Cambodia may well be experiencing an economic downturn, but the country ranked 80 out of 143 countries in last month’s Happy Planet Index, a position higher than the happiness rankings for Canada, Australia and the US.
The Happy Planet Index, compiled by the UK-based think tank, New Economics Foundation, is based on a calculation that multiplies life satisfaction and life expectancy in a country and then divides it by the country’s “ecological footprint.”
According to the index, average life expectancy in Cambodia was calculated to be just 58 years, but life satisfaction earned a score of 4.9 out of a highest possible score of 10, and the country’s ecological footprint received an extra “green” score with the average Cambodian using just 0.9 global hectares of the planet’s resources. The HPI uses the figure of 2.1 hectares as an individual’s “fair share” of the world’s resources.
“The dogmas of the last 30 years have been discredited. The unwavering pursuit of economic growth—embodied in the overwhelming focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has left over a billion people in dire poverty, and has not notably improved the well-being of those who were already rich, nor even provided us with economic stability,” the New Economics Foundation wrote in the executive summary of the index.
“Instead it has brought us straight to the cliff edge of rapidly diminishing natural resources and unpredictable climate change,” it added.
“In summary, the countries that are meant to represent successful development are some of the worst-performing in terms of sustainable well-being.”
The philosophy of national happiness indicators over economics indices has its origins in 1972, when Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make gross national happiness his nation’s priority and not gross domestic product.
Rather than focusing only on economic growth, Bhutan’s king said his country needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government.
Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, said yesterday that as an economic indicator, a nation’s gross domestic product may sometimes be misleading.
“GDP counts also the revenues from activities that destruct or degrade the environment,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that Cambodia may be required to engage in some destructive activities for its economy to grow.
“The reality is that a developing country like Cambodia has very little room to choose between short-term needs and long-term sustainability of the whole planet.”
Neou Seiha, an economic researcher at the Economic Institute of Cambodia, said that he agreed with the findings presented inside this year’s happiness index.
“In the case of Cambodia, if we talk about GDP growth at 10 percent, which it has been in Cambodia until recently, and we conclude that all the people grew by 10 percent, it is not [correct],” he said, adding that those in Cambodia’s agricultural sector—which represents over half of the country’s labor force—experienced a much lower rate of growth than the nation’s GDP.
“GDP is an important indicator, but it does not necessarily make people happier,” he said.
According to the Happy Planet Index, “economic growth is just one strategy to achieve well-being and, in terms of natural resources, a demonstrably inefficient one.”
The HPI also states that middle-income countries, especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia come closest to achieving “sustainable well-being.”
Vietnam was ranked in fifth position with a life satisfaction score of 6.5 out of 10 and a life expectancy rate of 72.3 years. Perhaps surprisingly, Laos is ranked at number 19 with a life satisfaction score of 6.2. Thailand, meanwhile, was ranked at number 41.
Like many developed countries, the US scored poorly on the index—it was ranked at number 114—because of its massive carbon footprint.
The Happy Planet Index stands in contrast to how the UN measures a country’s development. In last years UN Human Development Index, Cambodia was ranked a lowly 136 out of 179 countries surveyed.
A spokesperson at the UN Development Program in Cambodia wrote in an e-mail that the UN’s Human Development Index measures three main criteria: “a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.”
“While GDP does play an important role in determining each country’s HDI ranking, HDI provides a much fuller picture of a country’s development than GDP alone shows,” the UNDP spokesperson added.
Despite the HPI’s view, members of the Cambodian public interviewed yesterday said that their level of satisfaction with life was indeed linked to their economic situation.
“If I had more money, I would be happier,” said Soeurn Loeuy, 29, a wholesale merchant of recyclable material bought from scavengers. In a good month, she says she earns $90.
Likewise Chea Chhon, a 33-year-old blacksmith, said he would be much happier if he wasn’t obliged to think about his own survival on a daily basis.
“If I did not think so much about my basic needs and security, I would be much happier,” he said, giving himself a satisfaction score of 4 out of 10.
For Seng Sokly, a 22-year old third year student, money is directly linked to perceived well being.
“I am so happy when I have money,” he said.