What Does Cambodia’s New Census Reveal?

The rhetoric and reality behind this much-anticipated step have raised concerns about its results and significance.

David Hutt
What Does Cambodia’s New Census Reveal?
Credit: Pixabay

For the last two years, the Cambodian government has been touting the fact that, for the first time, it will be putting up most of the money to pay for its own population census, as opposed to previous ones in the past that were paid for by foreign donors. But the way in which the process has been conducted has already raised concerns about the results and their significance.

Process-wise, despite the government’s touting of the move, only selected results from the census were revealed in a secluded Releasing Ceremony on Provisional Population Totals in Phnom Penh, attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. And much of that information was the same information that Sar Kheng revealed last month: the population is 15.28 million, up from 13.39 million at the last census in 2008, and growth rate is declining, from 1.5 percent between 1998 and 2008 to 1.2 percent between 2008 and 2019.

Aside from that, little about the census results has been made public. And it is anyone’s guess when the full report will eventually find itself in the public sphere, and how thorough it will be.

The signs we have so far, however, suggest it will be racked with imperfections. To take just one example, Voice of America published an article on August 2 that, among numerous criticisms, found that census takers often didn’t go through the entire six page questionnaire with interviewees, people weren’t asked about how easy it was to access healthcare facilities, and the purpose of the endeavor wasn’t fully explained to the public. “They looked like they were in a hurry, taking notes and rushing the work,” VOA quoted one villager.

These are quite predictable issues given how the process appears to have been conducted. The government paid the 50,000 or so enumerators a little more than $6 a day for their work, about what a garment worker could earn. Each was expected to interview about 120 to 150 families, and since the census ran just 11 days this meant they had to do at least 11 interviews per day (or 50 minutes per interview for a nine-hour working day), which was always going to be an uphill task. One enumerator told VOA: “The [villagers] couldn’t even recall the year they were married, so we have to sit with them to calculate… We were short [of enumerators]. It would have been better if we had two people in one area. If we had problems, we could have discussed them.”

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In a sign that the government itself is aware of the concerns around the census, Hang Lina, director general of the National Institute of Statistics, rushed to blame foreigners. She accused the international community of not doing enough, claiming that “we lobbied” the likes of the United Nations Population Fund and Japan International Cooperation Agency, “but they kept silent,” she told VOA. There has been no official public corroboration of these allegations thus far.

But the problems are much bigger. For instance, given that statistical surveys as important as a census succeed or fail on the caliber of those conducting the questionnaire, it is certainly problematic that only about a third of the census budget went to paying enumerators (and begs the question of where the rest of the budget went, since Beijing reportedly donated $2.5 million worth of vehicles and computer equipment for the task). If the government had doubled the budget to over $20 million, still a small portion of the national budget, it could have hired another 50,000 enumerators, meaning each would have been able to spend more time interviewing each family, or paid the existing 50,000 enumerators double, about $12 a day. Also, why only give them an 11-day period to complete the census? When Vietnam conducted its census this year, it had a 25-day window.

Some of the government rhetoric accompanying the census has also further muddied the waters about how this may affect policy. As a case in point, Sar Kheng indicated that Cambodia needed a much bigger population than is the case today. “The more children you have, the better it is – but too many is not good. Five or six is good, with five on average,” he said last month.

It is not clear why exactly Sar Kheng thinks Cambodia needs a major increase in its population. Indeed, there are indicators that would suggest the opposite is true. For starters, the economy isn’t looking too healthy. Government estimates released this month predict growth to dip to 6.5 percent next year, down from 7.1 percent this year. Besides the larger issues the economy faces – like international sanctions – Cambodia struggles with low productivity, a largely unskilled workforce, and an economy transitioning to mid-level production. In other words, what the economy needs are better-skilled workers, not more workers.

Most Cambodians, moreover, would probably prefer to see a rise in their own standards of living, which are growing but more slowly than in previous years. Take the average life expectancy, for instance. Between 1990 and 2000, it rose by 4.8 years from 53.6 years old. Then between 2000 and 2010 it increased by 8.2. But between 2010 and 2017 it grew just 2.7 years. This is somewhat natural, and is replicated across other metrics, which also find rapid progress in the 2000s but which markedly slowed in the 2010s. As conditions improve, it becomes increasingly harder to maintain improvement. But that is why countries, like Cambodia, that are on the rise and approaching a stage at which they need to take the next stage of development need to invest more in their own people.

Yet this isn’t happening. Rather, the government is either cutting spending on social services or failing to increase expenditure. As I noted last month:

The amount the Cambodian government spends on healthcare as a percentage of GDP is decreasing; from 6.4 percent in 2000 it rose to 7.5 percent in 2011 before dropping to just 6 percent in 2015. Government data show that government allocations to the health ministry as a percentage of the overall state budget also declined this decade, from 7.2 percent in 2013 to 6.6 percent in 2019. In fact, spending on healthcare fell in real terms by $30 million in this year’s budget compared to last year’s, down to $455 million.

Spending on education, moreover, hasn’t drastically changed despite the country growing richer – and the economy needing more educated workers. UNDP figures state that the government spent 1.5 percent of GDP on education in 2010, rising to 2 percent in 2013, but it fell to an annual average of 1.9 percent between 2012 and 2017. Cambodia doesn’t need a larger population. It needs to become richer before it becomes more populous.

To be sure, it remains difficult to say exactly what Cambodia’s census reveals when so little has been disclosed thus far. But the rhetoric and reality we have seen thus far suggests that questions remain about its results as well as the wider significance within the country’s policies.