Cambodia: Time to invest in people

December 7, 2012

Pamela Cox The Phnom Penh Post

Time to invest in people

For more than a decade, Cambodia has sustained impressive economic growth.

The World Bank expects real gross domestic product to increase by 6.6 per cent this year – a figure to be envied in today’s fragile global economy.

At this pace, Cambodia can rapidly become the industrialised and productive economy it aspires to be.

Is this the future that Cambodians can rightfully look forward to? 

The answer is yes, but only if Cambodia invests in its most precious resource – its people – to enable each individual to realise his or her potential and productively contribute to the nation’s economy.

Until now, much of Cambodia’s investment has focused on infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing – priority areas during the early stages of the country’s economic development.

The World Bank is supporting health and education in Cambodia.

With the government and our development partners, we are financing health equity funds and school scholarships, having provided 2.5 million health-care treatments for poor people since 2009 and scholarships for 63,000 poor secondary-school students since 2005.

But much more needs to be done to improve the coverage, quality and governance of these sectors.

Although Cambodia’s economy is growing, employers report a mismatch between the skills university graduates bring to a job and the skills the labour market demands.

A recent World Bank study found that 22 per cent of foreign employers in Cambodia identify skills as a severe constraint to businesses.

This means many Cambodians earn less than they could if they had adequate education and skills.

For the country, this leads to lower productivity, limiting Cambodia’s potential to attract investment and improve living standards for all.

As a global knowledge and financial institution, the World Bank works with governments and a broad array of stakeholders gathering best practices and providing solutions for the most difficult development issues countries and communities face.

It draws from the knowledge and experience of other nations, and is able and ready to assist, inspire and inform Cambodia’s efforts to achieve its development goals.

In Indonesia, for example, the World Bank supported a social assistance program designed to address three lagging Millennium Development Goals – maternal health, child health and universal education – using a successful, community-driven approach.

Communities themselves took charge and allocated block grants targeting 12 health and education indicators, enabling 1.6 million women and children to receive nutrition counselling and support; helping 365,000 children receive immunisations; eliminating 185,000 cases of underweight children; and providing assistance to about 380,000 poor school students.

Tajikistan also has a high percentage of underweight children resulting from malnutrition exacerbated by the 2008 food-price shock.

The World Bank supported a community and basic health project to provide food packages and micro-nutrient supplements to about 50,000 women, infants and children.

By mid-2011, the project had trained 1,000 primary health workers and 300 community volunteers to deliver education on breast-feeding, good nutrition and the care of sick children.

Delivering these results requires a tremendous, co-ordinated effort by governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and others.

During my visit to Phnom Penh this week, I discussed with the government and our development partners how the World Bank can support Cambodia’s development strategy, to ensure all Cambodians can participate in, and benefit from, their country’s future prosperity.

But with economic progress, it has become increasingly clear that these efforts are not enough to help the country achieve equitable, sustainable growth and, most important, reduce poverty.

Today, despite the nation’s economic achievements, roughly 20 per cent of Cambodians – that’s 2.8 million people – are still poor.

Nearly 40 per cent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition, and 28 per cent in the same age group are underweight.

Over the past decade, workforce skills of adults improved at a slower rate than in other East Asia countries, and the proportion of skilled workers among earners stagnated.

When the economy is booming, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to such statistics.

But for the sake of Cambodia’s future, these are the figures we must confront, and this is where the World Bank can help.

Ending poverty, and building shared prosperity, are central to the Bank’s mission.  

Investments in human development, particularly in the areas of health and education, need to be a priority in Cambodia to create opportunities for all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Interventions in these areas work hand in hand to build a country’s human-resources pool even before schooling begins.

Growing evidence shows the importance of adequate nutrition and health care during early childhood, to lay the foundation for intellectual progress and life-long learning.

The government has taken significant steps towards improving access as well as the quality of education, and 96 per cent of children aged six to 11 now go to primary school.

The average test performance of primary- and secondary-school students has improved, and higher-education enrolments increased fourfold between 2001 and 2011.