And now for the really hard part

Children scavenge for reusable items from a pile of garbage on the side of National Road 6A in Kandal’s Muk Kampoul district
Children scavenge for reusable items from a pile of garbage on the side of National Road 6A in Kandal’s Muk Kampoul district in December. Hong Menea

And now for the really hard part

Cambodia has exceeded the Millennium Development Goal poverty target. It is also one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide in recent years.

Between 2004 and 2011, in only seven years, the share of people who live in absolute poverty, on less than US$1.15 per day, fell by more than half in Cambodia, from 53.0 per cent to 20.5 per cent. That means that only two out of 10 Cambodians are poor, compared with five back in 2004.

There have been many reasons behind the impressive reduction of poverty. The two most important factors have been increased rice prices and increased rice production, which raised farmers’ revenues and farm workers’ wages and together accounted for almost half of the poverty reduction.

Increased rice production was driven in part by a positive external environment, and also by greater road access by farmers to markets, better access to market information through mobile phones, improved irrigation and a liberal undistorted agricultural market.

These factors created an environment conducive for farmers to respond quickly to the increased prices.

With this impressive poverty reduction, where have all the previously poor gone? The answer to this question is: out of poverty, but not very far.

A majority of families remain disturbingly close to the poverty line. The number of those “near-poor” people who live on less than US$2.30 per day per person grew to 8.1 million in 2011 from 4.6 million in 2004.

Being “near-poor”, they are still at high risk of falling back into poverty at the slightest income shock. For example, the impact of losing income of 1,200 riel per day (about US$0.30) would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty. This would double the poverty rate to 40 per cent.

While they are benefiting from the country’s rapid economic growth, Cambodians say they are hoping for a more prosperous future which isn’t only based on cheap labour.

They are aspiring to attain better jobs and equal opportunities, regardless of status and wealth. Better jobs, in both rural and urban areas, become even more important, as commodity prices may not continue rising as rapidly in the future as in the recent past.

How can Cambodia reduce poverty further, helping the remaining 20 per cent of its people who are poor escape out of poverty, but also prevent the near-poor from slipping back into poverty at the slightest economic shock?

With this double goal in mind, Cambodia’s new development strategy places emphasis on both growth and equity.

Some actions and programs can help lift more people out of poverty:

• Improving access to and upgrading the quality of basic rural infrastructure, such as roads, irrigation schemes, electricity supplies and water and sanitation. After all, 90 per cent of the poor live in rural areas.

• Supporting children in rural areas to start school at a younger age and broadening access to education among minority communities is key to reducing poverty. Scholarship, school feeding, targeted cash transfer and similar programs have been shown to help reduce drop-out rates later in secondary schools.

• An integrated program to reduce child malnutrition, with systematic monitoring of child growth by health facilities, will be a priority in reducing poverty. Community-based programs can reduce open defecation and improve feeding habits, food fortification and micronutrients.

An increase in the coverage of the Health Equity Fund – a scheme that provides free health access to the poorest –and broadened outreach to spread awareness of the health benefits of the fund can also contribute to reducing child malnutrition.

• Tighter controls imposed on private providers and suppliers of medicine outside the public health system to combat counterfeit drugs can help improve health care quality.

• Programs to enhance the profitability of rice production through supply of improved seeds and more effective rural extension services can help farmers shift from subsistence to commercial farming.

There are also policies and programs that help prevent the near-poor from slipping back into poverty. Promoting crop diversification beyond rice will be important.

Rural families will also benefit from more opportunities for off-farm jobs and from increased efforts to promote industries and service sectors in both urban and rural areas.

Further efforts to implement a National Social Protection Strategy could especially support the non-poor.

Continued progress in poverty reduction is possible. Helping families who just escaped poverty stay out of poverty is possible.

With strong policies and programs to reduce poverty, both goals are within reach. Indeed, such policies and programs are vital if the new hope and expectations of Cambodians that have been encouraged by the past decade of rapid economic growth are to be met.

The government of Cambodia and the World Bank Group are jointly organising a workshop to disseminate a poverty assessment report in the afternoon of February 20, 2014, at Phnom Penh Hotel, which will provide an opportunity to discuss challenges and actions to reduce poverty further.

Ulrich Zachau is country director of the World Bank for Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

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