Cambodia’s recent development story has much in common with the broader region. Phenomenal growth has changed its economy and society beyond recognition.
Yet, as in the rest of Asia and the Pacific, progress must be accelerated if sustainable development is to be achieved by 2030. The additional investment needed is significant but still within Cambodia’s reach.
Especially so if the economy’s transformation is managed to reduce poverty and small and medium-sized businesses led by women entrepreneurs can flourish.
At the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), we take a regional approach to supporting our member states achieve sustainable development. We work with the whole UN system to overcome challenges which cut across borders and to achieve a sweeping set of economic, social and environmental objectives captured by the UN 2030 Agenda.
I am meeting the Cambodian leadership this week with these objectives in mind. To build on our region’s successes and join forces to accelerate progress.
This approach is crucial because our analysis demonstrates the region must strengthen its effort to achieve sustainable development.
Asia and the Pacific has made progress towards eradicating poverty and providing universal education. Measures are underway to achieve affordable clean energy.
Yet on its current trajectory, the region needs to do more to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
When it comes to providing clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, and achieving responsible consumption and production, urgent action is needed to change course.
Cambodia’s impressive economic growth, above seven per cent for over two decades, has reduced poverty significantly.
Life expectancy has markedly increased, child and maternal mortality declined sharply, the incidence of infectious diseases reduced, and universal primary school enrolment achieved.
This is an impressive achievement. Yet, as in many parts of Asia and the Pacific, the proceeds of growth have not always been equitably shared.
The focus must now be on improving the lives of the 4.5 million people who remain poor or at risk of falling back into poverty.
If Cambodia, and Asia and the Pacific, are to achieve the 2030 Agenda, increased investment is needed.
We estimate the additional investment required across the whole of the Asia-Pacific region to be some $1.5 trillion a year.
Our analysis shows that the region has the fiscal space to afford this.
Yet while possible, mobilising the additional resources will be challenging. Reforms to increase the tax-take and private sector investment will be necessary in many countries as overseas development assistance declines.
In Cambodia specifically, we estimate $3 of additional investment is required per person per day to achieve the SDGs, which means 5.4 per cent of GDP a year.
This could buy universal social protection, improved education from pre-school to secondary level and access to clean water and sanitation by 2030.
How can Cambodia take steps to make this happen?
Effectively managing the structural transformation of the economy – shifting employment to more productive and diverse activities – will increase the resources available for sustainable investment and reduce poverty.
Already the share of agricultural employment has declined significantly and is now on par with the industrial sector.
Services employ nearly half the workforce. Now the focus must be on improving labour productivity and supporting new, more advanced, higher value sectors which would also reduce the labour force’s vulnerability to the automation of unskilled, labour intensive tasks.
For this we need to create an ecosystem which is supportive of innovation and entrepreneurs – especially micro, small and medium size enterprises (MSMEs).
MSMEs represent 99 per cent of companies in Cambodia and are predominantly owned by women.
They face a financing gap equivalent to 21 per cent of GDP.
We want to complement government efforts to improve their access to finance through an initiative focused on promoting female entrepreneurship, because the evidence shows that women-led MSMEs support gender equality and sustainable development.
Women employ other women and spend more on their families. So we are working to increase women entrepreneurs’ access to technology and innovative financing solutions. We are supporting these activities with deeper gender analysis of the MSME sector, including in Cambodia.
Major role for Kingdom
We want to ensure that the business environment is genuinely gender responsive, one that works for women, powered by women.
Cambodia has a major role to play in our region’s effort to achieving the 2030 Agenda.
The country’s Sustainable Development Goals Framework, which translates global commitments into national delivery efforts, is a positive step, as is mainstreaming goals into its National Strategic Development plan.
I am looking forward to working with Cambodia and its National Committee for ESCAP to strengthen its long-term development partnership with the UN family.
To ensure the resourcing and financing of SDGs is as efficient and effective as possible, to support the productivity and successful economic transformation needed to initiate the least developed country graduation process, and to encourage women entrepreneurs as catalysts for a more inclusive and prosperous society.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).