Seng Sreila, a mother of four living in a village in rural Cambodia, has not heard about the 2007 Cambodia Human Development Report and its recent findings that many Cambodians still live in poverty despite the fact that country has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. She has been too busy creating new relationships with the people in her village who now come to her to get their rice milled. Sreila started her own business with the small rice mill after borrowing money from her local savings group, built from Oxfam America's Saving for Change.
The report, funded by the United Nations Development Fund, was released in October with the theme, "Expanding Choices for Rural Cambodia." It confirms that of those who live below the poverty line in Cambodia, 90 percent live and work in rural areas. The report recommends among other things, public investments in agricultural productivity and investment in job-creation in rural areas.
"It comes as no surprise to me that these are the areas indentified to help boost the rural economy since most Cambodians work in agriculture," says Brian Lund, Director of Oxfam America's East Asia Regional Office in Phnom Penh.
Oxfam America has been tackling these issues with its partner, the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or CEDAC, through several of its programs that support agricultural and rural development such as the Saving for Change program, which to date has reached more than 35,000 Cambodians.
But Lund says that while focusing on investing in rural development is important, resources are only part of the equation. There is a human element too.
"In the wake of the Khmer Rouge, the financial systems in the country were in shambles—and the culture of sharing and trusting was severely undermined," Lund said. "A lot has been done to invigorate the economy, but also there are human relationships that need to be rebuilt. An economy might grow but without growing trust and sharing among people it will not be sustainable."
Oxfam America has taken strides in rebuilding those human connections through its Saving for Change program—an alternative microfinance program that allows group members in rural communities to save, lend, and pay each other interest. The program has jumpstarted trust and knowledge-sharing in rural areas because it allows the community to be in charge of their own future and promotes the need for them to work together in order to reach individual goals.
"Giving a community financial opportunities and engaging them to work together for a common goal has transformed the way Cambodian people deal with one another," said Lund.
In addition, Lund says that taking a more holistic approach will help to alleviate rural poverty in Cambodia. In its Saving for Change program, farmers also are exposed to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) approach. Based on traditional methods, SRI is a technique that enhances the production of rice giving the small farmer a higher yield. These programs form a package that together aim to better support to more than 6,000 villages in rural Cambodia by 2010.
So, while the economy might be growing in Cambodia, Oxfam America remains committed to ensuring that the rural people like Seng and her four children are not left behind.
"This country has seen tremendous growth," Lund said. "Now it needs to be managed in a way that focuses on people and the numbers."