Despite recent setbacks such as the European Union’s decision to partly suspend Cambodia from a preferential trade scheme, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political carousing last month to mark his 35 years in power – a feat that makes him one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders – has provided yet another occasion for others to wax lyrical over the big man’s achievements which has continued on over the past few weeks.
The ruling party’s spokesman Sok Eysan noted that because of the prime minister “we have stability and development” – a common refrain that is heard. Meanwhile, the fawning Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that Hun Sen “has turned Cambodia, formerly known as the killing fields, into becoming a peace island and very attractive tourist destination” in yet another familiar comparison.
That Cambodia in 2020 isn’t the Cambodia of 1990 is incontestable. The figures speak for themselves. The average life expectancy from birth in Cambodia in 1990 was only 53.6 years. But between 1997 and 2019 the average life expectancy rose by 13 years, from 56.2 years to 69.9 years, according to United Nations Development Program’s data (most of the subsequent data are sourced from the UNDP, which generally includes figures up until 2018).
Other indicators from the UN point to a similar pattern. Between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio went from 1,020 deaths, per 100,000 live births down to 161. Between 1990 and 2016, the mortality rate of infants (per 1,000 live births) decreased by 68.9 percent. Between 2000 and 2017, the percentage of the total workforce living off less than $3.20 a day dropped from 96.9 percent to 46.4 percent. Between 2000 and 2016, the percentage of the rural population with access to electricity grew threefold, to 36.5 percent. Between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of the population using improved sanitation facilities rose from 12.3 percent to 48.8 percent.
The radical change in Cambodia over a three-decade period is profound. And if you listen carefully to the ruling party, it is always the 1990s that it compares itself to. “How much better your life is now than 30 years ago,” ordinary people are constantly instructed by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which now rules a de facto one-party state. Yet how many people think over such a long time span? Aren’t people, instead, more likely to compare their present living conditions to how they were, say, three years ago, or five years, or even 10 years? And given that the median age is around 24, most of the population can’t even remember the early 1990s.
Narrow the timeframe, however, and what one actually sees is that societal progress in Cambodia is fast slowing down. Take life expectancy, for instance. Between 1990 and 2000 it rose from 53.6 years to 58.4 years, an 8.9 percent increase. From 2000 to 2010 it then grew to 66.6 years, a 14 percent growth. But from 2010 and 2018 it rose to 69.9 years, just a 4.9 percent increase. This narrowing growth of social development is seen across the board. Infant mortality rates, for instance, dropped by 6 percent in the 1990s and by a whopping 52.5 percent in the 2000s, but only by 33.5 percent in the past decade. Expected years of schooling rose by 13 percent in the 1990s, by 40.7 percent in the 2000s, but only by 5.6 percent the last decade.
Across the board, we see the 2000s as the most progressive decade for Cambodia, but rapid change slowed in the 2010s. Of course, it becomes harder to maintain rapid progress as societal conditions develop. Raising life expectancy from 50 years to 70 years is much easier than going from 70 years to 90 years, for instance. But you would expect that as a society develops the government must dedicate even more resources to, at least, try to maintain the pace of progress. Not so with the Cambodian government, which dedicated a higher proportion of its state budget to healthcare expenditure in 2000 (6.5 percent) than it did in 2016 (6.1 percent). As a percentage of the overall budget, healthcare spending rose between 2000 and 2013 but has fallen since.
Second, while progress can be expected to plateau at some point, what’s worrying for Cambodia is that progress is stalling so early. The life expectancy at birth in Cambodia in 2018 (69.9 years) had already been achieved in Vietnam and Thailand before 1990. The Vietnamese now, on average, live 5.4 years longer than Cambodians; Thais live seven years longer. And if Cambodia’s rate of progress in life expectancy over the past decade continues, then it could take at least two decades to catch up to where Vietnam and Thailand are today. Consider, too, that over the last two decades Vietnam has managed to reduce the percentage of its citizens working on less than $3.20 a day from 74.8 percent down to 7 percent. Cambodian, meanwhile, achieved only a drop from 91.4 percent to around 59 percent.
Perhaps most worrying in this is that Cambodia’s economic growth is now slowing, which may possibly delay social progress even more. In the bumper years of the 2000s it often achieved annual GDP growth rates in excess of 10 percent (in 2005, it was 13.3 percent, the best year on record). But last year the economy grew by 7 percent, and this year is expected increase by just 6.8 percent, according to the Asian Development Bank – and that’s the most optimistic reading, which doesn’t take into consideration economic shortfall because of the coronavirus outbreak in China, which has severely hurt the important tourism sector, or implications for Cambodia after the European Union’s recent economic restrictions. Most projections have GDP growth rates of less than 7 percent in the coming years.