Cambodia graduates from Low Income Country status – how will that affect international aid?


A popular discussion topic around Phnom Penh in recent months has been the news that Cambodia was to ‘graduate’ to middle-income country status on July 1 last week. I heard about this during my first meeting here in February, with a EuroCham Board of Director; I listened as the US Ambassador discussed the challenges and opportunities this will bring with AmCham general members; it is the opening line in the Asia Development Bank’s Country Operations Business Plan; and I even had a discussion about this at the bar late one night the other week.

But I’ve also found that there is a great misunderstanding about this classification – given by the  World Bank – and how it differs from similar statuses given by, for example, the WTO, and also a lot of misunderstanding about what this means for Cambodia as a whole.

The World Bank divides countries into four different income groups according to their 2016 GNI per capita:

Low income countries (LICs) below $1,045;
Lower middle income countries (LMICs) between $1,046- $4,125;
Upper middle income countries (UMICs) between $4,126-$12,735;
High income countries (HICs), $12,736 or higher.[1]

Countries are automatically reassigned on July 1 each year, based on the estimate of their GNI per capita for the previous calendar year.[2] After registering a $1,020 GNI per capita for 2014,[3]  Cambodia surpassed the threshold for 2015 and was accordingly reassigned at the end of last week.

The World Bank classification differs from the United Nation (and WTO) classification, which relies upon additional factors and is more subjective rather than based purely on numbers. The UN classifies the lowest level of developing countries as “Least Developed Countries” (LDCs). It reviews the list every three years, and takes into account three criteria: Gross national income per capita; Human assets; and Economic vulnerability.[4] Only four countries have ever graduated from LDC status, with three more due to graduate in coming years. Once a determination is made to graduate a country, they normally set a date for it (maybe five years in the future) to give time to assess any changes that would effect that determination.

The WTO generally adheres to the UN’s determination, although there are no actual WTO definitions of ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ countries.[5] LDCs in the WTO are designated on the basis of self-selection, meaning that Cambodia will never be forcibly and suddenly removed that list, and the benefits that come with it.

There are two main rankings at play here. Cambodia has moved from a lower income country to a lower-middle income country under the World Bank definition. When that happens the country loses some of the privileges and preferences in terms of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and that may also have an adverse effect on private donations. However, for the foreseeable future, Cambodia will remain a “Least Developed Country” according to both the UN and WTO. Within the WTO framework, it will continue to be able to use the special provisions provided through that agreement, which include the Everything But Arms tariff and duty free exports to the EU, amongst others. It will take some time for its UN status to change.


So what does this mean for development aid?

There is a concern that Cambodia’s graduation to LMIC status means it is likely to lose a large amount of much needed aid. A number of leading international NGOs have spoken out recently about the classification process in general, and how it is linked to aid. It is feared that by ‘graduating’ and losing access to still very much needed aid dollars, there is an increased risk to reverse growth trends and then ‘reverse graduate’ and fall back down the ladder.

However, this does not appear to be the case with Cambodia. The two main donor programs affected by changing classifications are the World Bank’s ODA and the World Banks’s International Development Association (IDA), which offer grants and loans respectively. When some countries graduate to LMIC status they stop receiving both the grants and loans on favorable terms, and even need to accelerate repayment of existing debt. It is easy to see how this could create an immediate hurdle to overcome. But Cambodia will not fall into this category; it has not been benefiting from World Bank grants or loans since  the World Bank ceased funding programs in Cambodia for political reasons in 2011. This has just changed, as it was announced on May 19th of this year that the World Bank would cease its punitive stance, and the Bank approved the 2016-2017 Country Engagement Note for Cambodia, which includes seven investment projects totaling around $250 million of funding.[6]

The World Bank is not the only donor to begin, continue, or increase its funding to Cambodia this year. The ongoing ADB portfolio for Cambodia has a value of $1.176 billion, comprising 63 loans and grants implemented through 35 projects.[7] The ADB also operates its own classification system, using the World Bank’s same financial cutoff amount, but including an assessment of the country’s credit worthiness also.[8] It is not known when Cambodia will graduate from the ADB’s Group A category, but when it does the graduation normally takes about 4 years to complete, leaving substantial time for contingency planning.

There have also been large amounts of bilateral aid from donor countries. Between 2000 and 2011 it is estimated that China loaned $1.16 billion while Japan loaned Cambodia $386 million. In May it was announced that China will provide $450 million in development aid over the next few years, on top of the over $2 billion that China has invested in hydroelectric power in Cambodia. The European Union is the self-professed largest donor of development aid in Cambodia, and the overall development assistance to Cambodia by the European partners from 2014-2018 is estimated at 892 million euros in grants and 478 million euros in loans (totaling of 1.37 billion euros).[9] Included in that sum is more than 410 million euros allocated for 2014-2020 to enhance Cambodia’s own national development policies. Additionally, at the ASEAN-Russia conference in May Cambodia and Russia signed eight separate agreements, focussing on developing trade, while Cambodia continues to lobby for the conversion of $1.5 billion in debt to Russia to development aid.

Other factors to consider are that both foreign direct investment (FDI) and tax revenue are growing rapidly. In 2013 FDI into Cambodia reached $1.2 billion, climbing to $1.8 billion in 2015 (or 10% of GDP). Tax revenue increased from 10% of GDP in 2010 to 15.1% in 2015, and is projected to continue to grow due to improved administration and continued economic growth.

Cambodia is home to thousands of NGOs which operate on their own agenda, some focused on Cambodia, some allocating resources where they see the most need. There is a chance the new classification will make both private donors and NGOs find it less desirable to donate to Cambodia. Doctors Without Borders recently said that “there is a tendency to perceive NGO programmes and in particular humanitarian programs as being synonymous with low-income-countries. In the evolving aid architecture this is no longer the case.”[10] With the number of LICs decreasing (a projected level of about 20 will remain by 2025), donors will still need to focus on LMICs heavily.

The main takeaway should be that this is not a pivotal, dire moment for Cambodia. The many sources of funding will not be affected immediately, especially with pledged donations for at least the next four years, and the Everything But Arms scheme will continue for exports to Europe. Graduating from the LIC category can have drastic effects for some countries, especially those heavily dependent on the World Bank’s grants and loans, but Cambodia is not one of them. There are still several challenges that need to be continually overcome for development in the Kingdom to continue, but this should be considered a positive milestone, one that will increase private sector investment, help Cambodia establish a credit rating, and advance it towards its self stated goal of reaching Upper Middle Income status in the next ten years.








[7] Asian Development Bank Country Operations Business Plan, Cambodia 2016-2018 [Dec 2015]



[10] ‘Warning: Becoming a Middle-Income Country can seriously damage your health’ [Jan 2015]

5 thoughts on “Cambodia graduates from Low Income Country status – how will that affect international aid?

  1. m Reply

    How does an economy that makes it out of a lower level need the aid dollar to not slip back again? Since when do aid-dollars — other than skills and hard work — play a role in economic growth?

  2. Ben Reply

    You ask how aid dollars play a role in economic growth. You should know that this is a hotly debated subject, and indeed numerous scholarly articles have been produced. Most lead to the conclusion that aid does indeed have positive effects on recipient countries.

    Though I personally perhaps am a little skeptical, the fact remains that aid, particularly in poor countries, when it is channeled properly to functions of poverty alleviation, education and health, naturally lend themselves to a better educated and healthier population.

    This is turn, provides for better economic advantage at the micro level. If I take Madagascar as an example, aid funds have contributed to better sanitation and access to water. Sounds fundamental. Though, this can lead to better crop production and less hours spent walking miles for water. Its pretty obvious how this in fact has a positive effect on economic growth.

    • Rick Reply

      Actually, No, Aid dollars are detrimental to the receiving country. Many good examples are readily seen. Take for example, virtually all of Africa. Despots control the aid and cause civil wars if not just rampant corruption and oppression. How about Haiti? Foreign Aid has literally destroyed their economy. Putting all rice growers out of business which caused a mass exodus from the rural farms to the cities. What came next was shanty town construction that ended horribly when they had the earthquake. Foreign aid was DIRECTLY responsible for most of the deaths and destruction. Not mother nature. Every thing that foreign aid provides destroys those particular industries in the receiving country. Who can compete with free? “channeled properly”, there’s the crux isn’t it? Fact is, it is NEVER channeled properly. I’m wondering if you are a Lexus SUV dealer.

  3. Keo Sopherth Reply

    I need there and bring some foods and materials for these people. I could not see these people live in this situation. I could not talk while I was there. This is unacceptable living standard….

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