Exploring the History of Poverty in Cambodia

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PHNOM PENH — Poverty statistics can be deceiving. When a country reports that it has reduced poverty by a particular percentage, the numbers can often appear impressive. However, the line between living in and out of poverty is a very fine one.

Poverty in Cambodia is currently at about 20 percent of the population, but an additional 20 percent is on the brink of falling back into poverty, with just $0.30 holding them above the poverty line. Thus, Cambodia’s poverty reduction statistics give a false sense of security.

To understand poverty in Cambodia, it’s necessary to look at the country’s history. The Khmer Rouge regime was toppled in 1979, but not before Pol Pot murdered many of the country’s highly skilled workers and academics in an effort to build a rural economy sans any development or modern advancements. While Cambodia was forced into the past, surrounding countries travelled into the world economy of the future.

Cambodia’s past is also riddled with foreign intervention. From 1887 to 1953, the country was part of French Indochina. Then the Japanese occupied Cambodia in World War II. When the Vietnam War extended into the country, it was subjected to several U.S. bombings. Towards the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnam invaded, beginning a ten-year occupation. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a civil war plagued the country. Forgotten landmines continued to kill even after the conflicts were resolved.

So poverty in Cambodia has had a lot of help in its existence, and the effects are still felt today. Since the Khmer Rouge forbade the use of Western Medicine, the country has traveled a difficult road toward modern healthcare. Health services that should be free are often overpriced. In the 1990s, many people who sold their land needed the money for medical bills. Furthermore, healthcare workers often earn wages below the poverty line.

As a result of the Khmer Rouge’s outdated agricultural economy, 90 percent of Cambodia’s poor live in rural areas. Agricultural development is often stunted by landmines, which continue to be a daily problem for eight out of 10 Cambodians in rural areas. Furthermore, the lack of both infrastructure and modernized farming techniques makes for crop yields that are lower and more susceptible to severe weather patterns.

In an effort to make the greatest profit in agriculture, illegal farming practices have exploited natural resources and been a major contributor to deforestation. Cambodia lost 7 percent of its forest cover between 2000 and 2012, the fifth-fastest rate in the world.

It’s undeniable that Cambodia has experienced rapid economic growth in the past couple of decades. The garment, tourism and construction industries are all main drivers of the economy. While they are all urbanized sectors, agriculture is equally significant, with 85 percent of the population dependent on farming, fishery and forestry. Cambodia’s history, however, has put an undeniable strain on this industry.

If we study poverty in Cambodia, we come to realize that much of the country’s misfortunes were born of foreign intervention and horrific civil war. If foreign bombings, occupations and oppressive regimes stunted Cambodia’s economic and industrial growth, it may be time for its world neighbors to offer it some assistance into the future.

Sophie Nunnally

Photo: Unsplash

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About Author

Sophie Nunnally

Sophie lives in Charlottesville, VA. Her academic interests include English, creative writing, international studies, ethics and international social justice. Sophie is a lifelong native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but will be spending fall 2017 in Morocco!

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