UN Report offers advice on expanding choices for the rural poor

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The United Nations today released a report on human development in Viet Nam which addresses the social dimensions of the reform process in the country.

"Expanding Choices for the Rural Poor offers some frameworks for human development and the expansion of choices for the poorest and most vulnerable groups, especially in rural areas," said Mr Edouard A. Wattez, UN Resident Coordinator in Viet Nam.

The report praises Viet Nam's doi moi reform process as having substantially improved the overall well-being of the vast majority of people in the country. "The impressive success of doi moi has been largely based on a process of expanding ‘choices' for the people, which has better enabled their participation in the development process and empowered them to improve their livelihoods," said Mr Wattez.

The report states: "Poverty has been reduced from more than an estimated 70% in the mid-1980s to somewhere closer to 30% today, according to recent preliminary data from an ongoing living standard measurement survey using international criteria, and supported by Sweden, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme."

However, the study points out that widespread poverty and near-poverty still remain the most pressing human development challenges in Viet Nam, especially in the rural areas where 80% of the population and 90% of the poorest live. According to the study, average income per capita in the country is still quite low, at around US$310 per annum and less than US$200 per annum in rural areas. Many other human development indicators like infant mortality, nutrition, life expectancy, family planning choices, and gender equity also have scope for improvement.

The analysis recommends that continuous socio-economic reforms are key to achieving the Government's socio-economic objectives. "In light of lessons learned from the doi moi reform process over the past 13 years, a further expansion of ‘choices' in the non-state sector, through widening the doi moi reform process, appears to offer the greatest potential for sustainable poverty reduction and human development," said the UN Resident Coordinator.

The study identified various elements fundamental to increasing people's choices for escaping poverty. These include, timely information on market conditions for relevant agricultural and non-agricultural products; greater certainty and further expansion of land user rights; better rural infrastructure; a more liberalized interest rate policy on micro-credits for the poor; better management of (capital-intensive) state-owned enterprises; reduced monopoly from the granting of export quotas to state trading companies; improved family planning choices; and more effective and stable laws and regulations.

The study also points to the special physical, social and cultural disadvantages that limit "choices" of the poorest of the poor, saying that improving the enabling environment for human development will be necessary, but may not be sufficient to enable their escape from poverty. More direct measures, the study noted, may be needed to expand "choices" for such poor, especially in improving access to basic education and vocational training, primary health care services, clean water and sanitation.

A major finding of the study is that it appears virtually impossible for a farm family to find a sustainable escape from poverty through food crop production on the very small plots which are their immediate enabling environments. According to the study, Viet Nam has too many subsistence farmers, who are blocked by various constraints and obstacles from improving productivity and diversifying their sources of livelihood. It recommends that the most direct way to eliminate rural poverty would be to provide a more conducive enabling environment for rural residents to find new ways to use local resources, create more value-added, and generate higher incomes.

Accordingly, the study recommends improving the social security system and allocations of social expenditures in order to better assist the poorest and most vulnerable, and improve access to basic social services. Within the existing budget for social expenditures, reallocation towards commune health centres and primary education within the poorest districts and communes would improve access by the poorest to basic social services.

The study praises the Vietnamese Government's recent plans to assist the poorest 1,715 communes throughout the country, as offering great potential for improving the overall well-being of the poorest in Viet Nam.

Throughout the report, a number of suggestions are offered on how both macro and micro policies can help realise human development potential. The report also emphasises that broadening human development choice is the most promising means to identify and benefit from Viet Nam's sustainable comparative advantages.