Cambodia’s Booming – So Why Is It The ‘Least Thriving Country In The World’?

Posted on by Alex Watts


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I read a column in the Bangkok Post this week, entitled Poor Cambodia Not Looking So ‘Poor’ Anymore, which began as a thank you letter congratulating Cambodian PM Hun Sen for his hospitality during the ASEAN summit.

The letter took a swipe at the obvious wealth in Phnom Penh, mentioning how everyone was now the proud owner of a Lexus, and questioning whether the Kingdom still needed the huge amount of foreign aid it receives, when the streets were so obviously paved in gold.

Although the article pondered whether the word “poor” now only applies to the rural population, and whether any of the aid money actually reaches Cambodians in need, it’s a shame that foreign correspondents didn’t stray further than the scrubbed streets of the capital, which had been cleared of beggars and other unsightly features, and go in search of the truth themselves.

A quick trip into villages far from main roads would have shown the appalling poverty, malnutrition, stunted growth, and lack of education and healthcare. It would have hammered home how little money has trickled down to the people it’s supposed to help. “What’s that? There’s a new Range Rover coming out?” And that’s just the NGOs.

John Macgregor, from the Lom Orng Organisation, an NGO which doesn’t use SUVs or consultants, and is helping flood victims in north-west Cambodia, gives a very depressing picture of life in some villages. He says residents in one rice-growing commune on the Thai border are spending nearly half of their disposal income just on trucked-in water and medical bills.

“In some places, nearly everyone is sick. Work is slow, and learning largely absent. Ratanakiri province, for example, has worse child stunting, and child mortality, than Sierra Leone,” he writes.

This was reflected in a poll released by Gallup on Wednesday, which ranked Cambodia as having the lowest level of “well-being” in a league of 146 countries. Below Afghanistan even. And war-torn countries in Africa.

It carried out face-to-face interviews with 1,000 “ordinary” Cambodians in Khmer, and asked them to rate their quality of life and expectations for the future on a scale of zero to 10. Those who rated their present life as seven or more, and future life as eight or more, were said to be “thriving”. Those who ranked their current and future lives as four or lower were “suffering” – and the rest were “struggling”.

Only 2% of Cambodians were thriving – compared with an average 20% across Asia. Some 72% were struggling, and 26% suffering. Whereas the fortunes of most countries were largely unchanged since 2009, when Gallup carried out its first global well-being report, Cambodia saw a fall in living standards which pushed it to the bottom of the league – despite strong economic growth and huge investment in the country.

In 2010, Cambodia was fifth bottom – above Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, and earthquake-ravaged Haiti – with 3% thriving, and 97% either struggling (74%) or suffering (23%). The year before, Cambodia was seventh bottom.

Although critics will argue that any survey, particularly those involving highly subjective data, is at best a rough science, blighted by random factors, it does highlight the huge division of wealth in Cambodia, as well as the widening gap between developing and developed countries in Asia.

Cambodia is lagging well behind its neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, for instance, where strong economic growth and development have led to massive declines in poverty. Over the past two years, the number of Vietnamese ranked as thriving has more than doubled to 30% – 15 times higher than Cambodia – and in Thailand it’s soared to 46%.

The Asian Development Bank paints a rosy picture for Cambodia. It predicts its gross domestic product will grow at an impressive 6.5% this year – slightly below the Cambodian government’s own forecast of 7% – due largely to its four key industries: clothes and footwear, tourism, agriculture, and real estate. And from 2015, perhaps oil and gas reserves.

But it warns that this growth is being hampered by a lack of education and training in the workforce – not surprising in a country where many families can’t afford to send their children to school, and people have to scrimp and save to put themselves on courses.

It also warns that inflation, currently at 5%, may spiral on the back of rising oil prices – which will hit the country’s poor the hardest as wages fail to keep up with living costs. You’ll know when it gets really bad – they’ll start converting gas-guzzlers in Phnom Penh to LPG.

Normally, high growth leads to an increase in living standards, higher wages, and higher costs. But only the last is true for many Cambodians. And until aid money and the benefits of economic growth filter down to those in need, things are unlikely to improve any time soon. As one former consultant to the government described it to me last night: “The problem is they don’t give a shit about the poor in this country. They don’t even care this much,” he added, squeezing his finger and thumb to the width of a cigarette paper.

Alex Watts

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6 Responses to Cambodia’s Booming – So Why Is It The ‘Least Thriving Country In The World’?

  1. SunSan says:

    Very simplistic, one of your poorer articles.

  2. Rob77 says:

    I didn’t think much of Bangkok Post article and while I understand the sentiments in this article it really is a complex web. There has only been stable majority government since the last ten years so it shouldn’t be a surprise things are not brilliant and that there has been a boom in urban development and a growing divide between rural living standards. This generation of government can only achieve a certain level of infrastructure development and economic growth. Health and education mass improvement is a distant dream for the moment. The areas that could be tackled now are rule and fairness of law to protect the average citizen and gradual moves away from corrupt patronage systems. Legal can be done if there is a will but patronage is deeply engrained and until corruption can be dealt with then rural will continue to struggle the most. However I hope that after these national roads and industries reach certain growth that the population can find ways of benefiting alongside. Thailand would be a poor system to follow and I was surprised to see the original article given that their country is hugely split between urban and rural far worse in a systematic sense and it was just the last decade that the country got decent improvements in things like rural healthcare acess but those changes were met with a military coup so hardly great model.

  3. JinTao says:

    I dont believe its the least striving, maybe one of least, but no where near the poverty level of Mali, Sudan, etc….

  4. Fred says:

    Between 1969 to the present, Cambodia has had war for 30 years (1970-1998), while only 15 years of peace (1998-present). Thus, there has been DOUBLE the number of years of war than years of peace in the last 45 odd years. Can you please put that into perspective? Can you tell me which other country has had a devastating civil war, followed by an autogenocide, followed by another civil war? Yes, Cambodia has problems. But portraying it to be some sort of hellhole is not going to bring in investors, is it?

  5. Dave Boyan says:

    John ‘10%’ McGregor….

  6. VV says:

    Thriving for who? The Vietnamese or Chinese who hold Cambodian land? The only rich people are non-Cambodian, how is that progress? When the puppets of Vietnam leave, then maybe Cambodians can thrive.

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