Politics Stymies Poverty Battle, UN Says

Cambodia’s fight against poverty is losing momentum because of the ongoing political crisis, the head of the UN Development Program warned Monday.

“Today real advances are threat­ened and I feel I have to ring some alarm bells because

I am frustrated,” Paul Matt­hews, the resident UNDP representa­tive, said at a ceremony to launch the Hu­man Devel­op­ment Index re­port by the UN and Min­istry of Plan­ning.

The warning from the UNDP, one of the government’s key reform partners, comes in conjunction with a report that reiterates Cambodia’s position as one of the poorest countries in the world, and highlights the hardships experienced by women.

Although progress was made between 1993 and 1997, Matth­ews said, the fight to eradicate poverty has slipped since.

“The momentum achieved in the fight against poverty, surely the only legitimate fight in today’s Cambodia, is being lost,” Matth­ews said.

There are a number of factors to blame, he said. The current po­litical impasse has negatively affected programs by major do­nors. And the events of the past 18 months, beginning with the factional fighting in July 1997, have caused significant downturns in tourism and international aid.

Compounding this, he said, is the dropoff in in­vestment—especially from South­east Asia—stemming from the po­litical instability in Cambo­dia and the regional economic crisis.

To reverse the trend, Matt­hews called on Cambo­dia’s bickering po­litical parties to join together to battle poverty and protect the environment—goals for which Cam­bo­dians ex­pressed their support during the July elections.

“The Cambo­dian people and the international community now look to their elected leaders to do their duty to rise to this real, daunting but exciting, challenge,” Mat­thews said.

Government spokes­man Sieng Lapresse said Mon­day the government shares Matthews’ concerns.

“Political maneuvering is going to damage the national interest,” he said. “[Matthews’] concern is very much accurate. The Cam­bodian government only wishes and hopes the political stalemate will be resolved very soon.”

Neil Hawkins, the country director for CARE International, said NGOs are still working at the same strength as before, but agreed that momentum is being lost by Cambodia’s major donors because of the current political uncertainties.

He also said that if the fight against poverty by donors slows and the government’s revenue crunch continues, humanitarian aid, which is becoming increasingly important, will be relied on even more.

Cambodia ranked 140th of 170 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Both the UN’s Human Development Index and Human Poverty Index put Cambodia at among the worst countries in Asia, according to the report.

More than 55 percent of children ages 5 and under are believed to be moderately or severely stunted. Life expectancy is estimated at 50 years for men and 58 for women.

Matthews said the government has to make a conscious effort to eradicate poverty, and cannot rely solely on economic progress and foreign investment to improve living standards.

Among things that must be tackled, he said, are the problems of illegal logging and overfishing. He warned that the country’s natural resources are already over-exploited and Cambodia’s poor no longer have easy access to wood and fish for their daily needs. Continued exploitation will have a dire impact as Cambodia’s population continues to grow at a rate of 2.4 percent annually.

“There is a short window of opportunity before the abuse of the environment and the increase in human numbers render the dream [of poverty eradication] impossible,” Matthews cautioned.

This is the second UN report released this month that points at policy failures. The UNDP recently released its 1997 annual report in which it criticized the government for failing to act on important reform projects, including administration and public finance. The UNDP spent almost $18 million on Cambodia last year.


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