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Social development


A trained medical staff listens to the heartbeat of an infant at 16 Makara hospital in Preah Vihear, Cambodia. Photo by The World Bank, taken on 30 January 2013. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Social development addresses profound social problems,1 especially poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, and seeks to define poverty across a spectrum of social and structural barriers instead of simply by income levels.

Cambodia has achieved a number of its Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing the maternal mortality rate by three quarters, income levels have grown and poverty levels have fallen, and many health and education statistics have improved significantly.

Big challenges remain, however, such as the limited access many rural people have to health or education services and reliable electricity supply, large numbers of people affected by illnesses such as malaria or tuberculosis, and low levels of completion of secondary education.2

UNDP defines three essential elements of human development. “People should:

  • lead longer and healthier lives (life expectancy at birth)
  • attain knowledge (expected and mean years of schooling)
  • acquire the resources necessary to provide for a decent standard of living (purchasing power parity, income).”3

Cambodia improved its Human Development Index (HDI) figure over the period 1980-2013, from 0.251 to 0.584. In 2015, health, education and standards of living in Cambodia saw the highest increase rate in East Asia and the Pacific at 1.84 percent, outpacing the regional average of 1.35 percent. Cambodia ranked 143 out of 188 countries, putting it in the medium human development group. This group includes Laos (ranked 138) and Myanmar (ranked 145).4

Poverty and income

Cambodia has exceeded its Millennium Development Goal poverty target. Between 2004 and 2011, the proportion of people who live in absolute poverty—on less than US$1.15 per day—fell from 53.0 percent to 20.5 percent. Almost half of the rise has been attributed to higher rice prices and increased production, which raised growers’ and farm workers’ incomes. A large number remain close to the poverty line, however, and therefore vulnerable. The number of people who live on less than $2.30 per person per day grew from 4.6 million in 2004 to 8.1 million in 2011.5

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) figures published in early 2017 showed that Cambodia’s Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) decreased from 0.211 in 2011 to 0.150 in 2014. The headcount ratio of people in multi-dimensional poverty declined from 46.8 percent to 33.8 percent in this period.6

By several measures, income inequality in Cambodia is broadly similar to that in many western countries, and considerably lower than the Unites States. For example, its GINI score (where 0 is perfect equality and 100 is perfect inequality) was 31.8 in 2011, while Ireland had a score of 32.1 in 2010 and Germany 30.6. The score for USA in 2010 was 41.1. Income inequality has actually fallen in Cambodia, according to World Bank and United Nations figures.7

Over the last two decades, Cambodia has seen considerable economic development and social transformation. GDP per capita has grown from $299 in 2000 to $1,007 in 2013.8

Health statistics

Cambodia’s life expectancy at birth increased by 25 years between 1980 and 20129 to 71.9,10 and UNICEF estimated a maternal mortality rate of 170 per 100,000 in 2013. In 1990, Cambodia’s maternal mortality rate was 1,200 representing a drop of 86 percent. The ratio for Asia as a whole was 350 in 1990 and 140 in 2013, a fall of 61 percent.11

The infant mortality rate (children dying before 1 year of age) changed little in the 1990s,12 but declined between 2000 and 2013 from 9513 to 3314 deaths per 1,000 live births. While all these factors are improving, the IFPRI still gave Cambodia a score of 16.1 in the 2014 Global Hunger Index, placing it in the “Serious” category.15

Progress is largely dependent on donor funding. Over the years 2000–2009, for example, development assistance for health grew at an average level of 11.3 percent per year, while over 2010–2015 the growth fell to just 1.2 percent per year.16 The areas of funding growth also changed, from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to maternal, newborn and child health.17

Apart from illness, traffic accidents are a major cause of death. In 2015, traffic accidents killed 2,265 people and injured more than 15,000, 40 percent of whom were seriously injured. More than 80 percent of fatalities are men between the ages of 15 and 35.18

In 2016, 11.4 million people were outpatients at health care facilities, up from 10.4 million in 2015. Over 807,000 were admitted as inpatients (not counting TB cases), up from 731,000 in 2015.19

There are severe shortages of some types of services. Of the 111 referral hospitals in Cambodia only 21 offer ophthalmology (eye specialist) services. Of the 1,164 local health centres, only 331 provide basic eye care.20


Enrolment rates for primary education stand at 97 percent. However, this high rate masks high dropout rates and poor quality education. Enrolment at secondary school level is considerably lower at an average of 57 percent. The mean years of schooling in Cambodia increased by just 0.8 years between 1980 and 2013, to 5.8 years.21

Upper secondary school (grades 10–12) saw dropout rates of 23.8 percent in 2015, but this fell to 19.4 percent in 2016. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said that some students leave school when they see job opportunities available.22

In January 2016 the government launched its first nationwide policy for child development, to be overseen by the Cambodia National Council for Children. The policy aims to reduce the student dropout rates and increase vocational training opportunities, among other things.23 

Social protection

Social protection policies and programmes prevent, manage and overcome situations that adversely affect people’s wellbeing, such as illness, maternity, disability or old age, unemployment and economic crises or natural disasters. Social protection programmes consist of things like social insurance, social assistance, micro and area-based schemes to protect communities, and child protection.

Cambodia spends only around 1 percent of its GDP on social protection. By comparison, Vietnam spends 4.7 percent and Thailand just under 4 percent.24

Human rights

While the Cambodian government has established a Human Rights Committee staffed by members of the ruling party, it has been criticised for its bias and lack of action.25 The UN’s Paris Principles covering the criteria for national human rights institutions, states that to be effective they should have autonomy from government, guaranteed by legislation.26 The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, was appointed in March 2015.27

Domestic violence

There is considerable work underway to combat domestic violence in Cambodia. A report released in December 2016 by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said that more than 30 percent of Cambodian women have experienced some form of domestic violence.28

Last updated: 28 March 2017


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