Looking at poverty from a child rights perspective

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child_povertyHoa Binh, Viet Nam, May 2010 - Nguyen Thi Gai is a farmer living in Hoa Binh, a mountainous province in the north of Viet Nam. Her 15-year-old son died after he was seriously injured at a construction site, where he had been working to support his family. At the hospital, doctors found out Gai’s son had been suffering from malnutrition for a while. Gai’s family had never qualified to receive support from Government schemes as they live above the official poverty line. Yet Gai’s income was not enough to provide for her children’s education and nutritional needs. Her four children, three daughters and one son, only attended primary school and all of them started working during their teen years. 

Many children, like Gai’s son, are overlooked by poverty alleviation schemes in Viet Nam as the country still uses monetary criteria to measure child poverty. In order to receive support from the Government, a child has to live in a household which is defined as poor according to the national monetary poverty standard. In rural areas, that means a household with a total income of less than VND 200,000 (USD 10) per person per month.

As Jesper Morch, UNICEF’s Representative in Viet Nam, explains, measuring poverty in just monetary terms has significant limitations as it does not take into consideration children’s basic needs, which are different from those of adults. “Children, for example, have different dietary requirements related to their specific stage of development. They also rely on their parents to distribute the resources for their basic needs. This means that some children might live in families with reasonably high incomes, but their needs in terms of adequate and quality health care, education, shelter, clean water or nutritious food are not met. These children should be considered as living in poverty and they should be able to benefit from poverty alleviation mechanisms,” Mr Morch says.

Advocacy – a participatory process
Viet Nam has reduced its overall poverty rate in a remarkably short period of time. With the Government now preparing its next Socio-Economic Development Strategy, the United Nations is focusing on ways to help the country revise its poverty reduction approach to make it more targeted at reducing and eliminating all forms of poverty.

Working together, UN agencies have recently supported the review of key poverty reduction plans. This review process has influenced Government thinking on ways to address chronic and multi-dimensional poverty and poverty among ethnic minority groups; the role of social protection; the specific contribution of cash transfers in tackling poverty; and the coordination of the various programmes and policies that currently form the poverty reduction and social protection framework.  

According to Alex Warren-Rodriguez, Economic Policy Advisor with UNDP: “Poverty cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration all the factors that impinge on people’s ability to develop their full potential and, therefore, their chance to lead better lives. Monetary and economic considerations are only one aspect of this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one.”

Focusing specifically on child poverty, the UN and the Government of Viet Nam during 2006-2009 organised a series of workshops involving experts from ministries and UN agencies to discuss and review current policies related to child poverty and to identify ways to better address child poverty and deprivation.

“With Viet Nam’s amazing record on poverty reduction, we decided to take it further and look at the child angle. What is child poverty? It is not about money, but about deprivation. We are not saying that one measure is better than the other. Poverty has two faces: you cannot look at income poverty without looking at multi-dimensional poverty. We took the idea to the the Government, explaining that it would only benefit from embracing the notion of looking at child poverty through the deprivation angle and that it would not in any way detract from their impressive overall poverty reduction efforts,” Jesper Morch explains.

Aware of the importance of the issue, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs and the General Statistics Office, with technical support from the UN and the University of Maastricht (the Netherlands), developed a country-specific, multidimensional child poverty measurement tool. Taking into consideration basic needs and rights of the child, the tool looks beyond the monetary measures of poverty and incorporates eight other domains: education; nutrition; health; shelter; water and sanitation; child labour; leisure; social inclusion and protection. A child is considered to be living in poverty if his/her needs are unmet in at least two out of the eight domains.

Using the new approach, significantly more children are identified as poor compared to the monetary approach. Children living in rural areas in general, and in the northern regions of the country in particular, are more likely to live in poverty. The poverty domains with the highest rates of deprivation include water and sanitation, leisure and health. Children who belong to ethnic minority groups have a much higher risk of experiencing poverty.  

“Using this approach, one in three children in Viet Nam is considered poor. I remember that when the figure was publicly released in late 2009, the Prime Minister literally jumped out of his seat!”, Jesper Morch recalls.

Integrating child poverty dimensions into future government policies
To introduce and advocate for the adoption of the new approach to child poverty, a conference was organised by the Government and the UN in November 2009. Over one hundred participants from national and provincial government agencies, bilateral and multilateral organisations, NGOs and academic institutions took part in the conference.  

“Although Viet Nam has achieved almost all of the Millennium Development Goals, many challenges remain that require the Government of Viet Nam to keep on studying a more comprehensive, more sustainable and more equitable poverty reduction orientation, narrowing the disparities among regions and among different groups so that everyone, especially children, are able to benefit from the outcomes of economic growth,” Vice-Minister Mr. Nguyen Bich Dat noted at the conference.

“Reducing child poverty will not only improve children’s lives today, but also contribute to reducing adult poverty in the long run,” Mr. Morch added.

The conference set a milestone in efforts to integrate multiple dimensions of child poverty into future Government policies, such as the Socio-Economic Development Plan, the National Social Protection Strategy and the National Target Programme for Poverty Reduction.