Why Cambodia’s Poverty Statistics Dispute Matters

A recent dispute has shed light on deeper issues in how poverty is assessed in the Southeast Asian state.

Why Cambodia’s Poverty Statistics Dispute Matters
Credit: Pixabay

How many Cambodians are living in poverty? According to the government’s figures, using income as the only indicator, poverty stands at 13.5 percent, a considerable feat given that it was in the realm of 40 percent only two decades ago. It is also something the government regularly boasts about – indeed, the narrative goes that because the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen, which just secured a new term in elections this year, has radically improved living standards, blind eyes should be turned as it becomes more repressive and dictatorial.

However, at the end of September, another figure was put forward in an annual report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. This figure, which took into consideration health, education, and living standards – as well as income – put Cambodia’s poverty rate at 35 percent. About 7 percent of the capital city’s population are in “multidimensional poverty,” the report found, based on data from a few years ago. In some of the country’s poorest provinces, such as Preah Vihear, poverty rises to nearer the 40 percent mark.

With this new figure more than double the government’s official estimate, small wonder it resulted in an angry rebuke from Planning Minister Chhay Than, who wrote to UNDP country director Nick Beresford with his complaints. First, Chhay Than complained that his ministry hadn’t been informed about the report “before it went public.” Second, the multidimensional poverty framework has “not been adopted by the government as the official poverty measurement approach,” he said. One assumes that Chhay Than reckons this fact somehow invalidates the findings. Third, the minister claimed “the release of this information may have a detrimental effect on the [government’s] success in reducing poverty in Cambodia.” The nature of the third complaint in particular illustrated that the government appears to be clutching at straws.

The government’s contempt for its own people, moreover, was on show when Chhay Than said the new figures would “confuse the public who are virtually statistically-illiterate.” Let us linger on this comment from the minister. What exactly does he mean? That ordinary Cambodians need to be shielded from unwelcome news; that the Cambodian government should hide unpleasant news from the people even if true; or simply that the minister thinks most Cambodians are ignorant? One feels the need to defend the average Cambodian against the minister’s derision; I’m sure the average person understands the difference between 13.5 percent and 35 percent, and more experientially than the government does.

But what really is at the heart of this matter, and most likely the reason for the government’s annoyance, is it casts doubt on its much-vaunted poverty reduction efforts. If poverty is at 35 percent, as “multidimensional poverty” definitions contend, then poverty rates haven’t really dropped all that much in the last two decades.

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In the end, it appears that the UNDP backed down. The UN’s resident coordinator in Cambodia, Pauline Tamesis, apparently wrote a joint statement with Planning Minister Chhay Than. “In the future, the poverty rate in Cambodia… will continue to be the official poverty figure of the Royal Government of Cambodia,” it stated. And while the statement had no mention of an apology, the Cambodian government put out a press release claiming the UN chief “has reached out to apologize [to the government] after a strong reaction from the Ministry of Planning.” That was the same “strong reaction” in which the minister called Cambodians “virtually statistically-illiterate.”

But even if the UNDP has decided to drop the matter and revert back to the poverty rate as judged only by income, it doesn’t change the fact that Global Multidimensional Poverty Index is far more revelatory. The government measures the poverty rate (13.5 percent) based on those who earn less than $1.90 a day. So, strictly speaking, one person can be said to be in poverty if they earn $1.89 per day but another not in poverty if they earn $1.91 per day. This is a base example, but it throws some light on the problem of only having one indicator of poverty. It has also been widely noted, but is important nonetheless, that as many as another 20 percent of the Cambodian population earn only slightly more than $1.90, perhaps less than $3 per day, and are in danger falling back into poverty at any time.

Poverty is relative – someone earning $1.90 per day but in a family of five might be socially better off than a single person living on $5 per day. That’s why the experiential nature of poverty, such as access to healthcare and education, which are taken into account by the Multidimensional Poverty Index, matters so much more. It is a far better indicator of generational poverty, for example, as access to education for children is often a greater determinant of escaping generational poverty than a low-earning parent’s income, many analysts would contend. Not being able to access some form of health insurance is also a major indicator of poverty, since an illness can throw the marginally poor into extreme poverty. I’ve heard so often in Cambodia of how a serious illness has thrown an entire family into extreme destitution, even families where the breadwinner was earning way more than $1.90 per day.