Urban Poor: A Peek into a Microcosm of Cambodia

By Shirley Fong, KF12, Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea, Cambodia

It’s one of those places you won’t find unless you go looking for it – the slums of Chak Angre Leo.  Located in the outer khan (district) of Meanchey in Cambodia’s capital city, the slums are a stark contrast from the familiar communities and gated residences in central Phnom Penh.

I accompanied Tida, an AMK credit officer, to assess some of these urban poor settlements in Chak Angre Leo.  As we drove down the main road, we took an unexpected turn into a narrow alleyway. The walls of the entrance were thick and tall; feeling claustrophobic was an understatement.  We drove slowly and stopped frequently in our motorcycle as the path was only wide enough for two motorcycles to squeeze by. Finally, as we approached the end of the walled alley to a seemingly dead end, we took a sharp right turn followed by an immediate sharp left. The turns that followed were so sudden that I immediately lost sense of all direction, not being able to distinguish north from south and east from west. We were surrounded by stilt houses that were positioned on top of landfills and sewage; the stench reeked in the hot humid air as we drove past. We finally came to a stop where the narrowness of the streets finally opened up, and my eyes readjusted to the unfamiliar environment – the slums. I didn’t feel like I was in Phnom Penh anymore.

Phnom Penh has seen incredible economic growth recently, but it hasn’t always trickled down to many of the urban poor. There are more than 40,000 families living in over 400 urban poor settlements in Phnom Penh. To make matters worse, even though many of the families have legitimate claims to their homes, the land is often untitled and they always face the imminent risk of eviction. Without proper collateral and sufficient income, borrowers lack credit, and struggle to access loans. Because the poor have traditionally lived in rural areas in Cambodia, microfinance institutions (MFIs) have overlooked urban poor clients. But as the poor communities in Phnom Penh continue to grow, MFIs are beginning to shift their focus to this underserved population.

We reached the urban poor settlements that were stationed along the Tonle Sap River, less than five driving minutes off the main road. We spoke to several of the families along the riverside to learn more about the community. In one slum area, we found stilt houses surrounding a small crop field. Many of the inhabitants here helped out with the farming, and thus, were able to share in some of the profits that came during the harvest season. Other slum areas were less fortunate. One woman told us her main source of income was strictly dependent on her teenage child’s work at a local garment factory; she earned $45 a month.

At AMK, we are currently piloting a loan product specifically for the urban poor. Client officers visit unmapped territories to assess these communities and their need for loan products. AMK seeks to target all segments of this population, including ethnic minority communities such as the Vietnamese and Cham, and other specific vulnerable groups such as sex workers, people with disabilities, and single parent households.

From the distance you can see tall buildings in the city center, a constant reminder of Cambodia’s wide social economic gap between the urban rich and the urban poor.

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Shirley is currently serving her Kiva fellowship at Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea (AMK) in Cambodia. Her daily commute involves zipping through the busy streets of Phnom Penh on the back of a motorcycle – she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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