Panel Discussion on Cambodia, COVID-19 and Social Protection: Responses and Lessons Learned
02 June 2021
Speech by Pauline Tamesis, UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia
[Check Against Delivery]
H.E. Samheng Boros, Secretary of State, Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation
Members of diplomatic missions in Cambodia,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The COVID-19 pandemic is among the greatest global crises in the modern world. In Cambodia, the shrinking economy, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, has spared no one, but has been felt most disproportionately by the poor and most vulnerable.
The United Nations economic modeling led by UNDP, and in partnership with the Ministry of Economy and Finance showed how social protection spending reduces poverty by more than 4%, and through a positive shock to demand, improves GDP by almost 1%.
Despite the challenges, I am encouraged that the Royal Government of Cambodia undertook rapid measures against the crisis.
In what would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic, the Royal Government rapidly rolled out cash transfers at scale, ensuring some 700,000 households, which are about 2.8 million people who are among the poorest, the most vulnerable and those hit hard by the pandemic, to receive a level of social protection. This is an unprecedented achievement and I am proud to say that the United Nations development system in Cambodia significantly contributed to this effort.
As a fundamental human right, social security is a potent tool to combat discrimination and an essential instrument for reducing poverty and promoting social inclusion. This experience has made clear how social protection is not a cost, but an investment in people, that not only helps prevent a spiral into deep poverty and deprivation, but also protects the economy from falling into a deeper recession. It also helps set a stronger foundation for a more inclusive, robust, dynamic recovery.
Our objective today is toprovide insights and lessons from our experience in the social protection responses during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the contribution of the United Nations.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the UN Country Team designed a framework for response and recovery consisting of five pillars; Health First, Protecting People, Protecting Jobs and Livelihoods, Macroeconomic and Fiscal Measures, and finally Social Cohesion and Community.
[UN Support to the RGC in 2020]
The United Nations has worked hand-in-hand with the Royal Government of Cambodia and development partners to build a stronger Social Protection system for the country to be more resilient to such shocks as COVID-19. For example;
With support from the Government of Australia, the United Nations supplied the Ministry of Planning around 1,700 tablet computers plus software, and supported training for field officers which allowed them to quickly register families that had recently fallen into poverty as a result of the economic slowdown.
UNDP and UNICEF are also working in partnership with the World Bank and GIZ to support the Royal Government to recalibrate the existing IDpoor system—the government mechanism to identify the poor and vulnerable households—to increase the precision of targeting for the poor and vulnerable households.
[UN Support during Recent Lockdown]
While together we have assisted the Cambodian government and people in navigating this crisis, we are now faced with a greater challenge of a larger scale outbreak.
This outbreak was a shock to the system and tested our preparedness. Curfews, restricting non-essential & inter-provincial movements, as well as implementing colour-coded lockdown with little warning took many, if not all of us, by surprise. More importantly, measures to control the outbreak took a toll on people’s livelihoods, especially on the vulnerable and poor households in the lockdown areas.
The United Nations raised concerns not only about the additional challenges created by the COVID measures on distorting markets, heightening food insecurity and malnutrition, but also on increasing human rights concerns with the excessive use of force and lack of clear channels of communication and feedback with citizens.
The larger scale outbreak and the measures to control it resulted in a humanitarian emergency that required the United Nations Country Team to respond in multi-faceted ways and in a more agile and coordinated manner.
With our framework as the guidance, we first focused on the health response.
Second, we needed to protect and safeguard human rights by ensuring COVID control measures complied with international norms and standards.
Third, we need to maintain close communication with the government to facilitate a coordinated and effective approach in supporting the most vulnerable.
We made sure that the United Nations provided concrete support along with advocacy on what needed to be done. For example;
On social protection: UNICEF, along with UNDP and GIZ, supports the Government on the analysis and estimation of the potential scale and scope of the social assistance program, including the identification of beneficiaries of the programs and the affected populations in lockdown areas. We are also providing capacity building in the process, while adapting the current IDpoor system towards an expanded social registry system in the future. UNICEF, UNDP and WFP will also create a systematic mechanism to identify who are most vulnerable beyond the current lockdown context.
On food security and nutrition: WFP and UNDP are working on the market and economic analysis on the impact of the lockdown and other COVID-19 measures. WFP is also providing options for when and how to use the cash or food packages that are nutritionally adequate for the affected population.
On ensuring jobs and livelihoods for the most affected groups, ILO is assisting Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, GMAC, employers and garment workers in the safe reopening of factories, which became hotspots in the current outbreak.
On protecting other vulnerable groups, we have also mobilized to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian prisons, now hotspots in the current outbreak. We are also advocating for alternatives to detention to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
There are more efforts, all geared for the UN to respond and recover from the shocks by focusing on protecting the most vulnerable.
The leadership team of the United Nations in Cambodia is committed to collaboration. We know that we can only overcome the crisis by staying together.
[Reflection and way forward]
Reflecting on the progress so far, the success of mitigating socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in Cambodia rests on several important factors – strengthening and institutionalizing existing social protection policies, targeting the vulnerable and those most affected by the pandemic, using technology to improve efficiency and targeting, and enhancing partnership for sustainability.
While significant progress has been made, we recognize the importance of moving towards universal coverage to guarantee income security and health for all.
Measures should be put in place to build the capacity of the State and to ensure sustainable resources for progressively increased coverage.
It is important to ensure equality and non-discrimination in social protection to leave no one behind - i.e. also in selection of beneficiaries and implementation of assistance. As well as taking positive actions to enable access by those most in need, for example women.
Together with the Royal Government of Cambodia the United Nations is ready and mobilized to support the design of a more integrated and coordinated social protection strategy that reduces fragmentation. We will continue to advocate for universal coverage. We will remain guided by human rights principles to address inequalities and eradicate poverty.