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Challenges remain for Viet Nam to achieve the MDGs

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John Hendra, UN Resident Coordinator in Viet NamThe High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals  will be convened tomorrow, 25 September 2008, at UN Headquarters in New York. At the halfway point towards the target date, significant progress has been made, but urgent and increased efforts are needed by all stakeholders in order to meet the Goals by 2015. On this occasion, the Viet Nam News spoke with John Hendra, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Viet Nam.

According to the UN’s Global MDG Report 2008, worldwide increases in food prices will push another 100 million people into absolute poverty. Do you think Viet Nam’s economic slowdown has increased the number of poor people in the country?

While an informed assessment of the precise impact that high food prices and the current macroeconomic situation has had on poverty levels in Viet Nam needs more research, it would appear that the current macroeconomic turbulence is  leading to the emergence of new patterns of social inequality and increased numbers of poor people, at least in the short term.

High inflation rates, and especially high food prices, disproportionally affect low-income households, especially in urban areas, where most people are net buyers of food items. In urban areas, this is made worse by the depressing effects that high inflation is having on private investment and, therefore, on employment generation, which has been one of the main factors behind the Government’s great success in rapidly reducing poverty.

Although Viet Nam’s overall progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) remains impressive, there are now real challenges to ensuring that those Vietnamese families that have left poverty do not fall back into poverty. In that context, it is most encouraging to note that the Government has ensured that social security remains an integral part of its current 8 point policy package. From a UN perspective, it is critically important that the Government of Viet Nam continues to give priority to addressing the negative impact the current macroeconomic situation is having on the poor. 

In rural Viet Nam, the presumably positive impact that some expected higher prices for agricultural products would have on rural household incomes is more often than not offset by equally high prices for key agricultural inputs. While  poverty in Viet Nam has increasingly become a phenomena more localized in mountainous regions and ethnic-minority areas, recent macroeconomic turbulence has led to the emergence of new pockets of social deprivation in urban and peri-urban areas, as well as among large segments of the rural population, including self employed people, casual laborers and small farmers.

While social assistance under existing National Targeted Programs for Poverty Reduction and Programme 135 is providing important support, a number of other policy actions are required:  

  • In the short term, focus needs to remain on well targeted actions to address poverty. Importantly, this has recently included concrete actions to support the 61 poorest districts in accelerating poverty reduction, raising the poverty line to take into account higher levels of inflation and, as of next month, increasing social insurance allowances and pensions for some groups. However, there still remain important areas that require priority attention. In particular, poor migrants living in urban areas without residence registrations seem to be hit hardest as social assistance provided under the national targeted programs and other social protection mechanisms are based on household registration, therefore preventing these people from accessing any formal form of social assistance.
  • In the medium and long run, it is our view that the Government should continue to pursue the development of a comprehensive, modern and inclusive social security system that ensures an equitable and progressive provision of social assistance in Viet Nam. Although the implementation of such a reform package might be very challenging at this stage, we encourage the Government not to drop this item from its reform agenda, so as to ensure that socio-economic development in Viet Nam is socially sustainable and equitable.

In your opinion, what are the remaining challenges for Viet Nam to achieve the MDGs by 2015?

Viet Nam is already widely recognized for its rapid and very impressive progress towards the MDGs. The success of the doi moi reforms, and the tremendous progress that the country has made in poverty reduction, education and health over the past two decades, is exemplary. 

But we should be clear -- many serious challenges remain. From a MDG perspective, greater progress is needed regarding Goal 6 on HIV/AIDS where currently there is little sign that the epidemic will be halted and reversed by the target date. The focus on prevention must be scaled up to avoid moving from a concentrated epidemic to a generalised one which has already occurred in particular provinces in Viet Nam. Continued attention needs to be put on expanding coverage of interventions for all key populations at higher risk and coordinating a stronger multi-sectoral response at national and provincial levels.

As Viet Nam strives to become a middle income country by 2010, it is important that it continues to achieve the MDGs in every province, in every commune and in every ward. People living in remote and mountainous areas, particularly ethnic minorities, now comprise a growing proportion of the population in poverty. Child malnutrition remains widespread; almost one in three children is currently malnourished and even national plans currently envisage Viet Nam reaching middle income status with one in five children still not enjoying adequate nutrition.

Although universal primary education is nearly achieved, much still needs to be done to keep children, especially girls -- in the poorest areas and among ethnic groups -- from dropping out of school; access to quality secondary and tertiary education also needs to be expanded. Provision of universal access to reproductive health and contraception services and information remains a challenge. Important progress has been made in the health sector but rising out of pocket expenditures for education and particularly health services, coupled with current high inflation,  represents a serious challenge to social equity and to developing an equitable, efficient and affordable system of health care. There is also concern that a number of targets with regard to rural sanitation  will not be met and that greater attention needs to be given to gender inequalities in economic opportunities and the wage gap between men and women.

Finally, there is the challenge of sustaining progress already made towards achieving the MDGs. As we know, Viet Nam is one of the countries most seriously affected by climate change. The consequences of rising sea levels, and more frequent and damaging disasters, could wipe out progress many provinces have made in achieving the MDGs to this point. Avoiding, mitigating and effectively responding to shocks, be they of an economic, environmental or an epidemic nature – including Avian Influenza -- need to remain priorities if Viet Nam’s progress towards achieving the MDGs is to be sustained.

Looking forward, what additional recommendations do you have and what do you see as the role of the United Nations in supporting the Government to accelerate the implementation of the MDGs?

In addition to the issues already raised, it is very important that the Government continues to implement its 8-point policy package of short-term interventions to slow down inflation and stabilize the macroeconomic situation. The Government deserves considerable credit for the actions it has taken so far to tighten monetary and fiscal policy and it needs to stay the course. As noted, in doing so it also needs to find the most effective means of reaching the poor and those Vietnamese who risk falling back into poverty. 

Going forward the Government also needs to enhance its  focus on addressing the many underlying structural constraints in the area of socio-economic governance that the current macroeconomic situation has made clear. Viet Nam’s increasingly complex economy calls for better regulation of markets and sectors, more effective banking supervision, enhanced transparency and prioritized public infrastructure investment, thereby releasing resources for priority health and social policy expenditures. More broadly, it will be important to continue the agenda for reform, so as to ensure the equal participation of all Vietnamese in all spheres of economic, social and political life and develop concrete plans for adaptation and mitigation of the effects climate change.

Finally, as the United Nations Country Team, and through our ongoing “One UN” reform, we are working hard to enhance the policy, advocacy and normative impact the United Nations can have on many of these challenges. In doing so we aim to maximize the UN’s comparative advantages --  impartiality; access to international expertise and best practice; convening power – so as to provide the most effective support we can to the Government and people of Viet Nam in order to fully achieve the MDGs and to realize the goals and principles of the Millennium Declaration.





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