Due to the economic boom over the past two decades, fewer and fewer Cambodians are living below the national poverty line. How many there are depends, among other things, on the respective definition and the parameters on which the measurement is based. Although neither reliable data nor uniform reporting trends are available, around a third to a quarter of the population in Cambodia are likely to be affected by extreme poverty. Prices for staple foods have risen significantly in recent years, with an average of around twelve percent of all households having problems with the food supply.
According to Internetsailors.com, poverty in Cambodia is multifaceted: Many adolescents are still stunted in growth due to malnutrition, while child mortality is still above average in a regional comparison. The average age is currently 25 years, the literacy rate is 80.5 percent (2015). The Cambodian state is still weak – the state quota has grown steadily in recent years, but will only account for a quarter of GDP in 2020 – and does not yet offer its people any social security worth mentioning. Fundamental changes are promised by the Social Protection Policy Framework 2016-2025, through which, among other things, state health and pension insurance is to be introduced.
In the current ranking of the United Nations regarding the level of development, Cambodia ranks 146th out of 189 nations. In 2014, the country was still in 136th place out of 187 states and has fallen continuously since then. This is mainly due to the lack of willingness to shape social policy on the part of the government and the persistently high level of corruption among numerous top politicians. In Cambodia itself, the poverty rates are distributed differently from region to region. While in the center and in the south fewer people are affected by extreme poverty on average, the provinces of Siem Reap – the home of Angkor Wat and more than two million tourists annually – and Pailin on the border with Thailand suffer from particularly high poverty rates.
The exact extent of poverty in Cambodia is difficult to grasp, however: While Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke of only 10 percent of compatriots living in poverty in September 2019, UNDP had assumed 35 percent a year earlier. According to calculations by the World Bank, poverty in Cambodia has at least decreased significantly in recent years. While in 2004 53.2 percent of all people lived below the national poverty line, in 2011 it should have been only 20.5%. That would mean that around three million people still have less than US $ 1.15 available every day, and another 8.1 million people have at least that, but less than US $ 2.30.
Cambodia’s economy today is formally market-based and is hardly subject to government restrictions. However, the economic process is de facto still characterized by a high level of corruption, the highest in the region, and the significant involvement of the military and high political officials, which are often in the semi-legal or illegal area. There are no anti-cartel laws, and Cambodia’s biggest entrepreneurs have very close ties with the government. The enforcement of corporate interests by the police and the military, extensive exemption from taxation and protection from criminal prosecution are considerations in return for financing the party fund or social projects initiated by the government. The armed forces are still involved in the illegal clearing of tropical forests, although all commercial logging has been banned since 2002. The smuggling of tropical timber continues to be significant, particularly across the border with Thailand and China.
Corruption is politically institutionalized, encompasses all areas of life and is referred to by the Cambodians themselves as “puk ruluoy” – rotten or rotten wood. Informal fees are due for the vast majority of contacts with authorities, be it at traffic controls, building applications or in court. Corruption not only stands in the way of economic prosperity, it also blocks many people’s access to education and health. Above all, “special payments” to teachers by parents and pupils are widespread and place narrow limits on the advancement of children from poorer sections of the population.
In 2010, after more than ten years of discussion, an anti-corruption law was finally passed and an authority was set up to deal solely with the fight against all possible forms of corruption. So far, there have been no major successes, which is not surprising given the systematic nature of corruption in Cambodia.