Elevating Education for Cambodia’s Growth

April 23, 2013,  marked the 18th World Book and Copyright Day, first introduced by UNESCO in 1995, in celebration of books, authors, and the joys of reading.

It’s also an occasion to reflect on the importance of education, especially as a driver of poverty reduction. The link between education and economic empowerment is undeniable; so, governments, civil society, and the international donor community have made notable efforts to increase school enrollment and improve literacy rates around the world.

 

Despite advancements, an estimated 250 million children are still unable to read and write, and in some developing countries, 25-50 percent of students who have graduated from primary school cannot read a single sentence, according to the World Bank.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is no exception.

While literacy rates have improved vastly over the past decade – according to the 2008 National Population Census, now at about 78 percent among those aged 15 years or older – improvements in functional literacy (the ability to read, write, and calculate beyond basic skills) are more uncertain.

In 1999, functional literacy was just 37 percent, in comparison to the basic literacy rate of 68 percent. Unsurprisingly, a third of Cambodians live below the national poverty line, which is 61 cents per day. Moreover, Cambodia’s improvement in literacy has not necessarily been equitable, with girls, the rural poor, and minorities still facing the most significant challenges.

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has been committed to expanding educational opportunities and is party to several international initiatives, including the Millennium Development Goals and UNESCO’s Education for All.

Nationally, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MoEYS), as part of its Education Strategic Plan 2009-2013, has prioritized expanding early childhood education, non-formal education, technical and vocational training, and access to secondary and post-secondary education.

To address disparities in literacy rates, MoEYS has designed and implemented inclusive policies such as bilingual education in provinces like Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri with a large minority population, scholarships for girls and students representing other vulnerable groups, and non-formal education opportunities for youth and adults that are not integrated into the public school system.

While these initiatives have had positive impact, Cambodia’s education system still faces numerous hurdles, including issues related to governance and quality of services at subnational levels.

Cambodia also faces growing demand for a labor force fluent in English. In 2008, only 5 percent of the population had working knowledge of the English language. Inadequate resources, such as textbooks and facilities, contribute to the problem. With the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, which will establish a free trade zone among ASEAN member countries, English-language proficiency will be even more critical for Cambodia’s growth and development.

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program, in partnership with the RGC and a network of NGOs, has distributed over 900,000 books and other educational materials to Cambodian universities, primary and secondary schools, NGOs, government ministries, and public libraries.

Read more about:  Books for Asia in Cambodia.

The authors:

Cham Soeun is a program officer for the Books for Asia program and Lisa H. Kim is program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. They can be reached at scham@asiafound.org and lkim@asiafound.org, respectively.

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