Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cambodian observations

Some facts about Cambodia - this will cheer you up

It's hard to believe, but in 1969 Cambodia had a higher per capita income and received more tourists than Thailand.

Now, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the region. Overall, Australia is more than 70 times richer (GDP per capita) . Thailand is six times richer; Vietnam is 50% richer.

The rate of poverty in Cambodia is 3 times greater than in Vietnam. Poverty levels in Thailand are negligible by comparison. Poverty here has fallen over the last decade, but is still high. In 2004, 35% of Cambodians were living on less than US$0.50 per day (a higher proportion than Uganda). Only 40% of Cambodians had access to clean water.

Although I see a lot of poverty in Phnom Penh - there are people sleeping on the streets near where I live - the majority of Cambodia's poor live in rural areas.

Health and education have improved, but outcomes are still either the lowest in region or above only Laos and Myanmar. Compared with the average Australian infant, a baby born in Cambodia is 22 times more likely to die before its 1st birthday.

Income inequality is very high (even by south-east asian standards). This is at least partly a result of the local elite capturing so much of the foreign aid and tax revenue. Corruption is endemic right through Cambodian society. You can buy a licence to operate a medical practice for $1,500. Police buy their jobs. Even a worker in a garment factory often has to pay the supervisor $50 to $75 to get the job (about one month's pay). The share of revenue that firms pay in bribes is twice the rate paid in Bangladesh. I've heard that one Senior Government Minister pays the Prime Minister US$4 million per year for his position. There are more ministers than there are members of parliament (not sure how that works!). Senior politicians, their relatives, and members of the military control Cambodia's extensive illegal logging.

At least the influence of decades of civil war is becoming increasingly subtle. 60% of the population is aged under 26 and therefore were born after the Khmer Rouge period. There is increasing awareness of concepts of individual rights, the rule of law and the accountability of government.

Things are moving in the right direction: poverty has fallen by a quarter since 1994. This is a "peace dividend". Whether it can fall by as much again, or more, remains to be seen. Cambodia appears to me to be anything from 10 to 50 years behind Vietnam. Things should continue to improve, but I expect real progress is a generation away.

But come and see for yourself. I promise it won't be as bad as this all sounds!

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