Child poverty not merely a question of money

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Ms. Geetanjali Narayan, chief of Planning and Social Policy Section of UNICEF Vietnam tells Thanh Nien Weekly that child poverty in Vietnam involves more problems than simply the lack of money.

Thanh Nien Weekly: Does child poverty have anything to do with abuse of child labor in Vietnam? Why or why not?

Geetanjali Narayan: Child poverty is about children being deprived in key areas related to their well-being and development. In Vietnam, the child poverty approach developed by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) and UNICEF includes eight domains or areas of child well-being: education; nutrition; health; shelter; water and sanitation; child labor; leisure; social inclusion and protection.

Each of the eight domains has a related set of poverty indicators, which are considered to appropriately reflect the poverty status of children. If a child is deprived in two or more of these domains (e.g. if he is not fully immunized or does not have access to safe water and sanitation), then he would be considered poor. Child labor is one of the domains identified as important to looking at child poverty in Vietnam, but does not stand on its own. For instance, a child that is engaged in any type of labor also stands the chance to be deprived of his or her education and possibly is exposed to hazardous circumstances that present a health risk.

Has the “street children” problem always been an issue in Vietnam, or is this a relatively new development?

“Street children” should not be seen as a problem but as an inadequacy on the part of society â€" parents, communities, local authorities, other caregivers for children â€" to protect, care and nurture these children. We have to ask ourselves what is underlying or causing the presence of children on the streets. Usually it is related to monetary poverty. At the same time, it is not only about monetary poverty. Street children are also often deprived of adequate shelter, protection, education, health and nutrition. They are therefore very likely to be considered poor according to the new multidimensional approach to child poverty. The multidimensional approach helps us to see how poverty manifests in different ways â€" street children may have money, for example, but still be deprived of education.

It should also be noted that street children may be “invisible” in official poverty statistics, which are based on the Vietnam Household Living Standards Survey â€" a national survey which includes only officially registered households.

If the problem is not new, how has it changed over the years?

Street children are often noticed more as a country modernizes and industrializes rapidly, without adequate social safety nets in place. Vietnam is clearly undergoing major social and economic changes presently, and this trend will continue into the future as the country aims to achieve full industrialized country status by 2020. However, as these changes occur, it is important to ensure that all groups are benefitting from the socioeconomic progress, and that some groups are not being left behind. Disparities and inequalities can easily increase in such periods of transition â€" and we see that disparities in Vietnam are widening.

When we look at the child poverty rates for different regions, we see that child poverty rates are highest in the northern mountainous regions, the north west and north east, and in the Mekong River Delta. The high degree of child poverty found in the Mekong River Delta is quite surprising as the region is among the better performing regions in terms of economic growth and relatively low monetary poverty. In line with the regional poverty results, the findings also suggest that ethnic minority children face a higher poverty risk (63 percent) than children of Kinh/Chinese groups (25 percent).

Some people say the “street children” problem stems from poor families in the countryside who send their kids to the city to make money. But aren’t there other causes to this problem?

There are many reasons that children live and work on the streets. This is why it is important to adopt an approach that helps us to examine the different aspects of children’s situation, and see where they are deprived or where they are not getting the same standard of care and attention as other children in the country. The multidimensional child poverty approach allows us, for example, to see that sanitation is one of the most important areas of deprivation experienced by children in Vietnam. This should lead us to focus efforts in terms of policy, programs and budget investments in the area of sanitation so that we can make more of an impact on reducing child poverty.

What are the long-term solutions that the Vietnamese government and civil society can adopt to solve this problem?

Using the new approach, one third of all children are identified as being poor, and they represent quite different groups of children. Children living in rural areas in general, and in the north west and north east regions in particular, are more likely to live in poverty. The poverty domains with the highest rates of deprivation are water and sanitation, and leisure and health. Children who belong to an ethnic minority group have a much higher chance to experience poverty.

This knowledge will help in the development of an integrated and coordinated policy response on the part of the government line agencies responsible for the different domains, such as the Ministry of Education and Training for education, the Ministry of Health for health and nutrition, etc. The use of a multidimensional approach would imply the design of integrated tailor-made intervention packages for children, which combine services (supply side) in for example education, health, nutrition, or water and sanitation, with social protection instruments (demand side) such as cash transfers or child benefits. A child-sensitive approach to social protection should use child poverty indicators to identify ‘target groups’ of poor and vulnerable children whose basic needs are unmet.

Lastly, it would be one option for the government to prioritize resource allocation to domains and regions with the highest Child Poverty Rates. Currently the government relies heavily on monetary poverty measurement as the main criterion for budget allocations to different poverty reduction programs as well as for fiscal transfers to sub-national levels. The multidimensional child poverty approach brings a more comprehensive perspective to resource allocation decisions.

Reported by An Dien

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