What does poverty look like?

4 09 2012

Since coming to Cambodia, I have chatted with many people who are just passing through. Whether they are friends of mine or strangers riding next to me on the bus, there’s one phrase that many of them have said, particularly the backpacking crowd: Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as I imagined. Even though by now I’ve heard nearly a dozen variations of this phrase, I still have a visceral reaction when I hear it.

I’ve spent some time thinking about why I have such a strong, negative reaction when people say these things. It actually hits me just as hard as when people belittle Cambodians, glamorize poverty or comment on how “quaint” life is here. But why? Although I’m not particularly proud of this conclusion, I think that, in part, it offends me because it seems to delegitimize my work. If Cambodia is not poor then what is a Peace Corps Volunteer doing here? But, more than that, it offends me because of how simplistic it is. I have such a deep desire for people to understand the Cambodian reality, and such an off-the-cuff comment seems to ignore the challenges faced by average Cambodians each and every day. Poverty is certainly not the only piece of Cambodia’s story but – from my perspective, at least – it is an important one.

Phnom Penh

If you look at the Human Development Index, a measure created by the United Nations to capture overall wellbeing, you will see Cambodia is 139th on the list, below countries like Iraq, India and neighboring Laos. And with over half of the country living on less than two dollars a day, it’s difficult to deny how widespread poverty is. Furthermore, in raw numbers, substantially more Cambodian mothers die in childbirth each year than do American mothers, despite the fact that Cambodia’s population is only 14 million, less than five percent of that of the US. If that isn’t what you consider poor, then I don’t know what is.

To be fair though, these people aren’t saying Cambodia isn’t poor. They are only saying that it doesn’t seem as poor as they thought, which leads me to think that this observation might be the result of some sort of flawed image we have of poverty. Maybe, when we think of poverty we envision mud huts in the African savanna. Or maybe we know poverty looks different in Cambodia, but we are stuck with an image in our heads of the devastation that immediately followed the Khmer Rouge. Or maybe, in an age of growing technology, we can’t reconcile the commonness of cell phones and mp3 players with the concept of extreme need. Who knows?

I’m not entirely sure why so many people have told me that Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as they thought. If I had to venture a guess though, I think one of the main reasons is probably because tourists are disproportionately exposed to urban centers, which are relatively better off and can hide the country’s poverty in many ways.

The cities of Cambodia are deceiving. First, because the few modern, sparkly buildings you might come across are probably owned by and benefitting the Chinese more than Cambodians. Many argue that the Chinese— and Korean and Vietnamese to a lesser extent— are pouring money into Cambodia in ways that are widening the inequality gap, destroying natural resources and violating human rights. So while the Chinese-backed buildings and infrastructure provide a façade of prosperity, moderate as it may be, most of the profits of the businesses are being sent out of the country or are being restricted from reaching average citizens.

Again, Phnom Penh

The cityscapes are also deceiving because they are sparsely populated, with only 1.5 million Cambodians calling Phnom Penh, the largest city and capital, their home. This leaves urban areas feeling much less congested and overwhelming than I imagine places like Mexico City or Dhaka must feel. It also means that, generally speaking, you don’t see the sprawling shantytowns like the favelas in Rio or the slums of Mumbai. Since these are the images of international poverty that we’re often confronted with, I wonder if the low number of urban residents helps to subconsciously convince us that Cambodia is better off than the statistics would suggest.

Even if tourists are exposed to the rural areas where poverty is more widespread, which is not often since the tourist trail tends not to wander far from the two or three major urban centers in Cambodia, there’s also the fact that rural poverty is easier to miss. Even when taking a road trip through the US, I think it’s the urban poverty which strikes us most heavily, as we take note of the vacant buildings, homeless families or crumbling houses. When we drive through the countryside, I’d guess that few of us remark on how rural populations are often isolated from basic services. The poverty in small towns or farming areas is often less visual in nature and, therefore, harder to spot. Not to mention that as tourists we often don’t have the right cultural lens to judge more subtle differences in wellbeing, even if we are exposed to them.

Although I’m starting to glean some understanding of where the comment might come from, by mentioning that Cambodia doesn’t look as poor as we thought, we diminish the struggle that many Cambodians face. I say this not to reduce Cambodia to its poverty—not at all. I say it to do the opposite: to highlight the complexity of life here. Just because Cambodian life doesn’t mirror the images of poverty you’ve seen on television or on the Internet, or even in your own imagination, it doesn’t make it any easier for all the families here fighting for a better life.