Youth Essential to Future Sustainable Development in Cambodia

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September 3, 2014

Despite a remarkable economic growth average of 7.9 percent in Cambodia over the last decade, and a drop in the poverty rate from 53 percent in 2004) to 20.5 percent in 2011, experts at the first Enrich Forum on Sustainable Development 2014 held on August 23 in Phnom Penh raised important questions about what makes such growth sustainable. What does the much used but often misunderstood term “sustainable development,” really mean? And does the current development and growth bring long-term benefit, particularly for the bottom millions still living in poverty and for 60 percent of Cambodia’s population who are under the age of 30?

The one-day forum, co-supported by The Asia Foundation, attracted over 400 youth to engage with Cambodian academics, government representatives, civil society, private setor leaders, and international experts on key policy issues concerning Cambodia’s future generation. Topics included economic inequality and social exclusion, the consequences of land-grabbing, degradation of natural resources, and hydropower on the Mekong.

Youth participate in the first Forum on Sustainable Development on August 23 in Phnom Penh.

Youth participate in the first Forum on Sustainable Development on August 23 in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia’s youth have been a driving force for social change of late, as demonstrated in last year’s national election when thousands – the majority of whom were young – marched in the street demanding election reform, followed nearly six months later by protests in the capital over demands for a minimum wage. Young voices have been magnified significantly by the role of social media, which has generated enormous social engagement from Cambodians, with thousands of youth coming forward online to demand positive change and better governance in the country. No doubt these same young people will play a critical role in finding solutions to Cambodia’s development challenges.

During his keynote address, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, chair of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, urged Cambodia’s leadership to find ways to promote development in sustainable ways so that elites are pushed to do more than fund religious ceremonies or give out gifts out of sympathy to the poor. Prominent political and social analyst, Kem Ley, argued that, while Cambodia’s growth is impresssive, such growth comes with high costs along with severe natural resource degradation, non-transparent investment, weak governance, and lack of pragmatic social development. Land grabbing has become a pressing issue, causing more than half a million Cambodians to lose their home and farmland to development companies through the government’s land concession policy, he said.

Plans to build hydropower dams along the Mekong River are also a concern, warned Poumin Han, an energy expert from Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia. He cited the Mekong River Commission’s report on the effects of dams on the Mekong ecosystem, including the impact on livelihoods of the residents around the areas. Compared to other countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion, Cambodia will be at particularly high risk of reductions in water quality, sediment flow, fish catchment capacity, and increased potential of flooding in the surrounding areas due to its downstream position in the lower Mekong basin, coupled with its low-lying hydrology. Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum in Cambodia, explained that without a proper social, environmental, and economic impact assessment, as well as political will, the hydropower dams will become a curse rather than the potential economic benefit that the governments of the region are promoting.

So, this raises a big question: how do we get there?

From around Asia to the Mekong Region, The Asia Foundation is finding that “Smart Companies” and “Smart Governments” alike are moving from being a part of the problem to being part of the solution. Their success appears to be directly related to their leaderships’ decision to broaden the range of stakeholders in their work, thus expanding their understanding of the context. They are transforming the vision for development into a sustainable one. In short, this commitment to “multi-stakeholdership” is breathing new life into development, better enabling generations to come to meet their own needs. The Forum took these themes of sustainable leadership and “multi-stakeholdership” to offer ideas for creating a development path that is more sustainable. I was left with the following take aways:

  1. Other stakeholders (not just the government) need to accept responsibility, including civil society, the private sector, and young Cambodians.
  2. Build human resource capacity through targeted curriculum and teaching to create future economic growth that will not deplete the country’s natural resources.
  3. Improve effective governance by increasing the transparency of investment, and promote greater social accountability.
  4. Revisit wealth distribution to ensure a strong social safety net for all, particularly in health and education, and increase workers’ minimum wage.

Of course, I’m reminded we have a long way to go. When I open up a newspaper – whether reading about hydropower on the Mekong or international foot-dragging on climate change – I take solace in the fact that supporting and promoting sustainable development is not a destination. Achieving sustainable development in Cambodia is part of a much longer journey. If my children (two of whom who attended the forum with me) are any example, more events such as these are needed. Youth in Cambodia are readily taking these opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of current development challenges and what kinds of development will serve the long-term aspirations they have for themselves.

Lim Siv Hong is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in Cambodia. She can be reached at sivhong.lim@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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