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

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Economic Measures:

As with all other aspects of life in Cambodia, the economy was greatly affected by the Khmer Rouge government and the genocide that occurred under Pol Pot. By 1979, the entire commercial infrastructure, including roads, bridges, railroads, and telephone networks needed to be entirely reconstructed. Cambodia’s human capital also took a huge hit as the technocrats were practically decimated and many other people were unable to resume economic activity due to malnutrition and overall poor health. Eventually capitalism started to reemerge through private trading with Thailand, and this ongoing relationship has continued to influence Cambodia’s economic policies. In 1980, the government went through the very difficult process of reintroducing the riel and transitioning the society from using primarily rice as currency to printed money. In 1988, as the government finally conceded that a planned economy was not working, Hun Sen proclaimed, “Cambodia is quietly reforming the management of its economy. We are moving from the left to the right” (Gottesman 280).

Even after this shift from a planned to a market economy, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Although it has experienced recent GDP growth, Cambodia has the lowest GDP per capita and the highest poverty rates when compared to geographically similar countries. According to the World Bank, Cambodia’s GDP per capita, PPP (constant international $) in 2008 was $1,760. This puts Cambodia’s GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international $) rank at 187th out of 228 countries in the world, barely surpassing North Korea (CIA). Countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan and Honduras, countries very poor and underdeveloped in their own right, all have a GDP per capita PPP higher than that of Cambodia. Compared to the 1998 GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international $) of $863, GDP per capita, PPP has more than doubled over ten years. Although this is very positive growth, when looking at other countries in Southeast Asia such as Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, one can see that Cambodia still has a long way to go. (See Figure 2) While GDP per capita PPP has surpassed that of the LDCs, and is slowly but surely closing in on Laos, this should not be viewed as a victory necessarily because Cambodia still lags far behind Vietnam and extremely far behind Thailand. The cultural, religious, geographic and other similarities suggest that there should not be such a large gap among the GDPs per capita PPP of these Southeast Asian countries.

Figure 2

Source: World Bank Indicators, 2009

According to the United Nations, Cambodia, along with countries such as Haiti, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Sudan, are classified as Least Developed Countries (UN-OHRLLS). While Cambodia’s GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international $) is higher than that of the LDCs, which is $1,253, this very slight advantage of only $500 indicates that Cambodia really is one of the poorest countries in the world (See Figure 2). Seeing this comparison to the world and some of its bordering countries in Southeast Asia, it is clear that, in terms of GDP per capita PPP (constant 2005 international $), Cambodia is an extremely underdeveloped country.

Not only does Cambodia have a very low GDP per capita (PPP), but it is also distributed rather unequally. On the GINI Index1 Cambodia received a 43 in 2007, which makes it the 51st most unequal country in the world, worse than Thailand2 ranked 55th, Vietnam3 ranked 78th, and Laos4 ranked 88th (CIA, 2010). When looking at the income share held by the highest 10% and the income held by the lowest 10%, it is easy to see that coupled with the extreme inequality; the population earning the lowest incomes is living in extreme poverty (See Figure 3).

Figure 3

Source: World Development Indicators, 2009

While these figures show that income inequality is roughly the same throughout Southeast Asia, since the GDP per capita of all of these countries is higher than that of Cambodia, the 3-4% of the income in all of these countries will be higher than the 3% of income in Cambodia. Therefore Cambodians are really the poorest of the poor. According to the World Bank, in 2004 the percentage of the population living at or below $1.25 a day was 40%. While this is still a large number, especially compared to Thailand (2%) and Vietnam (24%), one could say that this is not a majority of the country (See Figure 4). When looking at the population living below $2.00 a day, however, there is a staggering jump in Cambodia to 68% of the population. $0.75 more income per day only marginally makes a person or family better off and therefore it is safe to say that almost 2/3 of the population of Cambodia lives in poverty (The World Bank Group).

Figure 45

Source: World Development Indicators, 2009

Cambodia’s low income can be partially explained by the nearly complete lack of an industrial sector (only 2% of total employment) and an unusually small service sector (9%).6 Instead, Cambodia’s labor force of 8.5 million is employed mostly in agriculture and an even larger portion of the population engages in some sort of self-employed subsistence farming. Not surprisingly then, Cambodia’s population is largely rural (78%), which makes Lipton’s urban bias an especially significant feature of the economic and political landscape. As shown in Figure 4, the percentage of the rural population below the poverty line is more than twice as high as the percentage of the urban population below the poverty line.

Figure 47

Source: World Development Indicators, 2009

Regional income inequality in Cambodia falls right along the lines of the urban/rural divide. Looking at the map below, one can see that in the city of Phnom Penh there is only 4.6% poverty. The region with the next lowest level of poverty is the coastal regions at 26.8%, indicating that access to water has an impact on reducing poverty by not only increasing the ability for trade, fishing and tourism, but also making the land more fertile and productive for agriculture. In the plateau/mountain region there exists 52% poverty because not only is this a very rural zone and obviously there will be more poverty, but because of quality of the land in mountainous regions, agriculture will ultimately be less efficient and productive.

While Cambodia’s unemployment rate is reported to be low at 3.5%, this number is very misleading because employed people are still very poor. Although most of the population may be employed, they are not earning nearly enough money to sustain themselves or to afford education and health care, which we see as essential to being considered a developed country (CIA).

Figure 5- Incidence of poverty by broad geographic zones, 2003-2004

Source: UNDP Cambodia Human Development Report, 2007

While the income level, based on the GDP per capita, has improved in recent years, it is still extremely low compared to the rest of the world. Cambodia is far from being considered “developed” with such a low income per person and such widespread poverty which is then compounded by the problem of inequality. Because of this huge income gap and distribution problem, Cambodia lacks a middle class which according to Marxists and Radicals will have the incentive to invest money, properly direct social capital, and press for democracy. As demonstrated by Cambodia’s 1-gap, 2-gap, and 3-gap, Cambodia’s high GDP growth is due to foreign investment and aid, as opposed to domestic savings and efficient investment. This dependence on foreign capital is undesirable and unlikely to be sustainable (See Appendix). When compared with its neighboring countries, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia is by far the poorest. Cambodia’s GDP and level of income is not allowing its people to provide basic human needs and therefore is considered underdeveloped in this area by our definition.

Figure 15: Number of teachers, 1970 and 1980

In viewing development as opportunity, the next aspect in need of assessment is education within Cambodia. As is evident throughout the various facets of Cambodian life that we have evaluated thus far, the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime is still apparent in the education sector today. Cambodia’s contemporary educational system has only been around for less than a century and has developed quite deliberately due to various changes within the political and social system over time. It was not until the 1930's that secondary education became available to both males and females, and not until the 1950's that all forms of education and learning centers were enlarged and developed in order to include a wider cross-section of provinces within Cambodia. Unfortunately, the majority of the progress that was made up until the 1970's ended with the civil war, which led to the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge was notorious in their efforts to revolutionize Cambodia's citizens, emphasizing labor over education. Those who had obtained a higher education were killed, driven out of the country, or forced to work in labor camps.

Figure 158 illustrates the drastic change in the number of teachers before and after the regime. More often than not citizens would have to lie and refrain from speaking so as not to reveal they have been educated. As Alexander Hinton recounts the grievous memories of a young Cambodian girl who survived through the regime in his book, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, the extent to which educators were intolerable toward the Khmer Rouge is visible.

The regime took part in demolishing institutional infrastructure within the educational sector including schools, books, etc. While education as a whole was not completely banned, it was in principle the colonial education that was practiced prior to the Khmer Rouge regime that was viewed as suspicious, in part adding to the many teachers who fled or died during their rule. All students were regarded with suspicion, and those who were regarded as “the enemy” were executed. It is estimated that only 15% of educated Cambodians survived the mistreatment throughout the regime (Gottesman).

It should be no surprise therefore, that in 2007 the adult literacy rate was only 75% (68% Female/86% Male). The 1980's and 1990's were a long period of both relief and major reconstruction, and with the aid of “Vietnamese, Soviet, and other foreign professors and curriculum advisors, the PRK managed to reestablish a network of schools and university faculties. It was one of the regime’s greatest achievements” (Gottesman). Despite all of the external aid and optimism for a new and improved sector, the results were disappointing. Efforts made at recruiting educated intellectuals (referring to those who have attained a high school diploma) into the state apparatus were inefficient, as most ‘intellectuals’ had already fled to the Thai border in fear that the PRK would only repeat the communist policies of Democratic Kampuchea (Gottesman). “As one Vietnamese advisor reported back to Hanoi, the “intellectuals” were ideologically unsound, “isolated from the public,” uninterested in the collective benefit,”” being very cynical in nature as they had no respect for their rulers who lead the country with what they believed to be “so little knowledge” (Gottesman). In 2006, conscription laws for the army changed the requirement of military service from 5 years to 18 months. We believe that this military service requirement takes a big toll on education, as this disrupts students’ educations before they have worked in their area of expertise, reducing the likelihood of pursuing what they were once studying (Gottesman).

It is quite evident that the history of the Khmer Rouge lies at the heart of many development problems within the education sector in Cambodia today, affecting the infrastructure, the quality of education, the number of instructors, as well as the number of students where schools actually are available.

In 2000, the Education for All (EFA) Assessment, an international government planning process, featured the leading dilemmas in the education sector, including enrollment rates, costs of services, government spending, and the quality of education overall. Below is a summary of the findings taken from the EFA 2000 Report :

» Progress towards the EFA goals is slow, especially since Early Childhood Care and Development activities generally are limited to formal pre-schooling. Programs for children aged 0-3 years are undefined and scanty.

» Remote areas are generally disadvantaged in the provision of education. Education indicators are all low. Pupils learning achievement is low, especially in the remote areas with more girls dropping out of school than boys do.

» Literacy and non-formal education do not receive enough attention with mass media education program for better living. In addition, existing programs are highly limited in both content and reach.

» Technical and vocational education is limited to urban areas. Available training does not attract the youth and the fit between the skills taught and market needs is poor.

» Quality of basic education generally is low and access limited. Those in the far-flung remote and mountainous areas, the poor and ethnic minorities are still largely excluded from all forms of educational opportunities and experiences

It became evident that due to the state of classrooms in rural areas, the lack of programs for disadvantaged children, and the overwhelming lack of teachers, a new policy was in need to untangle the great mess that was apparent for the past 20 years. With the help of the Ministry of Health, the Cambodian government was able to begin a new policy development process that set goals for upcoming years (Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport). These include a wide variety of targets ranging from increasing expenditures on education, to decreasing the pupil-teacher ratio, to decreasing the repetition and dropout rate, etc.

While education had “nowhere to go but up” during the past 3 decades and has shown improved over the past 10 years, it has not happened as rapidly as one would hope. Although there have been some improvements in the gender gap, there are still many disparities in educational attainment levels when comparing the different provinces of Cambodia. As noted above, in 2007 the adult literacy rate was at 75%, but ten years prior to that, in 1997 it was at a mere 67% which does show noticeable improvement. The gender gap has decreased from 22.5% to 18.1% in the same time span.

When comparing public expenditures as a percentage of GDP to adult literacy rates, it is quite visible that Thailand, which spends twice as much on education as Cambodia does, also has a literacy rate noticeably higher than that of Cambodia (Figures 16 and 17).

Figure 16: Public Spending on Figure 17: Public Spending on

Education (% GDP) Education (% Gov’t Expenditures)

Source: World Development Indicators, 2009

Also, in 2007 when compared to all other East Asian and Pacific countries, Cambodia's primary completion rate is significantly lower, at 85%, up from 47.2% in 2000, while the others' is at 99.8%. Despite the relatively higher primary completion rate, the progression rate to secondary schools was a mere 30.6% in 2006, indicating a massive drop off. The gross enrollment rate (%), or the number of students enrolled in all forms of education as a percentage of the official population of school age students was 40.4 for Cambodia in 2007, compared to 73.1 for all other East Asian and Pacific countries.

The following data are obtained from the National Education Congress summary report:

2008-2009 Academic Year Statistics:

Total BA/BSc Students



40,204 (36.5%)

Total Associate



4,321 (29%)

Graduate of BA/BSc



5,504 (33.5%)

Graduate of Associate



1,950 (29%)

It is evident that while females are not completely absent from higher education as a whole, they merely make up a third of tertiary enrollment, which leaves plenty of room for development.

Figure 18- Ratio of female to male enrollments in tertiary educaiton

Source: World Development Indicators, 2009

It is evident that while females are not completely absent from higher education as a whole, they merely make up a third of tertiary enrollment, which deprives half the population from realizing their full potential. The opportunity to attain the basic right to an education is absent from Cambodian society today. Therefore, in assessing Cambodia's current state with our working definition of development, the education sector while vastly convalescent over the past three decades, remains inadequate. Figure 18 clearly illustrates the differences between Cambodia and its neighboring countries, emphasizing the clear gap between male and female education and how far behind Cambodia is in comparison to both Laos and Thailand with respect to female enrollment in tertiary education.

While much progress has been made throughout the decades since the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime, there still remains a wide discrepancy between male and female enrollment rates which prevents the opportunity for advancement in the social realm for many females. Even as the literacy rate improves and more educational institutions are built, the gap is persisting, which indicates a need for development to provide more opportunities for the school age population, especially for females in Cambodia today.

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