Cambodia Enjoys Economic Boom, But Problems Remain

Growth is healthy but poverty is still high.

Under great plumes of dust in Cambodia's Kompong Speu province, heavy trucks and earth movers level vast rice fields while billboards advertise factories, sprawling condominium communities and smoked-glass office towers. This once dry, flat farmland south of the capital Phnom Penh is riding the crest of a development wave that is helping to pull impoverished Cambodia out of financial ruin.

Economic growth has surged ahead at around 9.0% a year since 2000, analysts say, driven in part by an unprecedented construction boom, as well as rising garment exports and a vibrant tourism sector that saw 1.7 million visitors arrive in Cambodia last year.

Growth in 2006 has been projected at between 9.5% and slightly above 10%, but economists say they expect this to shrink slightly over the medium term -- to between 6% and 8% -- and warn that Cambodia's apparent financial upturn rarely benefits the country's poor. Some 35% of Cambodia's 14 million people are mired in poverty.

"Improvements in good governance and addressing corruption are key to sustaining high and good quality economic growth," said John G. Nelmes, the International Monetary Fund's resident representative in Cambodia.

Beyond the office buildings and newly paved city streets clogged with expensive cars, most Cambodians still toil away for as little as 50 U.S. cents a day, and a widening wealth gap has alarmed some observers, who say growth figures rarely represent reality.

Some economists warn that Cambodia's growth figures are being achieved at the expense of sustainable investment -- for example, through often-illegal sales of large tracts of land to foreign companies or by ravaging the country's natural resources.

Cambodia also needs to diversify, analysts say, pointing out that the economy is driven now by only two key sectors, garments and tourism. Cambodia's garment exports jumped 17% to more than $2.5 billion in 2006 and the tourism industry ploughed nearly $1.4 billion into the economy last year.

Economic growth could come from recently discovered oil and gas reserves off Cambodia's coast. Hundreds of millions of barrels of crude are estimated to lie untapped in the Gulf of Thailand, and foreign energy giants are scrambling for exploration rights.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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