Insights and Analysis

Economic Growth Brings Optimism and Rising Expectations in Cambodia

February 24, 2016

By Silas Everett

Bolstered by a massive construction boom over the last few years, Cambodia now boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies and was one of the few countries able to meet its Millennium Development Goals. In fact, Cambodia, which has halved its poverty rate in one decade, is now entering lower-middle income status. However, until now, the link between the country’s rapid growth and the future economic and political expectations of Cambodians and their livelihoods has been largely unexplored.

Cambodia economic growth

Bolstered by a massive construction boom over the last few years, Cambodia now boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies and is one of the few countries able to meet its Millennium Development Goals. Photo/Karl Grobl

The Asia Foundation just released a national survey interviewing over 3,000 households to better understand the most recent social, political, and economic trends in the perceptions and views of different social groups across Cambodia. The survey, conducted between July and September of 2015, finds a prevailing sense of optimism among respondents, both economically and politically. Among possible outcomes in the next elections, respondents most frequently said they believe reforms will occur irrespective of which political party is in power.

Importantly, the survey was conducted just months before major political events rattled the country in October 2015. Anti-Hun Sen protests in Paris during Prime Minister Hun Sen’s state visit were met with violent retaliation back in Cambodia. Two members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were removed from their car outside of Cambodia’s National Assembly and beaten. These events coincided with the stripping of the opposition’s chair as vice president of the National Assembly, and the issuing of an arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy who is now in self-imposed exile. Still, while the survey was conducted prior to these major events and was therefore not able to capture the impact of October’s political confrontation on public opinion, the survey findings do suggest Cambodians held largely optimistic views during the time prior to the events, a period of political collaboration.

More than half of the respondents in 2015 say that the country is headed in the right direction, compared to roughly one-third of respondents who said the same in a similar poll conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2014. Consistent with the results of similar survey questions asked over the past decade, the primary reasons cited for why the country is headed in the right direction relate to infrastructure and economic development. Among the 27 percent of the respondents who said the country was headed in the wrong direction, deforestation was the primary reason, cited by 61.5 percent of respondents, closely followed by infrastructure and economic development. Deforestation was most commonly cited among younger, more urban, and more educated segments of the population, living in households whose members have formal employment and consequently are able to provide greater well-being for their households.

Approximately half of all respondents say their livelihoods are improving, with rising incomes, rising overall living standards, and professional advancement. Although one-third of respondents say their standard of living hasn’t changed, among those surveyed there is a widespread feeling of social mobility shared among the respondents moving upward from the bottom- and lower-middle income strata.

Despite the positive changes in livelihoods, a majority of respondents are in households that still face various forms of material deprivation such as access to electricity, sanitation facilities, and money for education, with four-fifths reporting some degree of deprivation in housing or material needs. Inequalities were present between men and women, between urban and rural areas, between more and less educated people, and between regions and individuals that enjoy employment in the primary labor market (more secure and better rewarded jobs requiring higher skills) and those who work in the secondary labor markets (informal, occasional, less-skilled, and lower-paid jobs).

In navigating one’s economic future, the survey shows Cambodians tend toward strategies of self-reliance. In fact, the most frequently identified strategy for improving livelihoods was establishing a small business – a response given by nearly half of all respondents. Expectations for help are directed toward immediate social networks – family, neighbors, and colleagues, and thus are rarely linked to actions or assistance from NGOs, government agencies, policy-makers, or public institutions. When asked what might impede their livelihood improvements, respondents most often identify obstacles related to insufficient skills and poor education. Corruption, poor infrastructure, access to markets, and environmental risks (droughts, floods, etc.) are also mentioned.

Respondents identify a number of areas in which the national government has improved the situation in the country in the last two years. Most frequently cited are education and health care, protection of human rights and property rights, and the economy. Reasons for dissatisfaction include international relations, the fight against corruption and poverty, and management of natural resources.

When asked about changes in their own local community, respondents cite improvements in infrastructure, public services, and security. The most frequently cited negative developments in local communities are environmental degradation and corruption. Interestingly, the state is seen to be the main driver responsible for both positive and negative changes.

The survey finds a perception of increased freedoms from 2014. Eighty-nine percent of respondents say they feel that people in their community can freely associate, and 80 percent say they can freely express political views in their locality. The majority of respondents follow local, provincial, and national news, and also, but to a lesser extent, news from Asia and the world. News is most often gleaned from TV. Almost the same number of Cambodians appear to be getting their information from the internet, particularly Facebook, and fewer from the radio.

While approximately two-thirds of the respondents who are on Facebook said that they discuss politics, the majority of Cambodians appear to remain only moderately interested in politics. In fact, almost half of all respondents say they don’t discuss politics with anyone. Among those who say they discuss politics, it is with people close to them – among family members and neighbors.

Whether discussing politics, being involved in an association, or seeking government assistance for improvement of one’s life, civic engagement appears to be growing but still constrained. However, when it comes to participating in elections, respondents appear to place considerable emphasis on participation. Two-thirds of respondents say that the national elections are “very important” to them, followed by another 29.6 percent who say the national elections are “important” to them. Only 3.7 percent of respondents say the national elections are of “little importance” to them. Yet, still just over a half of all respondents say the next national elections will be more free and fair than the national election in 2013. Perhaps reflecting this uncertainty, almost three out of four surveyed say they had not heard of any changes made to the National Election Committee. It is interesting to note that reforming the National Election Committee was one of the most important things people said was needed in 2014 to improve the quality of the elections.

When asked about the possible political outcomes of the next national elections, reform played a pivotal role in each of the two most frequently predicted scenarios by respondents: either a government run by the CPP, if the CPP carries out reforms, or an election victory by the opposition, following which reforms would be likely.

In navigating the economic landscape ahead, once predominantly agriculture-dependent, an increasing number of Cambodian households are now poised to start a small business and seek regular employment. Cambodia’s private-sector led development model appears to be shaping a political environment where state institutions are under pressure to keep up with the country’s rapid economic growth. It is no wonder why Cambodians have a lot to be optimistic about, especially during periods of political collaboration.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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