Promoting Social Protection in Cambodia

August 17, 2015
CISS Commentary

Social protection, as defined by the Asian Development Bank, is the set of policies and programs designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labour
markets, diminishing people’s exposure to risks, and enhancing their capacity to protect themselves against hazards and interruption or loss of income. It consists of five core elements, namely labour markets, social insurance, social assistance, micro and area-based schemes to protect communities, and child protection.

Social protection is construed as the foundation for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development, as it can simultaneously address the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. It is concerned with preventing, managing, and overcoming situations that adversely affect people’s livelihood and well-being. Getting access to social protection is according to some scholars a basic human right.

It follows that the notion of social protection is a powerful tool in the fight against poverty and inequality. It covers wide-ranging issues including decent work, education, health care, food security, environmental health, and income security. Identification of policy options is critical. This process should begin with understanding the reality of the vulnerabilities of the poor. The range of social protection policy instruments should then be integrated, in order to strike an appropriate balance between various efforts designed to reduce, mitigate and cope with different shocks.

In 2011, the Cambodian Government issued a National Social Protection Strategy for the Poor and Vulnerable. It aims to: 1) protect the poorest and most disadvantaged who cannot help themselves; 2) mitigate risks that could lead to negative coping strategies and further impoverishment; and 3) promote the poor to move out of poverty by building human capital and expanding opportunities, including access to health, nutrition and education services for poor households, so they can move above the poverty line.

However, there are three main challenges and constraints that Cambodia is facing when implementing social protection policy. Those are an implementation gap, resource constraints, and a knowledge gap. The government should launch an integrated social protection program, and in doing so it needs to pay attention to the following three challenges.

Implementation Gap

Social protection programs have been implemented by the central government, but failed to build capacity in local government to gradually take ownership and responsibility of implementing social protection policy. Decentralisation of social protection programs is therefore necessary.

Social protection programs often lack of clarity regarding responsibility and accountability. Limited coordination among social protection policy interventions has resulted in uneven coverage, the duplication of efforts and the lack of sustainability and overall impact.

Geographic coverage of existing programs is far from universal. Moreover, programs do not necessarily prioritise poor areas. And targeting has not yet been mainstreamed into social protection. Many social protection programs still rely on ad hoc targeting procedures whose accuracy has not been investigated, adding to transaction costs and inefficiencies.

Feedback and complaint resolution systems – a central pillar for guaranteeing good governance, transparency and effectiveness of social protection – tend to remain underdeveloped.

Resource Constraints

An underlying challenge is that the budget for safety net implementation remains low, with the majority of funding provided by development partners and earmarked for interventions that are often implemented in parallel with other items on the government development agenda.

The current fiscal policy is not oriented towards social protection given that the state budget for the education and health sectors are marginal. The taxation system does not function well, leading to a big loss of state revenue that creates a serious shortage of national budget allocated to support the poor and vulnerable. Hence, implementing social protection programs mainly relies on funding resources from the donor community. This produces a lack of sustainability.

Knowledge Gap

Due to the lack of objective assessment of the programs, it is impossible to improve the programs on a regular basis. Moreover, there have been few rigorous and thorough evaluations of existing social protection interventions, making it difficult to assess how well they perform by international standards and where there are areas for improvement.

Policy Recommendations

The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have proposed a set of concrete policy recommendations to promote social protection in Cambodia. It suggests that the quality of basic rural infrastructure needs to be upgraded, especially education and healthcare facilities. Integrated health care, education and training services need to be strengthened.

There is a huge need to build basic rural infrastructure such as roads, irrigation, electricity supplies, water, and sanitation. More resources – both financial and human – are required to support the most vulnerable groups. Skill development can uplift the poor from the poverty trap.

More support is needed for children in rural areas through the expansion of scholarship programs and school feeding. The government should expand scholarship programs, school feeding, targeted cash transfer and similar programs that have been shown to help reduce secondary school drop-out rates.

More investment and public funding are needed to expand the coverage of the existing Health Equity Fund – a scheme that provides free access to health care for the poorest – and raise public awareness of the importance of maternal health and child nutrition. As of 2014, the Health Equity Fund reached about 3 million Cambodians.

Finally, the government needs to develop and promote programs to enhance the profitability of rice production by providing improved seeds and more effective rural extension services to help farmers shift from subsistence to commercial farming.

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