians signed a petition to have the law passed in May, but any developments have yet to be seen (Transparency International).

A country is not developed if there are not opportunities for political expression and freedom. In terms of political issues, Cambodia is far from being developed. High levels of corruption plague the government, which allows for many injustices to be committed against the Cambodian population. Despite considerable development in election integrity, political opposition in the form of social freedoms and political parties are silenced, which creates obstacles for political opportunity in Cambodia. There is however, great promise for future development, with a population with high levels of participation and a culture of resilience, considering the ghosts which haunt Cambodia’s past. Politician Sam Rainsy, leader of the Sam Rainsy Party, criticized the CPP, saying, "They made this empty promise so that they have time to commit corruption; it is a strategy to delay. It has been 10 years already. Thieves can't catch thieves...” (Transparency International).

Figure 1: 2008 Transparency International CPI


Country Rank

2007 CPI Score
















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