For anyone who visits Cambodia regularly there is a palpable sense, upon each visit, that this troubled little nation is making rapid strides economically. In 2004 I remember my motorcycle driver in Phnom Penh taking me to see the most dazzling symbol of the modern age: Cambodia’s first escalator. He had never actually set foot on it before, and it was a pleasure watching him take his first ride. At the time as a Westerner, I felt very much like a visitor from another and very privilegedplanet.
Today the sky line-up Phnom Penh is sprouting high-rise buildings at a rapid rate, smart phone usage across the nation is soaring, roads are becoming congested with cars and at first glance it appears that the days of poverty are basically over. This poses a question for any supporters of NGOs in Cambodia: at what point do we say, the job is done – mission accomplished?
Well, don’t pop the Champagne just yet. According to some recent figures published this year, and funded by the Independent European based organisation; Global Governance for Hunger Reduction Program productivity by Cambodia’s agricultural sector has soared, at least in US dollar terms, since 2007 – basically doubling in that time from US$3.5 billion to US$7.9 billion in 2011. Now those figures include the tremendous price spike in commodity prices that occurred in 2008 – but even so, if we measure cereal yields (rice, maize etc) we see yields growing by 16% in terms of tonnes per hectare over the same time. (The real revenue is being generated by rubber, palm oil and sugar,)
The government has a medium to long-term strategy of increasing the value and quality of agricultural output so that the rice, for example, meets the stringent quality standards demanded by Western markets who in turn will pay premium prices. Cambodia will be sharing this story at the Milan Expo 2015.
But the same source of facts and figures has a few warning signals. Right now Cambodian farmers, who make up 65% of the total national workforce, are focused on low value add commodities – namely rice – whereas Cambodia’s main commodity imports, measured in dollars, a spearheaded by the importation of, get this: cigarettes. Economists often illustrate their science by giving examples of guns and butter, but in this modern example Cambodia appears to be trading cheap rice for expensive cancer.
That’s my judgement anyway, but the figures also highlight the degree of malnutrition that is occurring even today in booming Cambodia.
Since 2007 the poverty rate in Cambodia has halved, but it still sits at 20% of the entire population below the line of $30 per month. The poverty gap is widening. The wealth is trickling upwards quicker than downwards.
One measure of malnutrition is the incidence of underweight children under five years old. In 2007 when the poverty rate was closer to 40%, some 28.8% of children were reported as underweight. Two years later the figure was virtually unchanged.
According to the authors of the report the number of Cambodians undernourished in 2009 was 2.9 million. Today the figure is improving – but the figure is still over 2 million people.
Finally, they report the improvement between 2007 and 2011 of the percentage of Cambodians who have access to clean water sources. Again, this is improving, but has a long way to go. In 2007 some 59% had access to clean water. Four years later the figure had improved to 67%. Still, that leaves close to 5,000,000 Cambodians without access to improved water sources today.
The economy may be booming, but with 80% of Cambodians living in rural circumstances, there is a sense in the data that many are toiling hard, but getting no further ahead.