The government hopes that education will become more accessible with the recent launch of a long-term plan to invest in the future workforce and reduce poverty.
"Education is necessary for our children to build this country," said Dr Hath Bunroeun, the secretary-general of the government's Education For All (EFA) program. "It is the main tool for accelerating the growth of our economy, which enables us to compete in the world. I'm very optimistic that EFA will succeed and then we will have good human resources to develop our country."
The twelve-year plan, which was launched on June 10, supports the government's main poverty alleviation strategies: the Poverty Reduction Strategic Plan (PRSP) and the second Socio-Economic Development Plan (SEDP II). These two focus on the importance of completing nine years of basic education, reducing costs, and encouraging disadvantaged groups such as females and ethnic minorities.
A large proportion of the population and the future workforce is functionally illiterate, said Dr Supote Prasertsi, an education specialist at UNESCO which is facilitating the EFA program.
"About 15 percent of our children never even attend primary school, and only 18 percent of seven to nine year olds go on to lower-secondary school," he said.
Dr Prasertsi added that the fact that one million youngsters were in the lower-secondary age group meant the program faced a huge challenge in ensuring all received at least a rudimentary education.
The government estimates that the EFA will cost $240 million a year. Half of that will be invested by various ministries, such as Social Affairs, Health, Rural Development, and Defense.
Their contribution will come in the form of ministerial projects that are meant to complement the program. The Ministry of Rural Development, for example, will construct new roads to improve children's chances of traveling to school, while the Ministry of Health will invest in programs promoting good health for infants.
The other half of the funding has been pledged by foreign countries and donors. Belgium has donated around $9 million, and the European Union is projected to give $5.5 million. The Asia Development Bank will loan around $9.5 million, and the World Bank will lend $7.5 million. The Ministry of Economy and Finance will then channel the funding into various projects, such as teacher training or school construction.
Dr Hath said the program would be reliant on international support to succeed. He added that the financial support from other nations was justified by the country simply committing to the EFA.
"We have the plan, which means Cambodia has made a strong commitment to the international community to improve education," he said. "This is why Cambodia deserves international support. It's not only talk-it's already done. Our commitment is made, our commitment to action."
The EFA aims to raise the primary school completion rate to 90 percent and lower-secondary enrollment to 50 percent. Another priority is to educate young adults, particularly girls, in the 15-to-24-year-old bracket.
Infant health and nutrition education is crucial in readying the next reproductive group for parenting. A national scholarship system for girls will be introduced, and ethnic minorities will have culturally-tailored curricula which aim to preserve their local knowledge and make education relevant to their culture.
Dr Hath listed three reasons that would assure the EFA's success.
"We have political will from our Prime Minister. We also have commitment from the people-everybody wants their children to learn. And we have participation from communities, civil society and the private sector."
He said that spending on education had increased from 15.7 percent of the National Budget in 2002 to 18.2 percent in 2003. This figure is set to rise to 20 percent in 2005.
Dr Hath said the monitoring mechanism for the program was still unclear as the indicators had not yet been set up. But, he added, UNESCO and UNICEF would help to establish that part of the program.
A draft of indicators has been drawn up, based on a recent EFA program in Thailand. Inspectors will assess how the EFA is developing, and the NGO Education Partnership (NEP), made up of 47 NGOs, is trying to join the monitoring process, known as the Quality of Education Group. Statistics will be scrutinized to determine if enrollment and completion rates are improving, and an annual EFA meeting will discuss its progress.
Dr Hath said the EFA also planned to take mobile computers to isolated rural areas, and set up floating barge libraries and low-cost, makeshift schools that cost a fifth of the typical price-$1,000 instead of $5,000. Local materials such as bamboo and clay will be used to construct them. Adult classes will also be established through the mass media, such as radio and television.
"The first priority is education. The second priority is education. With no education there is no democracy, no human rights and no development," Dr Hath concluded.