SDGs series #3: Social Protection to End Extreme Poverty in Cambodia

This article was written by Ippei Tsuruga, Member of Social Protection Network at JICA and Editor at The Povertist, and Yumiko Locussol, Program Officer at JICA.

Enhancing social protection is an immediate priority for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Cambodia. One of the major goals of the SDGs is to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. Cambodia’s historical success in pro-poor growth over the last decade sheds light into several challenges that growth, as defined from an economic perspective, has failed to sufficiently address, including chronic poverty, child poverty, inequality and malnutrition. These unfinished issues require a multi-sectoral approach, which can be comprehensively coordinated under Cambodia’s National Social Protection Strategy (NSPS), established in 2011 as a major anti-poverty and anti-vulnerability strategy for the country. We believe that an effective implementation of the NSPS ensures that no one is left behind, notably by protecting the poorest, promoting livelihoods and preventing the near poor from falling into poverty.

Immediate Priorities Identified for Cambodia's "Last Mile"

A joint research project by the Brookings Institution and the JICA Research Institute, The Last Mile, argues that the pathway to poverty eradication is different from the road travelled during the poverty reduction phase. The elimination goal requires far more comprehensive approaches to address the complex constraining factors that cannot be tackled through a single-lens, growth-centered approach. The case of Cambodia is no exception.

The road Cambodia has travelled to date has yielded excellent economic progress, with many households seeing their standard of living increase. According to the latest poverty assessment, between 2004 and 2011, Cambodia’s GDP increased by 55% and consumption rose by 38% on a per capita basis. As a result, Cambodia has dramatically reduced poverty headcounts from 53% to 21%. As illustrated by a GINI Index that has gone from 0.33 to 0.28, there have been important advancements in terms of inequality as well.

However, rapid growth and halving poverty has ironically helped shed light on characteristics of Cambodia’s unsolved challenges, most notably as they pertain to the most marginalised segments of society.

Child Poverty and Chronic Poverty: Chronic poverty and child poverty are two sides of the same coin. Getting to zero poverty by 2030 requires immediate action that provides the adequate environment for all children living in long-term poverty to have access to quality healthcare and education. This will ensure that they have the foundation needed to reach out of poverty and generate a liveable income upon entering adulthood. Given that poverty among children and youth is higher than any other age groups, it is important to invest in this segment of the population to break the cycle of poverty. Moreover, one study shows that even with the dramatic growth in consumption, chronic poverty stagnated at 11% in multidimensional terms. This highlights that measuring poverty eradication using solely economic indicators can create a blind spot that eclipses the most vulnerable groups.

Nutrition: Malnutrition rates did not improve even with high economic growth. The share of stunted children 0-60 months old decreased only from 42% to 40%, the percentage of under-weight children stalled at 38%, and the proportion of children suffering from wasting increased from 8% to 11%. This is particularly worrisome given that child malnutrition has long-term effects on behavioural and cognitive development.

Transient Poverty: Vulnerability to falling into poverty is becoming an urgent issue in Cambodia. Most of the households that no longer classify as poor are right on the cusp of the poverty line. A small shock of 1,200 riel (US$ 0.3) could potentially cause the poverty ratio to double. Access to safety nets, as well as to services and training opportunities that promote livelihoods are critical for keeping the near poor from slipping back under the poverty line.

Regional Disparity: The pace of poverty reduction is unequal across the country, and is slower in rural than urban areas. In particular, rural regions in the north and northeastern mountain regions have the highest poverty headcount ratio, at 46%. It is crucial to ensure equal access to markets and social service for inclusive growth, including in difficult to reach rural settings.

Implementing the National Social protection Strategy is a Key towards 2030

Social protection can play an important role on tackling these issues. Developed with strong political will, the NSPS was established to oversee a number of social protection interventions managed by different institutions, including the government, international agencies and NGOs. Council for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) coordinates social assistance, social insurance and public work effectively to fight poverty and vulnerability. Given that only 2% of the poorest quintile currently benefits from social protection, there is a huge need to expand coverage. With the NSPS, the country is institutionally ready to increase coverage. Health Equity Fund (HEF), cash transfers for maternity and child malnutrition and scholarship programmes are expected to be nationally scale up for human development under the strategy.

The NSPS has already made substantial advancements in the social protection system and holds further potential. Firstly, it has established an institutional platform within the government. This addressed the bottlenecks caused by the lack of government institutions’ implementation capacity. With a system in place to effectively manage the different players, the government is in a position to synergise inter-ministerial interventions within the social protection system as well as in other sectors. According to an empirical analysis of Levy and Robinson, an effective combination of cash transfers and other public interventions boost a local economy more than cash transfers alone. Secondly, the NSPS instituted a single registration system, Identification of Poor Households Programme (ID Poor), which covers 88% of populations and systematically updates the list of poor households every 3 years.

With financial and technical support from development partners, Cambodia is well positioned to more effectively implement and scale up the national social protection system to end poverty by 2030.


Know, H., Cook, S. and Kim, Y. (2015) Shaping the National Social Protection Strategy in Cambodia: Global Influence and National Ownership. Global Social Policy 15 (2).

Laurence, S. et al. (2015) The Last Mile in Ending Extreme Poverty. Brookings Institution Press

Tsuruga, I. (2015) Chronic Poverty in Rural Cambodia: Quality of Growth for Whom? JICA Research Institute Working Paper.

Levy, S. and Robinson, S. (2014) Can Cash Transfers Promote the Local Economy? A Case Study for Cambodia. IFPRI Discussion Paper.

Royal Government of Cambodia (2014) National Social Protection Strategy for the Poor and the Vulnerable.

Carlos, S. et al. (2013) Where have All the Poor Gone? Cambodia Poverty Assessment. World Bank.