A Feasibility Study on how to Improve the Low Literacy Rate in Cambodia

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The Low Literacy Rate In Cambodia

Educational policy-makers, planners, administrators, and practitioners have long held the opinion that literacy is a prerequisite for individuals as well as society. The world data on life expectancy, infant mortality, and gross national product (GNP) bear this out. This paper is aiming at addressing the reality of and recommend how to improve the situation of the low literacy rate in Cambodia.

Historical Background

After 30 years of war and civil unrest, which decimated the Cambodian population and destroyed the country's infrastructure, including the education system, Cambodia has low levels of literacy and high levels of poverty. With a GNP of only US$ 285 per person, Cambodia is one of the least developed countries in the region. It is estimated that 38 percent of the country's households live under the poverty line. According to the 1999 Human Development Report put out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Cambodia ranks 137 out of 174 countries in terms of its human development. Cambodians, on average, only attend school for three and a half years. Government budgets for education are significantly lower in Cambodia than in other countries. The government allocates only nine percent of the national budget for education, while other countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) spend 15 to 25 percent. The government intends to increase the budget!

For education to 15 percent in 2000, but this is still lower than the 1960s level of 23 percent. That is also far lower than the military spending in Cambodia, as high as 45 percent.

Although a number of small-scale literacy programs have been implemented in recent years with considerable success, improving the literacy rate between 1994 and 1998, the absolute number of adult illiterates has remained constant. It is also believed that many neo-literates relapse into semi-literacy or illiteracy. The situation is all the more alarming when viewing disparities between males and females and between those living in urban versus rural areas. The vicious circle of low adult literacy, high population growth (2.4 percent per annum), low primary school enrollment, high repetition, and dropout rates, and low per capita income is far from being broken. Despite the concerted effort of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports (MOEYS) to collect reliable data on literacy levels, it is scanty. Past assessments were limited to questions such as Can you read?; Can you write?; Can you perform simple mathematical computations?; Yes or No were the only possible! Answers. Such responses give neither notion of the learner's level of competence nor any assessment of his or her problem-solving skills.

To plan effective education programs, decision-makers need more accurate and timely information that links resource inputs to education, teaching-learning conditions, and appropriate indicators of the knowledge, skills, and values acquired by learners. To support this idea, the MOEYS, in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), carried out a systematic nationwide survey in 1999 to assess the magnitude and nature of the illiteracy problem in Cambodia. In the course of this study, 6,548 respondents aged 15 and over were randomly selected from every province in Cambodia, with a special effort to reach people in inaccessible areas. These new data give a more-reliable perspective because they are based upon a scientifically designed test rather than on a simple yes-no questionnaire. For the study, literacy was conceived to include life skills or functional literacy. People are functionally literate when they have acquired the ess!

Essential knowledge and skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem-solving to function effectively in all areas of their lives and contribute to their communities.

On the basis of test scores, respondents were classified into three categories of literacy:

  1. The completely illiterate 36 percent of the total number of respondents, or 24.7 percent of the males and 45.1 percent of the females, scored zero points on the literacy assessment and can be considered totally illiterate.
  2. The semi-literate 27 percent of respondents had only rudimentary literacy skills (they could read and write some words and numbers, but nothing more). 
  3. The literate 37 percent of the respondents were basically literate; that is, they could use their literacy skills in everyday life and for income generation.

If the 36.3 percent of illiterates and the 26.6 percent of semi-literates are added together, then some 62.9 percent of the adult population is basically illiterate. Projecting these figures onto the total population, this indicates that four million Cambodian youth and adults (15 years old and older) are basically illiterate.

The respondents tested as literate were again divided into three groups:

  1. Basic literates 11.3 percent of literate respondents were able to read and write simple words and paragraphs without help;
  2. Medium literates 64 percent of literate people had the ability to apply basic reading, writing, and numeric skills to solving problems in everyday life;
  3. Self-learning literates 24.7 percent of literate respondents could study independently and were able to read all kinds of materials, search for new knowledge and apply it to improve their lives and their communities.

When data for all three levels of literacy were combined, the percentage of literate females was significantly lower (29.1 percent) compared to males (47.6 percent). Not surprisingly, the percentage of females who could be classed as self-learners was significantly lower as well as (only 20.7 percent). In addition to testing literacy levels, the study related literacy with socio-economic factors such as gender, age, health, income, ethnicity, and geographic location. Basic findings in this regard were as follows:

In every group, women had a higher level of illiteracy than men.

Of the people surveyed, 80 percent of males and 60 percent of females attended school at some time. Of this group, 10 percent of males and 16.5 percent of females relapsed into illiteracy.

Farmers, fishers, laborers, housewives, and several groups showed high levels of illiteracy. Rates for females in these groups were even higher.

Two-thirds of total illiterates were aged 15 to 45 years, with little variation by gender.

Those aged 25 to 40 had a higher illiteracy rate than others (most likely because they were deprived of education during the years of armed conflict).

People who had low literacy rates also had low incomes. Literacy levels were especially low among the poor, the vulnerable, and the socially marginalized.

Illiteracy rates were high for highland minorities and other disadvantaged groups (and especially so for females).

There was a high correlation between illiteracy and poverty. It was quite evident that illiteracy is a strong barrier to participation in the modern economy. It appears that illiterates and those living below the poverty line are largely the same groups of people.

The percentage of literate and semi-literate respondents who correctly answered written questions about how to prevent HIV/AIDS was low (only 22.8 percent for men and 17.6 percent for women).

Some Policy Recommendations

Based on the survey results and experiences in Cambodia and other countries, the followings are some policy recommendations to the government and other funding agencies:

  1. Government should make a political and financial commitment to Article 65 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which states, The State shall protect and upgrade citizens' rights to quality education at all levels and shall take necessary steps for quality education to reach all citizens and Article 68 which stipulates The States shall provide free primary and secondary education to all citizens in public schools.
  2. Literacy programs should be publicized through local governments, non-government organizations (NOGs), community leaders, pagodas, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.
  3.  National Literacy Council should be set up to work with other ministries, private sectors, and NGOs.
  4. National policy and priority action plans should be designed for the purpose of literacy and non-formal education. This should also be linked to the Dakar Framework for Action, adopted at the World Education Forum in April 2000.
  5. Government should make literacy an important part of all national development plans, not only to meet the needs of learners but also to improve socio-economic conditions and democratic institutions and to cultivate a culture of peace in the country.
  6. Within 15 years, beginning from 2000, commit sufficient funds and other resources to literacy in the second five-year National Socio-Economic Development Plan (2001-2005). The goal of this should be to increase the adult literacy rate (semi-literate and illiterate combined) from the current level of 63.7 percent (according to this 1999 study) to at least 80 percent by 2005 and 98 percent by 2015.
  7. Government should promote gender equality by ensuring equal access to literacy programs and other development and cultural activities.
  8. Government should direct the literacy program towards the most disadvantaged groups, namely the totally illiterate and the semi-literate, especially minorities, and females among them.
  9. Government should provide bi-lingual literacy programs to ethnic minorities in order to protect their linguistic and cultural diversity and help their economic integration.
  10. Any policy of government should be tied closely to literacy to poverty alleviation through the encouragement of income-generation skills and extension of credit through micro-finance institutions. The programs should be sensitive, also, to cultural diversity, human rights, democracy, environment and encourage the participation of the poor in decision-making.
  11. All kinds of electronic media, such as radio and television, should be used to promote literacy and include indigenous ethnic languages in the program.
  12. Government should increase the national and local resources for a literacy program and, in particular, expand formal and non-formal primary education for all under 25 years old in order to prevent future adult illiteracy.


In conclusion, the cost of raising literacy rates is not very high in Cambodia. It only costs US$23 per person for the six months of literacy training necessary to reach a basic level of literacy. If large-scale literacy programs were provided for approximately 700,000 people per year, a basic level of literacy could be achieved for most of the population within five years. Improving literacy levels in Cambodia is also very feasible because most people speak the same language, the country has a 2000-year tradition of learning, people are positive about education and are easier to reach than those in the mountainous countries such as Nepal or Loa. To that end, the government should promulgate a compulsory primary education law.

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A Feasibility Study on How to Improve the Low Literacy Rate in Cambodia. (2023, Mar 09). Retrieved March 5, 2024 , from

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