Cambodia, bounded by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam is about a quarter the area of New South Wales. With 15.2m people, it’s the world’s 70th most populous country. The land is mostly low flat plains, drained by the mighty Mekong River and Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Its main tourist attraction is the massive temple city of Angkor Wat. Built in the 10th century, Angkor covers 400 sq kms, and is the largest religious site in the world. Cambodians are proud of this world-famous monument, and since 1850 theirs is the world’s only national flag that shows a building.
At a Glance
Click on each icon below to find out more.
Cambodians have a long history as a distinct Khmer ethnic group, and 95% practise Buddhism. After winning independence from France in 1953, the country was peaceful until 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces took control. The violence of that period saw a quarter (up to 2 million) of its citizens killed, leaving a permanent demographic imbalance. Today, half the population is under 15, and only 3.6% are over 65 (compared to 12.6% in the US).
The Cambodian economy is small, but its average 8% pa expansion up to 2012 makes it one of the world’s fastest growing. But per capita income is still low at $2,890 (Purchasing Power Parity or PPP), equivalent to about $8 a day. This is comparable to PNG and many African countries, and well below neighbours like Laos ($4,570) and Thailand ($13,500). The economy depends on agriculture, and 75% of the work force are farmers. In recent years the garment industry has boomed, creating half a million low paid jobs and now 80% of exports. Tourism has also contributed, but after decades of civil war and stagnation, long-term economic development remains a challenge.
As its economy has grown, Cambodia has successfully cut the ratio of poor from 53% in 2004 to 20%. Despite its productive rice paddies and fisheries, 37% of children under the age of 5 suffer chronic malnutrition, and the Global Hunger Index ranks Cambodia at 32 out of 56 nations. The UN Human Development Index (HDI) measures national income plus welfare flags such as longevity and health, and access to education. In 2013, the HDI ranked Cambodia 138 out of 187 countries (the same as Laos), placing it last out of ten ASEAN countries.
Traditionally education was offered by the wats (Buddhist temples), so only boys received it. Today, the ratio of girls to boys in secondary school was 75% and only 50% in university. Literacy levels reflect a similar bias, with 85% of men and 71% of women being literate. During the Khmer Rouge regime, some 90% of all teachers were killed, and so now many older people particularly in the countryside have had virtually no education. While education is nominally free, most schools now charge fees. A 2007 study estimated the annual cost of educating a child at $105. Having four or five children, which is common, makes schooling an expensive decision.
Cambodia’s microcredit industry took off in the 1990s and now over 70 banks and MFIs are in competition. This caused a rash of over-indebtedness among the poor, and in 2012 the central bank passed laws to increase client protection. Interest charges are effectively capped at about 3% a month or 36% pa. Today the Cambodian microfinance industry is considered to be well managed and regulated. Across the country, a total of 42 MFIs employ over 17,000 staff to serve 1.6m clients. But oversupply of credit and debt remains a risk.
Financial inclusion means vulnerable and low-income people have access to responsible financial services at an affordable cost. Only 3.7% of Cambodians have bank accounts with a financial institution, while less than 1% of those with an account use them to save money. This is a very low number (similar to Yemen or Guinea) and well below the 25% of other SE Asian countries. For historic reasons, many MFIs (including Good Return’s partner TPC) do not offer deposit or savings products. Without such inclusion, over 10% of adults borrow from informal sources such as family members or moneylenders.
Here are our people in Cambodia. Read stories from local perspective – our born and bred Cambodian Village Trainer and Community Banker. And from the Australian expat – our Field Support Officer, who is living in Cambodia for the first time.
Curious to know more? Please send in a question – ask us anything.