Cambodia in context

I have not been breaking any mirrors. No black cat incidents. Zero travel under ladders. In other words, it seems I have been very lucky recently.

I’m soon to begin my internship with ActionAid Cambodia (AAC), having spent this past month working on an unrelated literacy-based project at UNESCO in Paris. I was lucky to be offered the opportunity. Luckier because logistically it worked out. Even luckier because my supervisor at AAC was kind enough to accommodate the one-month delay of my internship. Frankly, everything has worked out so well that I’m suspicious of a roadblock awaiting me in the future… Although maybe it has manifested in my inability to open my current apartment’s door for the past two weeks. Who knows.

Unnecessary worrying aside, I thought it would be appropriate to provide you some context about Cambodia before I launch into the work I’ll be doing for my internship.

My wonderful classmate Ania had suggested reading the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, an enthralling yet devastating book that delves into the life of Ung as she and her family are uprooted from Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge. The aspects of Cambodia’s history during this period I learned from this book revealed serious implications for education, and my work there. For example, the Khmer Rouge divided the Cambodian population into stark categories: morally corrupt were those who were formally students or involved in professions such as civil service, medicine, art, or teaching; ethnically Vietnamese, Chinese and other minorities were considered racially corrupt; only good workers were valuable [1]. The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, most of whom in these morally and racially “corrupt” categories, leaving an education sector needing near-full reconstruction [2]. As an example, only 87 of the 1,009 teachers in higher education survived the four Khmer Rouge years [2]. The significant loss of life also led to a significant loss in qualified teachers and a generation of learners. Rebuilding the education system post-1979 involved efforts to quickly train teachers, prioritize access to primary and secondary over tertiary schooling, and simply ensure that there were schools to teach and learn in [2; 3].

As a result, Cambodian schools have struggled to provide quality education, despite incremental growth. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, the literacy rate has increased, but major differences can still be seen between age and sex, which reflect larger trends in the education system [4]:


Even though I’ll be dealing with secondary students, I have to wonder what is happening with adult education in Cambodia, especially given the low literacy rates for people aged 65 years and older. In 2013, the education sector underwent major reforms to address how it provides quality education for its students, including increased GDP spending and decentralizing the education system. While improvements have been made across the board, obviously more work needs to be done. Quality teachers and skills-readiness seem to be major areas of improvement in Cambodia.

In terms of development, I’m entering a country that has recently restricted the rights of NGOs. This is despite the fact that Cambodia has been on the receiving end of international aid for quite some time, and has been highly dependent on it. Cambodia has one of the highest percentages of official development assistance and foreign direct investment in the world: between 2005-2015, they averaged around 7.9% of its GDP [5]. Historically, this is nothing new. According to Sophoan [2], NGOs responded to the United Nations’ embargo of Cambodia from 1979 to 1990 by significantly increasing its role, especially in education. Now that Cambodia has recently been upgraded to a lower middle income country, it’s steady stream of aid will be reduced accordingly. This, along with these new restrictions, could influence both the economic and educational development of the country. Perhaps I’ll learn more about these challenges when I arrive in Phnom Penh.

But these are all wide-shot views of the education sector, which as we all know blanket the realities of daily school operations. I’ve already mentioned the work I’ll be doing at AAC, so right now I can only theorize. However, my greatest excitement is to be more involved with those daily operations through fieldwork, especially knowing its situation only through facts and statistics (and being at an organization like UNESCO). According to my supervisor, there are already five trips to schools planned. Those are five opportunities to see how all of this plays out, and I’m grateful for this experience.

But there’s a week between Cambodia and now. So I (and by extension, you) have to wait.



[1] Ung, Loung. (2000). First They Killed My Father. New York: HarperCollins.

[2] Sophoan, P. (1997). Educational destruction and reconstruction in Cambodia. In Tawil, S. (Ed.), Final Report and Case Studies of the Workshop on Educational Destruction and Reconstruction in Disrupted Societies (pp. 43-49). Geneva, Swtizerland: International Bureau of Education.

[3] Ledgerwood, J. (2000). Education in Cambodia. Cambodia Recent History and Contemporary Society: An Introductory Course. Retrieved at


[5] World Bank. (2017). Cambodia – Sustaining strong growth for the benefit of all. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. Retrieved from


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