PHNOM PENH — Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, is one of the poorest countries on the continent. As of 2015, 14 percent of the population lives in poverty. In Southeast Asia, only Myanmar, Laos and the Philippines have higher poverty rates.
Unfortunately, economic, social and political growth face a steep uphill battle in Cambodia. Like many other countries suffering from a high poverty rate, Cambodia bears scars from a deeply traumatic history which inhibit the country’s overall development.
Similar to neighboring Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia was a colonial territory of France that became independent relatively late, in 1953. However, in addition to the persisting negative effects of imperialism, Cambodia experienced a uniquely cruel conflict that debilitated the country for decades.
From 1975-1979, Cambodia was subject to the rule of the brutal Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, a zealous Marxist dictator. During this period of autocratic rule, one to two million Cambodians were slaughtered at gunpoint or worked to death.
The Cambodian genocide soiled much of the integrity of the government and other central institutions and killed off most of Cambodia’s educated middle class. These factors made lowering the poverty rate in Cambodia very difficult.
However, despite the odds, Cambodia bounced back from the tragedy quite well, boasting incredible economic growth in recent years.
Just ten years ago, the poverty rate in Cambodia was a shocking 47.8 percent. As of 2015, the figure was just a little below 14 percent and efforts in lowering the poverty rate in Cambodia have only improved. Now, Cambodia transcended the World Bank’s low-income category and is considered a lower middle-income country.
The rapid success in lowering the poverty rate in Cambodia can be attributed to the country’s exponential GDP growth since 1994. From between 1994 and 2015, Cambodia’s average annual GDP growth rate was an impressive 7.6 percent, peaking at 13.25 percent in 2005.
As a result of the tremendous growth in GDP, driven primarily by the country’s agricultural, garment, and tourism industries, Cambodia was able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty a few years early.
However, for the country to maintain steady growth going forward, Cambodia needs to expand and diversify its economy. More specifically, Cambodia must invest more resources into improving education, skill development and infrastructure. Doing so will create more opportunities for Cambodia’s population and support sustained growth for the years to come.
Fortunately, many rural Cambodians are already foregoing their primarily agricultural lifestyles and moving into different services and industries, assisting the overall economic growth of Cambodia and further reducing the poverty rate.
There have been many unexpected and exciting strides to lower the poverty rate in Cambodia, even though the country continues to feel the impact of past injustices. Perhaps even more encouraging, this positive trend seems poised to continue for the next few years. Hopefully, Cambodia will remain committed to ending widespread poverty once and for all, and maybe one day become a significant player in the Asian, if not the world, economy.
– Isidro Rafael Santa Maria