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Cambodia’s two poverty plans

Most countries struggle with one – but Cambodia's government has got two poverty plans to put into action, each developed by a different donor.

The four-wheel drive pickup truck, sporting government campaign posters, rolls into Chung Rouk commune, its loud speaker crackling into life to alert villagers that the show is about to begin.

A pop song blares out the message: "Increase your family's income by over 2,000 Riel (US$0.5) each person each day." A brightly-coloured poster pasted on the truck shows a woman holding banknotes, pointing to "20 strategic actions" to reduce rural poverty. Next to it are pictures of irrigation systems, farm animals and students in a classroom.

This is just the start of the government's campaign to inform ordinary Cambodians about its poverty plan. The majority of Cambodia's 12 million people – 36 per cent live below the $0.5 per day poverty line, mostly farmers in remote areas – have yet to hear about the strategy, although it has been three years in the making.

"My living conditions are bad, and I have never heard about the national poverty reduction strategy of Cambodia. What is this?" says Meng Cheng, a 70-year-old Khmer farmer.

Meng Cheng, his wife and nine children live 400 kilometres northwest of the capital Phnom Penh in a district famed for its 11th and 12th century Buddhist temples. The road to their village Preah Phnom (Buddha Mountain), is in bad shape and, like hundreds of other families in the area, they suffer frequent water shortages. The local market is 10 km away, and they can't access medicines.

Neang Tha, Meng Cheng's wife, sums it up: "We lack everything in this village, you know. Life here is bad and no-one cares about us."

Cambodia is still recovering from decades of civil war, which ended in 1998. According to the World Bank Cambodia's external debt stands at $2.9 billion, life expectancy is 54 years, the illiteracy rate is 31 per cent and GDP per capita is $1,860 per year.

Many in Cambodia, including top government leaders, talk about fighting poverty, but the origins of the government plan to do this are inauspicious.

Cambodia's main donors, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, each asked the government in 2000 to produce a plan of action to reduce poverty. The first request came from the ADB and the resulting strategy paper was approved by the National Assembly in 2002.

But the World Bank refused to recognise this plan as the basis for its own funding and debt relief, and asked the government to go through the process a second time. The government's request to merge the two processes was turned down and each plan was coordinated by a different government ministry.

The World Bank plan involved little consultation with Cambodians – although consultation is meant to be a central principle of the Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) rolled out in 45 other least developed countries. Its office in the capital Phnom Penh was too small to oversee the process, so most of it was written in Washington. The plan went through eight drafts but only the last was translated into Khmer, making it hard for many government officials and non governmental organisations to comment on them.

The resulting PRSP, launched in March 2003 by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was strongly criticised by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) for failing to consult poor farmers, who make up 75 per cent of the population.

Bizarrely, ministries now have to implement the two plans separately, prompting doubts over how effective either can be in reducing poverty. "Foreigners give money to Cambodia to reduce poverty but according to my understanding there are no good results for the poor," says SRP spokesperson, Ing Bun Ang.

There are signs that the World Bank has recognised its mistake and is changing its approach. It has reportedly agreed to the merger of the two plans, and increased the size of its Phnom Penh office, so the process can be overseen in Cambodia. It is also funding the government to hold consultations with farmers.

World Bank spokesman in Phnom Penh Bou Saroeun is optimistic that the PRSP will reduce poverty, "but very slowly".

Kim Saysamalen, undersecretary of state for planning – the ministry now coordinating both plans – says Cambodia wants to reduce extreme poverty from 36 per cent to 19 per cent by 2015 through improving agriculture, rural infrastructure, increased private investment, and access to safe water, sanitation, education and health services.

"The idea really is to get the people themselves thinking about what poverty reduction means and what they can do toward getting out of poverty," said Kim Saysamalen. "The poor must be able to participate in the growth of the national economy."

One group of rural families tried to do just that, but their experience shows how the system does not yet allow them to influence their own development.

Ly Sarien, a 53-year-old commune chief in Angkor Chum district near Meng Cheng's village, says he sent the district chief a proposal to reduce poverty in his area, but has received no answer.

Half the people in his commune live below the poverty line, and water resources vital to improving their agriculture are 20 km from the village. "We want water, we need irrigation," says Ly Sarien. "We really do not know what to do."

Experts say some of that helplessness may be erased by commune council elections, held for the first time in 2002, which could give villagers more influence over local planning.

Economy and Finance Minister Keat Chhorn says: "In Cambodia the real answer to poverty lies in changing the model of development from traditional economic growth to develop a free market, basic education and health for all, land reform, equitable growth and good governance."

But Dr Sok Harch, a well-known economist and director of the Cambodia Economic Institute, says the poverty reduction strategy was written by "foreigners" and not Cambodians.

He believes few government officials understand the different poverty reduction strategies. "We need the government's political will for poverty reduction," he says, adding that 80 per cent of Cambodians live on less than $1 per day. "How poor they are."

Donors agree the government needs funds to develop its own structures and capacity before it can properly implement any strategy.

Cambodia also needs to find ways to crack down on corruption. In 1995, Finance Minister Keat Choun said the state was losing up to $100 million a year to corruption, primarily through illegal logging, rubber exports and fishing. Experts say the problem continues.

Chea Vannath, director of the NGO Social Development of Cambodia, says deforestation in turn has pushed many people below the poverty line. "Each society must look to its own values to promote a more humble and sober way of life, and to challenge the greed of a few that underlies the poverty of so many," she says.

Khieu Kola is a Cambodian journalist based in Phnom Penh.

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12/17/2003

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