Sustainable poverty reduction begins with children
The battle against poverty has seen significant positive results in recent decades, but with any journey, the last miles are often the hardest.
To achieve eradication of poverty goals – we need a new direction, we need to add a new focus. This focus is children – thinking through solutions that break the cycle of poverty that has encased their families.
In all countries, they are over-represented in poverty statistics. Without a focus on them, without responses that address the deprivations they face, then yes, we can end poverty today – but we cannot break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
To tackle child poverty is to invest in human potential. The case for tackling child poverty is to fulfil the right of every child to achieve her or his potential.
The Viet Nam Government Online Newspaper had an interview with Ms. Rana Flowers, UNICEF Representative in Viet Nam on the situation of child poverty in Viet Nam and UNICEF’s recommendations for child poverty reduction.
What is the situation of child poverty in Viet Nam?
Ms. Rana Flowers: The experience of poverty goes beyond income: many public services are relevant for children’s development – education, health, protection and others. Children experience poverty as being deprived in the immediate aspects of their lives, areas including nutrition, health, water, education, protection and shelter. However, income or monetary poverty also matters. A family’s standard of living is one of the crucial determinants of the deprivations children experience. Even when not clearly deprived in absolute terms, having a lower standard of living or poorer opportunities in education, health or nutrition compared to peers limits a child’s future life chances.
Despite progress made in poverty reduction in the last decades, there remain about 4 million children in Viet Nam who experience at least two deprivations in the areas of education, health, nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation, information, social inclusion and protection. Evidence confirms that more than half of ethnic minority children experience multidimensional poverty.
Complicating the challenges, children face multiple vulnerabilities due to the changing socio-economic context: They are affected by rapid urbanization and climate change and natural disasters. The most disadvantaged children are the hardest hit because they are already extremely vulnerable and at higher risk of falling into poverty due to malnutrition, lack of access to water and sanitation as well as to quality education and skills development; their parents often have unstable jobs in the informal sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified child poverty, wherein the multiple dimensions have been exacerbated by school closure, limited connectivity, isolation at home, reduced health seeking behaviors, lack of access to water and sanitation and increased violence at home.
How multidimensional poverty affects children’s future development?
Ms. Rana Flowers: Poverty is a violation of children’s rights. If children grow up in poverty, they are more likely to be poor when they become adults. Poor children lack access to essential goods and services and face lifetime consequences such as poor health and nutrition, missed or low-quality education, mental health problems, lack of safety and security, low self-esteem, stigma, violence and limited employment opportunities that guarantee stable income. As such, child poverty locks children into a world where they are unlikely to maximize their potential; unable to grasp the opportunity to contribute to their society and economy.
Child poverty therefore has a detrimental impact on a country’s human capital development and consequently on economic growth. For example, research indicates that child malnutrition negatively impacts physical and cognitive development, which in turn results in lost labour productivity. By addressing child poverty, countries like Viet Nam can reduce adult poverty in the long run while maximizing the economic returns.
What are the gaps in existing mechanisms and policies to address child poverty?
Ms. Rana Flowers: The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number one identifies children as a specific group whose poverty should be measured because children face a particularly high risk of being poor. Children are 50% of the population living below $1.90 per day globally, according to the World Bank: as children represent about a third of the population globally, they are therefore overrepresented among the extreme poor.
In Viet Nam, child poverty measurement has not yet been officially approved and is not being monitored systematically. The existing methods and mechanisms do not accurately measure child specific deprivations that are different from adult deprivations and excludes about 60 per cent of children from various schemes. There is no national survey that collects data on child poverty regularly. The lack of surveillance system at community level is a challenge for central and local governments to detect any significant changes in the situation of children at the onset of an economic crisis, a natural disaster or any other emergency like COVID-19. As a consequence, policy response is delayed.
In Viet Nam, social protection policies are narrowly targeted, with only 10 per cent of children receiving child benefits – these are mainly educational stipends for ethnic minority children and children narrowly categorized by the law. Less than 1 per cent of children under 36 months are receiving child benefits, and it is at a very low value. Administrative bottlenecks such as multiple targeting approaches, complicated beneficiary identification processes and a delivery mechanism that heavily relies on the Post Office excludes even the eligible families and children. This was the case for the Government’s cash assistance package in response to COVID-19.
Moreover, the current social protection system is not responsive to shocks such as economic crisis, natural disasters and pandemic outbreak. The regular cash assistance system does not offer flexibility to expand the coverage at the onset of crisis. As a result, many children and families still lack the support they so desperately need, not only to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 period but to reestablish their lives and livelihoods on more stable footing over the long term.
Child poverty is also often a reflection of inequitable investments by Governments in social services. Currently, Viet Nam allocates 0.04 per cent of its GDP on regular social assistance for children. This is much lower than other middle-income countries in the ASEAN region.
What are UNICEF’s recommendations and support for child poverty reduction?
Ms. Rana Flowers: COVID-19 is inevitably a child right crisis – the disruption to regular services has placed pressure on families to spend more on health care, food supplies, internet credits for online learning, childcare and alternative transport. Meanwhile, many parents experienced job loss or reduced income. Families already living in poverty will slide further in, and those on the cusp of escaping poverty will be flung back. Many more families will struggle to provide for their children and to access the childcare and other support they need to cope. Economists predict that the crisis will be protracted, with a long path to recovery ahead.
Routine monitoring and reporting of child poverty is critical to ensuring that accurate and targeted plans and programs are in place to end child poverty, and to track progress. A positive first step would be to utilize the official multi-dimensional child poverty measurement tool to track progress against the national development plans (SEDPs) and SDGs. Establishing a mechanism to regularly generate data would be a crucial step for leaders to receive timely and informed information, allowing them to adjust policies and allocate budgets. UNICEF is pleased to have provided technical support to this process and looks forward to an accelerated finalization.
Ultimately, sustainable poverty reduction starts with children. We have an obligation to safeguard child rights and step up investments in the country’s future. According to the new report published by the Overseas Development Institute and UNICEF, universal child benefits have proved to reduce poverty rates. Universal cash benefits provided to children in middle-income countries at a cost of just 1 per cent of GDP would lead to 20 per cent decline in poverty across the entire population.
As such, UNICEF encourages that the Government of Viet Nam seize this opportunity to accelerate social assistance reform agenda. A key step would be to revise the cash assistance scheme to expand the coverage and raise the value of benefits. UNICEF in partnership with other UN agencies is advocating for the Government to devise a roadmap to outline a phased approach that gives due priority to all young children 0-3 years old as a critical window of opportunity for child development and then expand to older children over time. Increasingly, the need for a social assistance system to be equipped with a built-in mechanism to anticipate and respond to the risks of climate change, economic crisis and pandemic outbreaks is needed and must be a priority.
Universal child benefits must be positioned within and supported by broader social policies where cash and services improve children’s wellbeing – in aspects related to education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation and protection from violence – all of which lead to sound human capital development. It is crucial to place the child poverty reduction agenda at the heart of Viet Nam’s Socio-Economic Development Plan and to allocate budget for effective implementation.
By Nhat Thy Update: 07 July 2020