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Cambodia makes progress on poverty, but it's marginal

Ruinous forced evictions still threaten vulnerable families

Cambodia makes progress on poverty, but it's marginal

Yin Mao, 72, sits in the home he shares with his wife and three adult children (picture by Abby Seiff)

Abby Seiff, Cheng Sokhorng, Phnom Penh

February 28, 2014

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Chalked across the plywood walls of 72-year-old Yin Mao’s Phnom Penh house are neat rows of English words: Eligible, liberation, illustrate, courage. They were written by Mao’s 19-year-old son; a promising young man who has made it to the 12th grade. In order to keep him in school his two brothers, aged 17 and 22, dropped out in the sixth grade to find jobs.

Between 2004 and 2011, Cambodia made startling reductions in poverty, according to a World Bank report released last week. The rate dropped from 52.2 to 20.5 percent “surpassing all expectations.”

But those like Mao who now find themselves above the poverty line have passed it only by the slimmest of margins.

“Most moved from being poor to being vulnerable,” notes the report. “The tremendous poverty reduction was possible because many of the poor — who were just below the poverty line in 2004 — were able to move just above the poverty line in 2011.”

The gains Cambodia has made in combatting poverty are omnipresent. There are abundant paved roads and health clinics, there are millions of motorbikes and cars, and even in Mao’s one-room wooden home that he shares with his family of five, there is a television and a DVD player. But as Mao’s pragmatic calculations regarding his sons’ schooling suggest, progress on poverty has its limits. 

“Sometimes we have enough, sometimes we don’t,” said Mao. He is a retired low-level police officer, but his wife works as a cleaner at a garment factory and his two sons are employed as factory workers. Between the three, they net around $300 a month — a fourth of which, or $2.50 a day, is spent on the meals Mao prepares for all five family members.

Asked if he has savings, Mao laughs.

“No, that is not possible.”

Just a kilometer away from where Mao stands, passengers have begun queuing up for a flight to Singapore. Almost certainly, at least some of those seats will be filled by wealthy Cambodians heading out of town for a weekend of shopping and clubbing.

Economists often measure income inequality with the Gini coefficient, a calculation of wealth distribution. In Cambodia, that figure has actually dipped in recent years, falling from 0.374 in 2007 to 0.282 in 2011. But while the Gini has decreased, the gap between the rich and poor is in fact widening, according to the World Bank report.

“Because all of the inequality measures are relative, it is possible to reduce inequality — and at the same time, to increase the gap between the poor and the rich,” it notes. “The actual gap between the rich and the poor has increased in absolute terms.”

That reality has not gone unnoticed in Mao’s community, perched precariously at the edge of the airport.

“When I see people fly past, every day I feel so disappointed that I am poor,” says Chhoun Chanthy, a 40-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two, who lives in the same community. “The rich people have such easy lives. They live so comfortably.”

With a multi-million dollar airport expansion looming, the community faces eviction and resettlement. An ombudsman from the World Bank’s financing arm, the IFC (International Finance Corporation), has agreed to serve as a mediator between the embattled community and airport. But should negotiations fail, many of its members are almost certain to see further impoverishment.

In studies of similarly relocated communities, such a move often spells destitution. A 2011 survey by the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) of forcibly resettled families found that unemployment rates nearly doubled, dropouts increased by about half, and indebtedness became endemic within communities. Two years later, urban NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut ran a study focused on families relocated to make way for a railway expansion project. The results were similar. Incomes halved, unemployment soared, and nearly everyone in the resettlement site had found themselves in debt after receiving insufficient compensation.    

Those living around the airport have found themselves in a heightened state of anxiety since 2011, when the project was first announced.

“I’m worried about the plans, I’m worried about what’s going to happen and that I won’t get enough money to be able to buy land,” says Chanthy, who shares her home with seven others including her children, their spouses and grandchildren. Four of them work at garment factories, while her youngest — a 15-year-old — stays at home waiting until she is old enough to get a factory job. School is too expensive and, like her older siblings, she was forced to drop out at a young age. She helps her mother with food that, for the family of eight, costs $7.50 a day.

Money is a constant concern.

“All the money goes on necessities, there is nothing left for savings. When any one gets sick, it’s not enough,” says Chanthy, shifting a dozing grandchild to her lap.

Sickness and injury are individual “shocks” that can plunge very poor families into poverty. Rising food and fuel prices, and natural disasters, can do the same on a larger scale. But when one is this close to the poverty line, such demarcations can appear meaningless.

“If we see the progress of 10 years, we see that people have improved. But for some poor groups, especially people living as urban poor and under threat of eviction, they have become poorer and poorer and worse and worse than 10 years ago,” explains Sia Phearum, Secretariat Director of HRTF. 

The greatest threat, Phearum agrees, comes from forced eviction. When communities refuse to voluntarily leave their land — a situation that has come up time and again in Phnom Penh, most often over paltry compensation terms — they are violently carted off. In the past, this has included the wholesale destruction of property.

“People who moved from the rural areas after [the fall of the Khmer Rouge in] 1979 to the cities, they’re doing better. But when they’re evicted like that, they’ve just returned to year zero,” says Phearum.

For Mao and Chanthy, that is the ultimate concern. As hard as their lives have been, both say they fear things could grow far more dire.

“All the people around here are always poor and they don’t have enough,” says Mao. “That’s why we come to live here, if we had any money, we wouldn’t. But I’m worried about moving elsewhere. I might not have enough money even to have land to live on.”

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