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DEVELOPMENT-CAMBODIA: Urban-Rural Divide Set To Widen

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 17 2008 (IPS) - Phnom Penh’s skyline is set for a dramatic change, now that South Korean companies have confirmed plans to build two skyscrapers in the Cambodian capital. The 42-storey Gold Tower is scheduled to be completed by 2011, while a 53-storey structure will be ready the following year.

Such a transformation will invariably serve as visual symbols of the direction this nation has taken on the road to development. It will add to the impressive numbers Cambodia’s has recorded over the past two years, with the economy growing by 11 percent in 2006 and nine percent in 2007.

The likelihood of more tall towers wrapped in glass following these two appears possible. The South-east Asian country ‘’received more than 1,500 requests for construction projects worth 1.5 billion US dollars in the first nine months of 2007,’’ the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ newspaper reported recently, quoting Urban Planning and Construction Minister Im Chhum.

Yet such a picture only confirms why Cambodia is increasingly becoming a country with deep economic divisions, with the economic boom concentrated in only three urban centres – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville – at the expense of its rural areas, where 80 percent of the country’s 14 million people live.

A new study by a U.N. agency lays bare the extent of food insecurity, high malnutrition and the ‘’food poor’’ in one of this region’s poorest countries still struggling to put behind it the nightmare of a brutal war and oppression that lasted over two decades. ‘’The mix of food products available in Cambodia should normally be adequate for a balanced diet, but productive capacity or purchasing power of many households is limited,’’ states the World Food Programme’s (WFP) ‘Food Security Atlas’.

Currently, close to 35 percent of Cambodians, or some 4.6 million people, live below the poverty line of one U.S. dollar a day. Of that, 90 percent come from rural areas, states findings by the WFP. ‘’In 2005, over 630,000, or 37 percent of Cambodian children aged under five years were suffering chronic protein-energy malnutrition ( or stunting),’’ adds the WFP, quoting figures from the Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey Report.

Cambodian’s classified as ‘’food deprived’’ amount to 21 percent of the population, close to three million people, states the WFP, drawing on the 2007 Food Insecurity Assessment, conducted by, among others, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation. The ‘’food poor’’ are those who eat less than the minimum diet to supply basic energy requirements.

The appearance of Siem Reap among the 10 provinces described as ‘’hot spots’’ due to ‘’high malnutrition rates’’ by the WFP in its mid-February study illustrates the two faces of Cambodia’s development story. For years, the city of Siem Reap has seen rapid growth, with many plush hotels coming up, to cater to the planeloads of tourists flying into the city. Its main draw: the majestic Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples built during the 14th century and before.

Yet the tourist dollars that have been pouring in have not trickled beyond the city’s borders. ‘’Siem Reap is one of the poorest provinces in the country,’’ Thomas Keusters, head of WFP’s Cambodia office, told IPS by phone from Phnom Penh. ‘’Tourism is only focused in the city. But only 15 miles away from the city centre, people are very poor.’’

The Cambodians left out from the city’s growth are those with little education in the province who cannot find jobs in the hotels, adds Keusters. ‘’The people who have found employment are those who can read and write and can help the tourism sector.’’

Cambodia’s weak education system beyond the main urban centres was highlighted Thursday in a report on education trends in the region released by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It has one of the ‘’highest repetition rates’’ of school children in the first grade, at 24 percent, revealed the ‘2008 Education for All Global Monitoring Report’.

In addition, Cambodia and Laos ‘’have the lowest early childhood care and education coverage in South-east Asia, with only nine percent and eight percent of children aged three to five enrolled in pre-primary school, respectively,’’ added the UNESCO study.

Even the World Bank admits that despite Cambodia’s success on some fronts – such as reducing the number of people living in poverty from 47 percent of the population in 1994 to 35 percent a decade later – inequality is a problem. During the past 10 years, the consumption power of the country’s richest 20 percent grew by 45 percent, as against an only eight percent rise in the consumption power of the poorest 20 percent, the Bank noted in its 2007 study of equity in Cambodia.

This economic divide exposes what ‘’growth rates do not show, about who is benefiting and who are the losers,’’ says Shalmali Guttal, a senior researcher at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank. ‘’The ordinary people in the rural and urban areas have been losing for years. There is a systemic problem in the distribution of resources.’’

The prospect of immediate change for the economically marginalised appears remote, she explained in an interview, because of the poor being deprived or denied access to land in the rural areas or even to fish in the country’s largest lake. ‘’Fishing concessions have been sold to private companies and the local fishing communities have a little catch, depriving them of income and their main source of protein.’’

Amnesty International (AI) is the latest human rights group to raise the alarm about the harsh measures used by the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen to support a trend of forced evictions in the urban and rural areas to acquire land for commercial ventures and ‘’development’’ projects. It warned that 150,000 Cambodians are in danger of losing their homes and lands to projects that cater to the whims of the country’s wealthiest.

Vireak and Sopheap are just two people from a village of subsistence farmers near the coastal town of Sihanoukville who were affected last April, said the London-based rights lobby in a mid-February report. Most of the village ‘’was burned to the ground by law enforcement and military officers, forcibly evicting more than 100 families,’’ states AI.

‘’The Cambodian government has adopted policies, supported by international donors, aimed at developing and improving the lives of the poor. But such policies are in stark contrast to the realities experienced by Vireak, Sopheap and other victims of forced evictions, who sink deeper into poverty through the actions of the authorities,’’ added AI.

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