Index Shows Cambodia Still Weak on Human Development

Cambodia ranked 143rd out of 188 countries in the U.N.’s latest Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure of development incorporating health, education and living standards, according to new figures released on Monday.

The HDI figures were part of the U.N. Development Program’s (UNDP) annual Human Development Report, which classifies Cambodia as a country with “medium human development.”

However, Cambodia’s rank is still only one spot above the UNDP’s cutoff for countries in the “low human development” category, and the second-lowest among Southeast Asian nations, ahead of Burma.

Last year, Cambodia ranked 136th out of 187 countries, though the UNDP cautioned against comparing ranks between years due to changes in methodologies and data revisions. It said that despite Cambodia’s seeming slide in the rankings, it had shown a general trend of improvement on several key indicators of human development.

“Between 1990 and 2014, Cambodia’s HDI value increased by 52.4 percent, or an average annual increase of about 1.77 percent,” the UNDP’s Cambodia office said in a statement on Monday.

“Between 1980 and 2014, Cambodia’s life expectancy at birth increased by 40.9 years, mean years of schooling increased by 2.3 years and expected years of schooling increased by 4.2 years.”

The report this year focused on the role of work and called on governments to improve working environments, particularly for those considered “vulnerable” because they work in the informal sector or do not have steady employment.

“In Cambodia, vulnerable employment still makes up some 64 percent of total employment, based on International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics,” the UNDP statement said.

It added that Cambodia’s HDI masked inequalities in the distribution of human development across its population—and would fall by 24.7 percent when adjusted for these differences.

The figures on the government’s impressive reduction of poverty, which plunged from 53 percent in 2004 to 19 percent in 2012, also fail to reflect the continued vulnerability of much of the population. The World Bank last year said that the majority of Cambodians who had recently exited poverty could easily lose the gains they had made, in part because such a high proportion of them work in agriculture, small-scale commerce and other informal jobs.

The government’s National Strategic Development Plan 2014-2018 places human resource development as a key policy priority, with goals including the improvement of schools, increase in vocational training and expansion of higher-skilled employment through a combination of increased government spending and private investment.

David Van, managing director in Cambodia for consultancy firm Bower Group Asia, said these reforms, while positive in theory, would take years to bear fruit and had to be properly implemented.

“It will take one generation before we can see some concrete results on how ‘effective’ any such reforms [are]—if they are ever maintained and sustained,” he said.

“For any given nation, the best assets lie in the human capital and it takes easily a generation to train such work force to be equipped with adequate skills that keep changing in this rapidly evolving world,” he added.

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