Cambodia – Is it really on track with development?

Molly Chattaway

Another case of bribery. Photo Source.

I was fortunate enough to spend the summer of 2013 based in Phnom Penh, the Capital of Cambodia where I carried out some research for my undergraduate dissertation. This article will draw on themes that arose from my research, namely, the factors that are contributing to Cambodia’s development challenges.

Cambodia is predominantly known for the devastation caused by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s in one of the worst genocides of modern history which saw nearly a quarter of its population wiped out. The killing fields attract thousands of tourists each year and memories of the Pol Pot era are firmly embedded in the Khmer population. However, since peace settlements occurred in the 90s, under the guidance of the United Nations, the regime has been relatively stable.

The two actors most prevalent in the country’s development agenda are the Cambodian government and the aid community. The aid community has been present in Cambodia from the first General Election in 1993, this has continued to increase and in 2011 there were ‘3000 NGOS registered to the Ministry of Interior’[1]. This makes Cambodia one of the most aid dependent countries in the world. Undoubtedly progress has been made and the country has seen growth at more than 8 percent per year between 2004 and 2012 and the country has achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty in 2009. However, if one looks closer into statistical data, one can see that a large majority of those lifted out of poverty have only achieved this marginally and moreover, there are still around 2.8 million in poverty, and about 90 percent of them live in the countryside. Thus, development is not just about statistical data, the country may have been experiencing growth rates but this has coincided with increasing inequality. Thus, despite the presence of the aid community for over two decades, one must ask, why is Cambodia still one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia?

The aid community remains controversial in developing countries with some suggesting that it has been necessary, while others argue that it reinforces a cycle of dependency and creates a neo-imperialist culture. Indeed, it has been suggested that ‘the government is successfully exploiting international aid as a source of political legitimacy’. Reliance upon aid weakens accountability and alleviates responsibility for the public sector; encouraging corruption to occur as the government does not rely on the tax system and thus, a social contract is not formed. A paradox occurs where aid becomes a volatile tool that contributes to government corruption and consequently hinders the very task it wishes to perform. A partnership is formed where the international community turns a blind eye to government corruption and poor governance in favor of maintaining its position at the forefront of Cambodia’s development.

It becomes clear that the relationship between the aid community and government is a leading factor of corruption which is contributing to the country’s development challenges. When the aid community has challenged the status quo, the Cambodian government has responded viciously, condemning attempts to breach its sovereignty and has alternatively appealed to China to source its aid. A complex situation is presented with aid becoming more of a hindrance than help. Until government corruption is combated, it is unlikely that the country will see the development it deserves.


[1] Simon Roughneen. “Cambodia’s NGO Blues”, The Diplomat, (April 2011).

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