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In profile: Cambodia

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In the next post of our In profile country series, we are exploring how Cambodia is progressing the SDG 2030 agenda

Capital: Phnom Penh

Population: c. 16 million

Located in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a lower-middle-income country with a history of violent political turmoil and civil war that has significantly stifled the rate of development, from which Cambodia is still recovering. Between 1975 and 1978 an estimated 1.7 million citizens died as a result of the highly oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, in which whole populations of cities and provincial towns were forcibly relocated to become agricultural workers. The country’s economy collapsed and it cut itself off from the rest of the world.

In 2002, Cambodia held its first multi-party local elections in which the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a large majority. Hun Sen, the leader of the CPP, has been prime minister since 1985.

Progress towards the SDGs

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Cambodia has had the most success in reducing poverty. In 2009, Cambodia achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty rates in the country according to the poverty line at the time, although many families are still living only just above the current poverty line. Although the country has one of the fastest growing economies in the world at the moment, half of all employed people are in unstable occupations and around 4.5 million people are still vulnerable to economic shocks.

Cambodia ranked 109 out of 156 countries in the 2018 SDG report and 146 on the Human Development Index. The vast majority of Cambodians living in poverty live in rural areas, with 4 million people currently lacking access to safe water, and 6 million living without improved sanitation. Progress is being made towards SDG 3, with the average life expectancy at infancy increasing by 10 years since 2001 to 69.3 years. While a third of children under the age of five still experience malnutrition and stunted growth, the country has taken great steps in eradicating hunger.

While great progress has been make in advancing children’s education in Cambodia (97% of children were enrolled in primary school in 2017), many children are failing to reach learning standards appropriate for their age. Less than a third of children under the age of five are developmentally on track in literacy and numeracy, and more than half drop out of school by their teenage years. Boys and girls from poor rural and urban areas particularly affected.

Even though Cambodia is maintaining SDG achievement in combating climate change, major challenges still remain in improving climate vulnerability. Despite suffering regular floods and droughts, and high economic dependency on agricultural sector, Cambodia has had low contribution to climate change causes. While men migrate to urban areas in search of jobs, women and children stay in rural areas. Women’s income is tied to agriculture, making them disproportionately affected by climate change.

64% of Cambodia’s energy consumption comes from renewable energy sources, and their progress on climate action is generally good, although, despite some improvements, access to affordable and clean energy is still poor.

Development challenges

  • Diversifying economic prospects

The economy in Cambodia is heavily reliant on the garment industry, employing around 700,000 people and making up approximately 45% of the national exports last year. However, the country faces the suspension of tariff-free trade by the EU due to its handling of human rights and political freedom. Due to heightened trade uncertainty, economic risks have intensified – including erosion of export competitiveness and overextended financial sector. While tourism, resources sector, and agriculture offer potential for relieving pressure on the economy, further investments are needed to make these areas globally competitive.

  • Improving transparency and accountability of institutions

Corruption in Cambodia presents a persistent challenge, with bribery and political pressure controlling the judiciary system. Land and properly rights are often given to politically favoured projects, or taken by high powered politicians and officials in state-sanctioned seizures.

  • Boosting links between migration and development

While Cambodia experiences high migration rates, its developmental potential is not being fully harnessed. Currently, labour market policies are doing little to slow emigration, with agricultural sector losing the most workers in their most productive years. Research shows that households that receive remittances have fewer working members. While remittances allow households to spend more on education for children, this is only true for households without emigrants. A more coherent policy agenda in needed to open the development potential of migration