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Social programmes ‘underfunded’

A woman smiles as she attends a meeting of the Ek Phnom Older Person Association in Battambang province in November 2014.
A woman smiles as she attends a meeting of the Ek Phnom Older Person Association in Battambang province in November 2014. Helpage Cambodia

Social programmes ‘underfunded’

In spite of recent pledges to expand social protections, the Cambodian government has failed to prioritise spending on services that reduce poverty and improve quality of life among vulnerable populations, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization.

The ILO report, released yesterday, reveals that Cambodia continues to trail its regional neighbours in government spending on social protections, and “notes that due to a development model that prioritizes economic growth at the expense of redistributive policies, Cambodia has historically low fiscal space for social expenditure and, consequently, limited social protection coverage”, a statement accompanying the report reads.

The report comes amid a charm offensive recently launched by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has tried to win over the country’s 700,000 garment workers by promising expansions to health care and pension systems.

Factory workers were traditionally considered supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved earlier this month at the behest of the government in a near-universally condemned Supreme Court ruling.

Ministry of Social Affairs spokesman Touch Channy maintained yesterday that the ministry was working on plans to implement programmes to help the elderly, disabled children and pregnant women, but had to progress in accordance with the “national plan”. He did not respond to questions about whether the ministry had plans to increase spending on social programmes.

The ministry’s budget for 2018 is up about 16 percent from 2017 – to just under $220 million – but actually fell slightly as a share of the country’s overall budget.

Miguel Chanco, the lead Asean analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Cambodia’s focus on defence spending was to blame for the country’s dismal rankings in the ILO report.

“In terms of government priority . . . there’s no question that Cambodia’s bloated military and defence budget is one of the reasons why it does not have the capacity to significantly boost social spending,” he said, adding that the government’s existing programmes, such as a national pension plan that does not yet cater to private-sector workers, are also lacking.

The report is particularly damning on the topics of disability and elderly pensions, sectors where Cambodia falls far short of its regional neighbours.

It notes, for example, that only 0.7 percent of people with severe disabilities receive benefits in Cambodia, only slightly better than region-worst Myanmar’s 0.4 percent.

The report also notes that Cambodia has a 34 percent poverty rate for households that have members with disabilities, twice as high as the countrywide poverty rate.

Ngin Saoroth, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, welcomed the report’s findings and said he hoped they would help guide the government in the future.

“It’s part of a good start, but it needs to be understood and taken into account by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Social Affairs,” he said, noting that there was already a pilot programme providing $5 a month to disabled individuals in a handful of provinces.

The ILO report notes the average increase in cost for a household with a disabled person in Cambodia is $40 a month, but Saroath said that figure would be “difficult for the government to accept” and urged a nationwide expansion of the $5 programme first.

Cambodia also only has 3.2 percent of its old-age population covered by a pension plan – well below the region-wide average of 55 percent.

Tum Vira, the executive director of the elderly advocacy NGO HelpAge, said he “strongly recommended” the government spend more money on pensions for elderly people.

He noted that in past meetings, officials “discussed the possibility of including elderly people [in a pension plan], but it was not a strong commitment”.

Additional reporting by Yon Sineat

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