Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid since 1991, a UN study has found that of all countries in South and Southeast Asia, Cambodia ranks second only to Bangladesh in terms of human misery.
The annual UN Development Programme-funded Human Development Index found Cambodia to be among the world's poorest countries - ranked 140 out of 174.
Launching the study's findings in Phnom Penh yesterday, programme representative Paul Mathews called on Cambodia's leaders to step up their efforts to achieve prosperity for all Cambodians.
'The momentum achieved in the fight against poverty - surely the only legitimate fight in today's Cambodia - is being lost,' the report said. 'Cambodians need not remain poor.' The report said poverty was a reality for four out of ten Cambodians. It found a growing gap between rich and poor, with the top 20 per cent of the largely urban wealthy consuming 2.5 times more than the bottom, mostly rural-dwelling 20 per cent.
Mr Mathews said the vision of a poverty-free Cambodia was not a utopian dream and that difficult decisions needed to be taken to kick-start the battered economy.
'To achieve that will require political will . . . and it cannot be postponed - there is a short window of opportunity before the abuse of the environment and the increase in human numbers render the dream impossible,' he said.
The study found that nearly 50 per cent of Cambodian children under five were either moderately or severely underweight from malnutrition and that the growth of more than 56 per cent of children had been stunted by poor dietary intake.
The index found that at 500 deaths per 100,000 live births, Cambodia suffered the highest maternal mortality rate in the Asia-Pacific region.