Public Finance for Children in Cambodia

On a recent mission to Cambodia, I took a few hours on my last day to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, located just outside Phnom Penh.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of Pol Pot, killed an estimated one-quarter of the Cambodian population as part of a radical social engineering process aimed at creating a utopian agrarian society free of any modern influence.

The regime arrested and executed anyone suspected of connections with the former government or foreign governments, professors and intellectuals, and ethnic and religious minorities.  Anyone living in a city was either executed outright forcibly removed to the countryside, where many died from starvation and disease.  Estimates of the toll range from 1.7 million to 3 million people killed during these horrific four years.

Wandering around the site, anchored by a massive Buddhist memorial filled with the skulls of the victims and dotted by open pits where human bones still surface, I couldn’t help but reflect on the massive challenges of rebuilding from such devastation.  The country was forced back many decades, if not centuries, its government dismantled, and nearly all educated people and anyone with experience in government killed.  Yet rebuild they have – while Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in East Asia, record economic growth and development in the past decade has resulted in remarkable declines in poverty, from 47% of the population in 2003 to approximately 20% today.

Which leads to the reason I found myself in Cambodia in the first place:  the new wealth doesn’t mean that old problems have gone away.  While overall poverty rates have fallen, there are a lot of children who are being left behind.


Huang says that she has seen the benefits for her son of a UNICEF  communications campaign to promote complementary feeding in order to improve child nutrition. © UNICEF/Cambodia


To give just one example: four out of 10 children under the age of 5 are stunted (short for their age) from undernourishment, which, if not tackled during the first 1,000 days of life, can result in irreversible damage into adulthood.  More than half of all Cambodian children continue to live in the poorest 33% of households and are deprived of basic social services.  Disparities between rich and poor and urban and rural households are rising, increasing inequality of access to basic social services.
As Cambodia’s economy grows, foreign aid donors are increasingly turning to the government to tackle development challenges with its own growing resources.  Traditionally, UNICEF and organizations like it have worked directly with children, doing things like building schools, providing textbooks and giving vaccines.  But as economies grow, governments have the money to provide these kinds of services themselves — and the question of how they do this becomes very important.
While UNICEF has increasingly been working with counterparts in the Social Sector Ministries, providing technical expertise and policy recommendations to ensure that their programs and policies meet the rights and needs of all children, when you dig a little deeper, you see that many of the issues are caused by budgets – that is, are governments allocating enough money, to whom, and is the way that they’re doing so benefitting those who need it most?


UNICEF Social Policy Specialist Kimsong Chea meets with Ratanak HAV, Deputy Director, Budget Department, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Cambodia. © Heather B. Hamilton


Over the past two years, UNICEF Cambodia has been engaging with the highest-level decision budgetary decision-makers in Cambodia – those who really control the purse strings – to make sure that budget and financial decisions lead to better outcomes for all children.  The work, part of the regional Public Finance for Children Initiative, has already begun to show results:
  • UNICEF engagement and training with the national child rights body and the Ministry of Economy and Finance led to the creation of a strategy for developing national capacity for budgets that are fair and prioritize children, and to the establishment of a new working group of finance and social sector ministries which will implement a range of capacity building, research and monitoring activities.
  • During 2012, UNICEF launched several research projects in cooperation with the government which have provided strong recommendations for investments in children that are being taken up by the government.
  • UNICEF is providing technical and capacity-building support to a pilot project by the Ministry of Economy and Finance to train 13 social sector ministries on program-based budgeting, which focuses on building budgets around planned results (such as reducing child mortality) rather than line-items (such as salaries), increasing the focus on outcomes and equity.
  • Early this year, UNICEF concluded a strategic partnership agreement and work plans for research and capacity-building with an influential, internal government “think-tank” led by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Economy and Finance that develops policy recommendations for translating strategic direction into concrete policy plans – research and capacity-building that will turn commitments to actions for children.
  • UNICEF advocacy helped the national child rights body, which previously received minimal budget allocations, to get significantly increased government resources this year for monitoring line ministries on the implementation of recommendations of the United Nations Committee on Rights of Child.
And this work is only the beginning.  Over the coming years, UNICEF Cambodia will continue to work with the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure that that its resource allocations are adequate, equitable, efficient and effective in meeting the needs of all children, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged.  Through evidence-based research and advocacy, capacity-building for the government and increasing public and media attention, UNICEF Cambodia is building a sustainable approach to meeting child rights and reducing disparities that will persist long after Cambodia no longer needs direct foreign aid.
After my visit to the Killing Fields, a friend asked if it had depressed me.  He was shocked when I said, “No, it didn’t depress me,” until I explained that it mostly made me angry – I spent 15 years working on building international systems to prevent and punish atrocity crimes, and mostly visits like this just leave me angry at how hollow the words “Never Again” sound in the face of on-going atrocities in Eastern Congo, Syria and too many other places in the world.  But the visit didn’t just make me angry – it also gave me hope. While Cambodia still faces massive challenges, it’s remarkable how much dedication and courage has gone into rebuilding the society – dedication and courage that’s now, with UNICEF assistance, being dedicated to ensuring that all of Cambodia’s children, not just the richest and urban, benefit from its remarkable growth.

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