On the streets of Phnom Penh, families squatting in the alleys between massive, gated villas watch as Land Cruisers rumble past them. In the countryside, nearly half the people live on less than $1 per day. Evidence of poverty is everywhere.
“We can see with our eyes,” said Ok Serei Sopheak, coordinator of the Cambodian Development Resource Institute, giving the above examples to an audience at a two-day poverty reduction conference that began Thursday. “Is poverty reduced or not?”
Though the government has fallen short of its development goals in the past five years, the next five years will see more progress toward reducing the effects of widespread poverty, officials said Thursday.
“We have succeeded at making significant achievements on a very broad front, although not as much as we would have liked,” Minister of Cabinet Sok An wrote in a statement read by Sum Manit, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers.
Cambodia has more than 4.5 million people below an already low poverty line, living on less than $1 per day. The government’s main priority since the 1998 elections has been to lower that number, officials said Thursday.
Government finances have been brought under control, inflation has been “tamed” and the country has seen a consistent rate of growth, Sok An wrote in his statement. But the government still has much work ahead to lessen the burden of poverty.
“Needless to say, much more must be done,” Sok An wrote.
About 40 percent of the population in the countryside are considered poor, with little money to spend on emergency health care or education, Ok Serei Sopheak said.
And although Cambodia has achieved a moderately successful economic growth rate in the past five years, the population growth rate has been climbing steadily as well, he said, adding that the “economic gap” between the rich and poor was widening.
The government is working with three different documents that provide strategy and guidance. A portion of the conference, organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in cooperation with the World Bank, will be devoted to deciding whether to combine them into one strategy or keep them separate, said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director for the institute.
The strategies have come under scrutiny recently because they have different sets of goals that must all be met if the government is to receive funding. Drafts of the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, sponsored by the World Bank, the five-year Socioeconomic Development Plan, developed with technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank, and the Governance Action Plan, completed with the assistance of both banks plus other groups, each suggest different paths for government policies.
The most important factor in an overall poverty reduction strategy is good governance, officials said.
“The impact of poor standards of governance in fact usually falls most heavily on the poor,” said Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, head of Cambodia’s World Bank office. “To date, reform to governance and public management… have only had a limited impact on the poor….Implementation of a range of strategies to reduce poverty…is thus required to overcome the disadvantages suffered by the poor.”