With poverty levels still high, particularly in rural zones, effective social safety net programs in Cambodia are greatly needed to protect the poor and the vulnerable, experts and officials said Monday.
At a national forum organized by the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development Monday and designed specifically to concentrate on food security, officials said that although poverty reduction in Cambodia had led to a 21 percent rise in national living standards between 2004 and 2007 as well as a 4 percent decline in overall poverty levels to 31 percent, poverty still remains high, especially amongst women and children.
“We recognize that some people face vulnerabilities due to the global financial crisis and other social problems that push them into poverty,” Yim Chhay Ly, chairman of the government’s Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, said while speaking at the forum. “To respond to the current and any future crisis, we need to establish a social security net system, which is a part of long-term economic growth.”
The calls come during a period of heightened economic turbulence in Cambodia—both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have predicted negative growth for the entirety of 2009—as well as following dramatic rises in inflation throughout 2008.
Although the World Bank revised its international poverty line to $1.25 per day in August last year, a survey carried out by the Cambodia Institute of Development Study in February showed that workers living in Phnom Penh need a minimum of $3 per day in order to survive “decently,” calling in to question just how severe poverty levels might have become.
Speaking at the forum Monday, Jean-Pierre DeMargerie, country director for the UN’s World Food Program, said that households with seven or more members have a poverty rate of 42 percent, compared to an average national rate of 31 percent. Households of that size represent nearly one third of all households in Cambodia. Additionally, the poverty rate for children between the ages of 0 to 5 is at 37 percent, Mr DeMargerie said.
Moreover, while less than 1 percent of the public in Phnom Penh was deemed to be below the poverty line in 2007, that number jumps to more than 20 percent in other urban areas, according to figures provided by the WFP director. In rural areas, where 80 percent of the Cambodian population lives, that figure jumps to 35 percent.
Mr Chhay Ly said that Cambodia’s social safety nets should focus on child benefit schemes, state pensions, free school meals, unemployment benefits and subsidies for the poor.
Indeed, with Cambodia ranked 131 out of 177 countries in the UN Development Program’s 2007 Human Development Index, experts say that navigating the risks posed from food shortages, price rises as well as drought and poor health is essential if Cambodia is to prosper in the future.
“The high cost of food has had an immediate impact on the rural household,” said Mr DeMargerie. “With the majority of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture, food security is a dominant feature of poverty and vulnerability in Cambodia.”
Not only are they put at risk by volatile weather conditions, but they often lack the sufficient financial wealth—whether it be through capital or property—to act as collateral when trying to obtain credit, he said.
He also said that the absence of social safety nets for workers who have fallen victim to the economic downturn is putting them at risk of plummeting below the poverty line.
“In the absence of safety nets to provide them [the unemployed] with persistent income, these laid off workers are at risk of falling into poverty,” he said, adding that more than 200,000 young Cambodians are currently entering the work force every year, with many of them struggling to find adequate employment.