Notes from the Field

Elevating Education for Cambodia’s Growth

April 24, 2013

Yesterday marked the 18th World Book and Copyright Day, first introduced by UNESCO in 1995, in celebration of books, authors, and the joys of reading. It’s also an occasion to reflect on the importance of education, especially as a driver of poverty reduction. The link between education and economic empowerment is undeniable; accordingly, governments, civil society, and the international donor community have made notable efforts to increase school enrollment and improve literacy rates around the world.

Cambodian students reading books.

While literacy rates have improved vastly over the past decade in Cambodia, improvements in functional literacy are more uncertain. Photo/Karl Grobl

Despite advancements, an estimated 250 million children are still unable to read and write, and in some developing countries, 25-50 percent of students who have graduated from primary school cannot read a single sentence, according to the World Bank.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is no exception. While literacy rates have improved vastly over the past decade – according to the 2008 National Population Census, currently at about 78 percent among those aged 15 years or older – improvements in functional literacy (the ability to read, write, and calculate beyond basic skills) are more uncertain. In 1999, functional literacy was just 37 percent, in comparison to the basic literacy rate of 68 percent. Unsurprisingly, a third of Cambodians live below the national poverty line, which is 61 cents. Moreover, Cambodia’s improvement in literacy has not necessarily been equitable, with girls, the rural poor, and minorities still facing the most significant challenges.

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has been committed to expanding educational opportunities and is party to several international initiatives, including the Millennium Development Goals and UNESCO’s Education for All. Nationally, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MoEYS), as part of its Education Strategic Plan 2009-2013, has prioritized expanding early childhood education, non-formal education, technical and vocational training, and access to secondary and post-secondary education. To address disparities in literacy rates, MoEYS has designed and implemented inclusive policies such as bilingual education in provinces like Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri with a large minority population, scholarships for girls and students representing other vulnerable groups, and non-formal education opportunities for youth and adults that are not integrated into the public school system.

While these initiatives have had positive impact, Cambodia’s education system still faces numerous hurdles, including issues related to governance and quality of services at subnational levels. Cambodia also faces growing demand for a labor force fluent in English. In 2008, only 5 percent of the population had working knowledge of the English language. Inadequate resources, such as textbooks and facilities, contribute to the problem. With the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, which will establish a free trade zone among ASEAN member countries, English-language proficiency will be even more critical for Cambodia’s growth and development.

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program, in partnership with the RGC and a network of NGOs, has distributed over 900,000 books and other educational materials to Cambodian universities, primary and secondary schools, NGOs, government ministries, and public libraries. Read more about Books for Asia in Cambodia.

Cham Soeun is a program officer for the Books for Asia program and Lisa H. Kim is program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. They can be reached at scham@asiafound.org and lkim@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. srey chilat:

    Looks like a great program. They should support the Women’s Library in Siem Reap Cambodia. It’s run by a US NGO ( GetSet-Go.org) that helps women who were not allowed to attend or finish school when they were girls (a big problem in Cambodia & SE Asia).

    If a girl doesn’t complete elentary/high school as a child, then she is stuck for life because the Cambodian system does not allow for adults to go back to school or take an equivalency test like the US GED. Thick women them into poverty and exploitation.

    There are no public libraries or other places for poor adult women to go to learn.

    I visited the GetSet-Go Women’s library last year and they are doing really great work. They even arranged pool access with local hotels to offer swimming classes. And they provide washing machines so women can save time on hand washing and spend that time on studying. Awesome!

    But they get very little recognition or support and I worry they will close down soon. That would be tragic, as nobody else is really helping adult women get real education and better their lives.

    I do what I can to spread the word about them. I hope others learn about them and support the this rare, grassroots effort.

    Cambodian women don’t just need books. They need a safe, welcoming place to read them and be part of a supportive learning community.

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