The great thing about jet lag is that you have plenty of quiet “waking” hours to put your thoughts together. I am currently operating on an unknown time zone having completed my Winterim in Germany, traveled to Glendale for a week of orientation then travelled 24 hours to Phnom Penh. In my current lucid state I want to take this opportunity to put pen to paper and share my thoughts on the city so far.
My first thought when I stepped into Cambodia was, “This is a poor country.” Now this is an obvious statement and people that do not even know where Cambodia is on a map would most likely be aware of this bit of information. But it is not until you actually see and smell and touch it that you understand how little these people have. Throughout the city there is a visibility disparity between those who have money and those who do not. Twenty six percent of the population lives on just $1.25 a day and 58% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.Per capita income in the country is just $2000 and 31% of the population lives in poverty.
In Phnom Penh there appears to be an optimism that parallels the city’s visible growth. Construction projects sprinkle the landscape and people move through the city with purpose. The newspapers are saturated with advertisements for technical training programs, NGO jobs for and large scale bids for development projects. Unemployment is only 3.5% and growth for2011 is expected at 10%. There has been a flood of FDI led by NGOs from Germany and Australia. China is pouring money into the country, pledging $600 million towards a railroad between Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border. A revitalized riverfront draws expats and tourists who spend liberally, encouraged by the extreme affordability of food, drinks and services, all paid for in US dollars. In fact most prices are listed in dollars first and riel secondly.
While this all paints a pretty picture there are some cold truths to the current state of Cambodia. Corruption in all levels of government is a constant obstacle to growth and development. The SME sector is nonexistent due to the cost of setting up a business and the constant stream of “fees” that are levied on these enterprises by officials. Bureaucracy seems to create rules for the sole purpose of collecting additional revenue and as a result most business lies on the fringe, either being very large or very small. Consequently there is no discernable middle class.
Human trafficking and sex tourism mar the socio-economic environment of Cambodia. Phnom Penh is notorious for the number of sex travelers it attracts, evident in the young girls lining the streets towards the evening hours. According to a UNICEF survey, 35% of Cambodia’s 55,000 prostitutes are children under the age of 16. Crime syndicates, government officials, neighbors, relatives and friends of the victims are the primary culprits in the trafficking business. Girls are sold into prostitution by the people they trust most. The government has made efforts to combat child prostitution and smuggling, partnering with various international organizations and NGOs to police and persecute these crimes. In 2008 the Cambodian government introduced the Law of Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, in effect criminalizing all actions that are associated with human trafficking. It remains to be seen how effective this and other laws will have on the industry.
There is a lot of potential in Cambodia. But potential is not a predictor of success. Infrastructure in the country is poor and underfunded, regional competition from Vietnam and Thailand is fierce, healthcare throughout the country is poor and corruption is pervasive throughout the government. Cambodia’s needs are enormous and it will take time, investment and perseverance for the nation to emerge out of poverty.