Cambodia as an example of educational disparities in developing countries

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Even though the right to education has been recognized as one of the primary human rights, it still remains inaccessible for millions of children around the world. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), approximately 263 million children, adolescents and youth worldwide - one in every five - are out of school. The most discouraging fact is that this number has barely changed over the past five years despite the efforts to improve the situation. Cambodia is just one out of many examples of countries with failing educational systems. According to UNICEF, this country demonstrates some progress: the number of children enrolled in primary education has increased from 82% in 1997 to 97% in 2017. However, many children are still far from reaching basic educational standards like reading and writing. Additionally, dropout rates remain high: 55% of children have dropped out of school by the time they are 17 years old.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYS) of Cambodia is considered a priority in the local government. Nevertheless, the funding for the educational system has been annually reduced over the past five years. Thus, only 1,9% of the GDP of the country is allocated to its needs, which is the smallest indicator among the neighboring countries of Cambodia. Even though most of the education budget is spent on teaching staff salaries of Cambodian state educational institutions, they are still forced to seek additional earnings in the private educational sector, since the average gross salary at a university is about 15000$ in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and significantly lower in other cities. For the same reason, teachers lack the motivation to obtain higher qualifications. According to MOEYS , 3.83% of primary teachers have no lower secondary school diploma, and 56.24% have no upper secondary school diploma. MOEYS also states that there are still teachers who have not finished primary school level, and, only 10% of people teaching at Cambodia state universities have an equivalent of Ph.D.

Insufficient funding for the educational system also leads to high levels of corruption. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, in 2016 Cambodia was one of the lowest-ranked countries (156 out of 175) and was considered as the most corrupt country in the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Moreover, the education sector accounts for 55% of total corruption in Cambodian public services and costs an estimated $37 million per year. One of the reasons for such a corrupted system is Khemer Rouge regime in the late 1970s that lead to the execution of 75% of teachers and intellectuals. Luckily, after a ten-year occupation by the Vietnamese (1979-1989), UN involvement in 1992 set the stage for a number of aid agencies to contribute to sector improvements. Due to the fact that the government is still in the process of establishing an adequate system of taxation, the education sector still highly depends on foreign aid.

What could be the possible effective interventions to improve learning and, consequently, the educational system? According to “Education in developing countries. What policies and programmes affect learning and time in school?” report, merit-based scholarships, which work by increasing the demand for education, building new schools where local access is lacking, decreasing the pupil-teacher ratio, and “teaching to the right level” can be considered as some of the effective steps a developing country can undertake in order to improve its educational system. However, it is obvious that  interventions that build new schools and reduce the pupil-teacher ratio can be very costly and may require even more government funding rendering it hard to carry out. Thus, it would be useful to firstly consider easy to implement and relatively cheap interventions.

Teaching to the right level.

One of the studies evaluated “teaching to the right level” intervention in the Philippines. Such approach implies providing multi-level teaching materials that aid teachers with pacing their teaching according to differing abilities of their students. This intervention was considered effective as it reduced the dropout rate for primary school children. Such an intervention is of particular relevance to Cambodia since high dropout rates is one of the problems that this country is currently facing.

Child malnutrition.

Another seemingly unrelated problem that developing countries are facing is child malnutrition. A number of studies demonstrated positive correlation between well-nourished children and educational outcomes. As a result, some countries started implementing programs that provide meals to students and their families. The provision of school meals is among one of the most popular ones. According to “Education in developing countries. What policies and programmes affect learning and time in school?” report, one estimate from Burkina Faso finds that school meals positively affect enrollment of children 6-15 years old. This example demonstrates that school meal programs have an effect on educational outcomes and thus, should be considered for implementation in more developing countries.


Many people believe that the use of technology (computers, interactive blackboards etc.) is associated with rapid improvement in learning outcomes in both developing and developed countries. Some of the interventions that included implementation of technology in developing countries ranged from being quite inexpensive, such as radio-based instruction, to very expensive, such as individual laptops for all students under the “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC) initiative. Studies from India and China demonstrated that computer-aided learning positively affected educational outcomes. For example, in India researchers found that a two year computer-aided learning program that provided two hours per week of computer-based math instruction in two cities helped students improve math scores.


Even though developing countries, Cambodia included, have demonstrated significant improvement in the domain of education over the past years, there is still a long way to go. Luckily, international organizations such as UNESCO and its global partners, are trying to help by developing programs aiming to address educational issues that countries like Cambodia are facing. One of them, Education 2030 Agenda, outlines the guidance for government and partners on how to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. Integrating the aforementioned interventions and programs like Education 2030 Agenda, there is a chance that one day developing countries will have comparable standards of education to that of developed countries with high enrollment, literacy, and graduation rates.

More posts by Daria Kulakova.
Cambodia as an example of educational disparities in developing countries
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