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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia, 1997: AIDS and poverty

Cambodia, 1997: AIDS and poverty

T HE AIDS epidemic could cost Cambodia almost $3 billion and leave up to one million

people infected with HIV/AIDS over the next nine years, according to a major report

by the government and the United Nations.

The figures are among the most startling in an overall grim picture of the country's

health, education and human welfare sectors painted by the "National Human Development

Report 1997", released Oct 17 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

and the Ministry of Planning.

"The AIDS epidemic is the most serious in Asia," said UNDP resident representative

Paul Matthews.

"Not only does this spell enormous suffering and loss but it also has a very

significant economic impact. Many of the victims of HIV/AIDS will be educated people

living in the cities, people who are in the most productive periods of their lives,"

he said.

According to the report, Cambodia has the highest per capita HIV positive rate among

sex workers in Asia. It estimated that up to 120,000 Cambodians are now infected

and that the country could a pay a price of between $1.97 to $2.82 billion in lost

earnings by 2006 as a result of the as yet incurable disease.

"What this tells us about the HIV/AIDs epidemic is really very, very worrying.

Of course the government is very aware of this and a lot has been done in terms of

awareness raising. But some of the figures in here are extremely disturbing and would

indicate that this has to be tackled on almost an emergency basis if the epidemic

isn't to get out of hand," said Matthews.

"I think the implications are clear and it is up to the government and the people

of Cambodia to read this and draw their conclusions," he said.

The report, which is the country's first national poverty survey and is intended

to provide socioeconomic data for government planning, elaborates a dismal array

of facts about contemporary Cambodian life.

Nearly four out every ten Cambodians lives below the poverty line - pegged at 35,500

riel (close to $11) per person per month - with the vast majority of these living

in rural areas, according to the report.

Cambodia is among the poorest 20 countries in the world and among its Asian neighbors

ranks above only Bangladesh and Nepal in terms of the Human Development Index - a

ranking derived from life expectancy, education, and income figures.

Half of the nation's children are stunted, largely as a result of long-term, chronic

undernutrition rather than short term food deficits, the report said.

"It does not necessarily mean that they have not had enough food but they may

have the wrong sort of food," Matthews said.

Ignorance as much as food shortages contributes to the problem, according to the

report, which also found that as many as 40% of the children among the wealthiest

strata in society are stunted.

"This suggests that, while poverty is certainly a contributing factor in child

malnutrition in Cambodia, it is not the only factor," said the report. "Cultural

and social factors may play a more important role than economic status in causing

child malnutrition."

Child malnutrition is exacerbated by a predominance of rice in the Cambodian diet

as well as a cultural custom of delaying the onset of breast-feeding until several

days after birth.

The survey also handed down a poor score card on Cambodia's education system, which

has high rates of repetition and drop-out.

Of every 1,000 pupils who enter primary school, only 27 graduate from upper secondary

school, according to the UN.

The report pinned much of the blame for the level of poverty and human development

in Cambodia on the country's long history of armed conflict.

The state-sponsored havoc wreaked on the population and social institutions during

the Pol Pot era had left the country with a disproportionate number of women to men,

as well as a shortage of educated people.

In addition, the long years of turmoil - and the prominent role played by landmines

- had left a legacy of displaced people, a large proportion of the population disabled

and a high number of households headed by women.

While the report does not make specific policy recommendations on how to improve

Cambodia's socio-economic plight, Paul Matthews said that economic growth is not

the sole answer.

"As important is where that growth takes place and how its fruits are used and

distributed," the UNDP official said.

"Even with low economic growth, achievements in human development and the reduction

of human poverty are possible. The success of any human development strategy will

depend on the level of political will.

"As to what will be done, that's up to Cambodians. [The report] speaks for itself."

Kao Kim Hourn, director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said

that the report spoke for the "silenced majority of Cambodian people" and

put the issue of poverty squarely on the national agenda.

"Unless we really start to address poverty now, it will be too late. The increasing

disparity between the rich and the poor... it is widespread, it is apparent."

Kim Hourn said Cambodia had sufficient natural resources to draw on in the fight

against poverty, but he warned of the mismanagement of the country's abundant natural

wealth.

"If we were to have many free riders in our society, people who take these public

resources for their own personal enrichment, then the opportunity for progress against

poverty is definitely constrained," he said.

Finding the will and the funds to combat the alarming scenario of misery presented

in the report remains a thorny question for the government, which has begun cutting

into health and education spending in a bid to tackle substantial budget deficits.

"We have a lot of poverty in the country. It's a problem of allocating resources,"

said Dr Tea Phalla, head of the Ministry of Health's National Aids Program.

According to Minister of Planning Chea Chanto, a mere $18 per capita annually would

be enough to ensure that all Cambodians live above the poverty level.

"This amount represents only 40 percent of the external assistance that Cambodia

received in 1995," said Chanto.

But even with sufficient funds, it is "vision and leadership" which are

called for in the struggle to improve the lives of ordinary Cambodians, according

to the UNDP head.

"It is now up to Cambodians to take up the challenge, to show the will and determination

to stop fighting each other in a cycle of self-destruction and to join together to

fight poverty which is the real common enemy," said Matthews.

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