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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Crisis threatens poverty reduction

Crisis threatens poverty reduction


Efforts to halve poverty by 2015, one of Cambodia's nine Millennium Development Goals, could by stymied by low or negative economic growth and a lack of rural resources.

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Chen Naren, evicted from Phnom Penh's Sambok Chap community, at the Andong relocation site. 

A four-part look at cambodia's mdgs

Last year marked the midway point for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, benchmarks for developing countries established in 2000 that cover everything from poverty to environmental sustainability. Last year also marked the five-year anniversary of the adoption of Cambodia's Millennium Development Goals, the localised versions of the global goals. In a four-part series, the Post looks at the progress made and the challenges that remain in achieving targets set for 2010 and 2015, drawing on government data as well as interviews with officials, NGO workers and Cambodians who stand to benefit from the effort. Part Four focuses on MDG No 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.  

CHEN Naren, 36, knew the morning she was evicted from the riverfront Sambok Chap community that her days hawking sugarcane juice on Sisowath Quay were over.

Along with 1,600 other families, she and her husband and children were moved in June 2006 to a relocation site in Andong in one of several recent mass evictions that have separated poor city dwellers from the jobs that sustained them.

The cost of getting from Andong, 20 kilometres outside central Phnom Penh, to Sisowath and back would have all but erased the US$5 profit Chen Naren earned each day, she said.

So, after moving her family into a shack of bamboo, tarpaulin and palm leaf that lacked electricity, water and any means of sewage disposal, she set out to find new work.  

For awhile, she earned 7,000 riel ($1.70) per day planting rice in nearby fields. "But it wasn't regular," she said in an interview. "Each week I would work for a few days only."

Only through the NGO Friends International did she manage, after six months, to find a steady job. For the past two years, she has earned $20 per week making beads from scraps of cigarette cartons and stringing them into necklaces, which Friends sells in local stores and abroad.

As she sat in her shack Tuesday rolling scraps into beads, the Prey Veng province native reflected on the evolution of her once-unstable circumstances.

When she sold sugarcane, she said, her workday began at 8am and ended at midnight. "Now, I have time to take care of my children," she said, as her two-year-old son, Khorn Sreyly, stricken with an undiagnosed illness and lying in her lap, stirred in his sleep.  

Though things have improved, Chen Naren still lives without a safety net. Her husband divorced her shortly after the eviction, leaving her to raise their two sons and three daughters. Having sold the small piece of land she owned in Prey Veng to pay for her husband's malaria treatment, she has no provincial home to return to should she need to relocate again.

She said she also has no long-term job plans and wants to stay with Friends as long as she can.

Hoy Leanghoin, a Friends project manager who regularly visits Andong, said he would like to see more independence on the part of the workers Friends trains there. Even those who can now make necklaces and handbags on their own are dependent on the NGO, he said, as they would have no idea how to market their goods without its help.

This, he said, is symptomatic of one factor that perpetuates the Kingdom's cycle of poverty: the lack of business training available to the poor, particularly in rural provinces, from where he estimated 30 percent of Andong's residents originally came.

The poverty MDG

Combating poverty in the provinces is at the heart of Cambodia's effort to achieve Millennium Development Goal No 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

On the strength of rapid economic growth, Cambodia reduced the proportion of people living below the national poverty line from an estimated 45 to 50 percent in 1994 to 34.7 percent in 2004, according to the Ministry of Planning's 2005 assessment of MDG progress. Though higher than the 2005 interim target of 31 percent, the Ministry of Planning termed the 2004 statistic "commendable". By 2007, the rate had fallen further, to 30 percent, according to that year's Cambodian Socio-Economic Survey (CSES).

"This is quite an achievement," said Tim Conway, senior poverty specialist at the World Bank's Cambodia Country Office. "It means that some 650,000 people escaped poverty between 2004 and 2007."

In recent interviews, though, experts emphasised that poverty reduction largely has been limited to urban and accessible rural areas, excluding whole sections of the population and contributing to the nation's growing income inequality, which is high for the region.

Moreover, they said, the economic crisis casts serious doubt on whether poverty will fall fast enough for Cambodia to meet its 2015 MDG target of 19.5 percent, which some considered ambitious even when high growth seemed inevitable.

In 2006, for instance, the World Bank concluded that Cambodia would not meet the goal even with a 7 percent growth rate unless sectoral growth patterns changed.



Since then, growth projections have plummeted, with the International Monetary Fund predicting last week a 0.5 percent contraction in 2009 and warning that the actual contraction could be even more severe.  

As a result, "we don't know what will happen" about the poverty rate, said Poch Sovandy, a Ministry of Planning official who tracks poverty statistics.

Rural poverty

Regardless of the economy, Conway said, poverty reduction efforts should target remote rural areas, where the poverty rate stood at 45.6 percent in 2005, according to the Ministry of Planning assessment.

Citing the high rural poverty rate as one of the chief shortfalls of the entire MDG effort, the ministry reported that more than 90 percent of the Kingdom's poor lived in rural areas. By 2007, according to the CSES, the concentration of the poor had been exacerbated.  

Wisal Hin, assistant country director and poverty reduction unit leader for the United Nations Development Program, said the Kingdom's greatest challenge going forward "lies in equitably sharing the benefits of economic growth, centred mainly in urban areas, with those rural communities".

Conway called for rural poverty-reduction efforts that would increase the agricultural productivity of small landholders and reduce their vulnerability to the vagaries of the weather.  

He also stressed the need for policies that would clarify land ownership and protect land titles held by the poor, echoing a point made by every expert interviewed for this article.     

Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said the rising number of economic land concessions in rural areas in recent years posed a grave threat to security of tenure.

Karin Schelzig Bloom, a social sector specialist for the Asian Development Bank, described land as "a key determinant of access to economic opportunities and livelihood" for the poor.   

Like Chen Naren, many of the residents in Andong originally came to Phnom Penh because they did not have land in the provinces on which to eke out a living, Hoy Leanghoin said.

An urban issue, too

A large part of Phnom Penh's appeal, notes the most recent Cambodia Human Development Report provided by the Ministry of Planning, stems from the fact that it has benefited from a high rate of public and private investment.    

The report - which calls for "a substantial increase" in funding for rural irrigation, electricity and roads projects - argues that much of the Kingdom's recent growth "has been urban-based and narrowly focused on surging garment exports that may be vulnerable, record levels of tourism and a boom in the construction industry".  

But to view the capital as strictly wealthy and the provinces as strictly impoverished, said Friends Executive Director Sebastien Marot, is to overlook the plight of the urban poor.

While the CSES found Phnom Penh's poverty rate to be less than one percent, Marot said poor city dwellers often face greater risks than their rural counterparts, citing the higher prevalence of drugs, HIV/Aids and violent crime in the capital.

Nevertheless, he said, "an increasing number of children" from the provinces, many inspired by mass media depictions of "wealthy families with beautiful homes and cars", have opted to move to the capital in recent years without fully thinking through how they would survive once they arrived.  

The effect of the crisis

Looking ahead, Conway said the global economic slowdown posed the biggest challenge to meeting the poverty MDG. Continuing improvements to aid effectiveness - a component of MDG No 8: Develop a global partnership for development - could in part mitigate the effects of the slowdown on poverty reduction, he said, though he added that analysts were not yet able to project what those effects might be.

"What we don't have yet is national figures to tell us whether the poverty headcount is falling but at a slower pace, whether poverty levels are now stagnant, or whether in fact poverty has started to rise again," he said.

As analysts wait on the results of the 2008 national household survey, which Conway said would provide "a better picture" of recent trends, anecdotal evidence suggests a potentially grim outlook. Dennis Barbian, a business adviser for Friends, said international orders for the NGO's products were down. But he said he believed this was "not a real result" of the slowdown.

"I think it is a fear of the crisis," he said. "I think it will go up again and that orders will increase."

Marot said the effects of the crisis had not been severe enough to cause migrants to leave the city, even those who had been laid off.

"They are staying and trying to find jobs - often risky jobs," he said, citing as examples jobs in beer halls and karaoke bars.

Conway, however, found some cause for optimism, saying that the initial effects of the crisis could spur the government into adopting more effective policies designed to help the poor.

"If the crisis passes relatively soon rather than settling in for several years, and if Cambodia then manages to restore rapid growth and ensure that the poor benefit from this growth," he said, "then it might be feasible to hit the poverty target".




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