No development projects are taking place in more than half of Cambodia’s 13,406 villages, a UN Human Development Report released Tuesday says.
The report, which was released on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, showed how far Cambodia still has to go to raise the living standards of its population, officials said.
“We can see the living standards in Cambodia are very much lower than the rest of countries in Asia,” said Minister of Planning Chhay Than. “In Southeast Asia, ours is the lowest except for Laos.”
This year’s Human Development Report, which was produced by the Ministry of Planning with the help of the UN Development Program, focused on the role of villages in Cambodia’s development and used data from a 1997 survey.
Russell Peterson, head of the NGO Forum, an umbrella group of NGOs, said the statistic regarding development activity in villages is not surprising.
“NGOs do not have the resources to work in every single region,” he said. “We are not here to replace the responsibility of the government.”
Peterson said he hopes the upcoming commune elections will decentralize government, and therefore bring more development into more villages.
Dominique McAdams, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Representative in Cambodia, said policy makers and aid organizations should use the report as a tool for understanding how to make better choices for Cambodians.
“Is it another study that is going to be left on the shelf of the government, on my shelf, on your shelf?” McAdams asked. “Or is it something that we all decide we’re going to use?”
Although the economy has improved in recent years, the decrease in the poverty level is minimal. The number of people living below the poverty level in 1997 was 36.1 percent, only a slight drop from 39 percent in 1994, according to the report. People who lived below the poverty line survived with less than $0.50 a day.
Chhay Than said progress on fighting poverty has been slow because the scope of the problem is so big. “There are many issues involved in poverty, like nutrition, health services, transportation,” he said. “With the legacy of the war and the size of the scope, that’s why the fight is not going so fast.”
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, who is also co-minister of Interior, said he was concerned by the increasing inequality between the rich and the poor. “I reject the belief that it is possible to develop Cambodia under conditions of growing relative inequality,” he said.
Sar Kheng said Cambodia needs to increase and diversify food production, and build more schools and health clinics. Improving road networks is also a priority. “The thrust of the next five-year plan and public investment program should be to ensure that the poor benefit more from government spending,” Sar Kheng said.
The Human Development Index, which is a composite measure of life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, and per capita income, was .509 for Cambodia, according to the report. The index ranges from 0 to 1. Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia all had a human development index higher than .65.
Although the overall incidence of poverty is 36.1 percent, there were large disparities across villages, according to the report.
In the poorest 20 percent of villages, more than 70 percent of the population is poor. But in the richest 20 percent of villages, the incidence of poverty is only 4 percent. The lowest incidence of poverty is in coastal and mountainous regions at 22 percent, while those living in the Tonle Sap region have the highest rate at 38 percent.
The report also showed that the economic infrastructure in Cambodian villages is inadequate. Only 14 percent of villages have a permanent market and 11 percent have a bank or credit organization.
Only 5.4 percent of villages have a lower secondary school, and the figure is even lower for upper secondary schools at 2 percent. Many children have to walk 4 to 8 km to reach a secondary school, McAdams said. About 40 percent of villages have access to safe drinking water, but the availability is sharply divided along economic lines, the report said.
Chhay Than said the Ministry of Finance is also proposing to increase the budget for the social sector, including rural development, health care and education. In the past, defense and security has been the focus of spending.