Cambodia’s human development path in the new Age of Humans

December 29, 2020

Kompong Phluk Village ©️Ratha Soy

On its 30th anniversary, UNDP’s new Human Development Report (HDR) has introduced for the first time the concept of the “Anthropocene” at the centre of the human development debate. The Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans, refers to a new geological era where the fate of our planet depends on what we as humans do collectively.

Since the beginning of 2020, we have witnessed climatic shocks rage across the planet. Forest fires ravaged Australia, Brazil, Africa and Siberia, as hurricanes hit the Atlantic. Cambodia was also impacted. Extraordinary rainfall in October flooded villages across 14 provinces. More than 170,000 households and their livelihoods were adversely affected, and thousands of people were displaced.  

These incidents demonstrate how our human actions are interlinked with the natural environment. At the same time, they clearly signal that our current modes of development, premised on mass consumption and production of natural resources, are no longer sustainable nor safe. Thus, this year’s HDR urges us to rethink human development through the lens of the Anthropocene.

In its first edition in 1990, the HDR presented the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to income-based GDP per capita in the form of a summarized number to track wellbeing, compare and group countries. With a clear multidimensional perspective, the HDI and further indicators in the report offer complementary views of development to motivate policies that go beyond economic growth.

The idea of human development, from the Enlightenment to modern times, has implied certain evolution away from the primitive natural environment where expansion of human freedom was grounded on freedom from nature. In the Anthropocene, bridging this divide between society and nature is essential. Human development can no longer be based on freedom from nature, but instead must be based on freedom with nature.

Kompong Phluk Village ©️Ratha Soy

In turn, the HDR presents us with a new measure, the Planetary adjusted HDI, or PHDI.[1] This new measure takes into account two environment-related metrics: carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. Countries in high and very high human development groups observe the greatest adjustments with this measure due to their excessive dependency on fossil fuels and large material footprints.

Cambodia, along with other middle and low human development countries, sees little adjustment in the PHDI. But this does not mean there is nothing to do here. On the contrary, if the Kingdom’s aspirations to graduate as a high-income country towards 2050 are to be reflected in also reaching a higher level of human development, there is much to be done.

Last year’s National Human Development Report in Cambodia discussed how human development can go hand in hand with environmental sustainability. It explored how natural resources management and human development can complement and enrich one another. The report highlighted that the right set of policies and regulations are conducive to bringing about such changes while paying dividends with lasting impacts. Similarly, this year’s global HDR makes important emphasis on incentives and regulations as essential tools to navigate the Anthropocene.

Cambodia has already shown strong policy commitments to tackle the climate emergency through its Nationally Determined Contributions. On top of this, at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 held on December 12, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the country’s commitment to increase the share of renewable energy in the total energy mix to 25 percent by 2030. Cambodia is also working to finalize a national Circular Economy Strategy to transition from a linear to circular economy model.

While progress is already observed in plans, policies and commitments, there is still a need to change social norms and values to better balance people and planet.

People in Cambodia have demonstrated how quickly they can adopt new behaviors when driven by necessity. Response to control the recent community transmission of COVID-19 from the November 28 event is a good example of people quickly following government instructions for mask wearing and social distancing to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19. Similar behavioral changes are needed to tackle other environmental challenges, including solid waste and single-use plastic. Yet, effective behavioral changes depend on the government’s leadership and guidance in the form of incentives and regulations, coupled with continuous awareness raising efforts.

The report further highlights the importance of tackling social imbalances. Inequalities among people are both a cause and a consequence of the strains we are placing on the planet.  Gender inequality and unequal access to social protection are some of the challenges Cambodia is facing in this area. The rapid rollout of the IDPoor registration system to facilitate cash transfers was an opportune reaction to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable segments of the population, which also served as a stimulus for the economy. Now is the time to move from the emergency response stage to the reimagining stage – to build a country that is more inclusive, equitable, prosperous and sustainable.

Cambodia is among the best performing countries in improving human development in the last 30 years. While continuing to improve how basic needs are addressed, the shift towards a green and circular economy offers a crucial opportunity for Cambodia to leapfrog on innovative technologies, higher skills, productivity and economic diversification to reach human development outcomes in harmony with the planet.

We are the first generation of the Anthropocene. The future of our planet and well-being depends on the choices we make today.

[1] To find out more on the PHDI please go to

Written by:

Nick Beresford, UNDP Resident Representative

Iván González de Alba, UNDP’s Country Economist