Head above water

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Vietnam's development juggernaut has left many precariously perched on and below the poverty line

A 60-year-old woman wades through neck-deep water to collect mussels and shells at West Lake in Hanoi to sell and earn about VND60,000 (about $3) after spending 8 to 10 hours in the water a day. Experts have advised a new approach to reduce poverty among ethnic minorities and migrant workers.

While Vietnam has made great strides in poverty alleviation over the last few decades, it is ill-equipped to meet the needs of emerging groups of newly poor and vulnerable people, international experts said at a donors' meeting on June 9.

As part of the group of middle-income countries (MICs) now, the country requires a different approach to reduce persisting poverty, they said.

"The country has just joined the group of MICs ahead of the target set in the last SEDP [Socio-Economic Development Plan]... At the same time, enormous challenges remain regarding the unfinished low income country agenda, including ethnic minority poverty," said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam at the opening of the one-day 2010 mid-year Consultative Group (CG) Meeting.

John Hendra, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Vietnam, at the meeting held in the Mekong Delta's Kien Giang Province, also called for a different approach to poverty alleviation over the next five to 10 years.

"Inclusive growth is necessary to support rapid and sustained poverty reduction and ensure that people can contribute to and benefit from Vietnam's progress," he said.

While rapid industrialization and urbanization is part of the SEDP's vision for growth, it needs to be complemented by a greater understanding of its impact on inequality, he said.

Addressing a workshop on "Directions for Poverty Reduction Program in the 2011-2020 period" in Hanoi last month, Hendra said: "At the macro-level, we see that many ethnic minority and mountainous areas are falling further and further behind the rest of the country in terms of socioeconomic development."

It is also apparent that "many people are being pushed back into poverty or falling deeper into poverty due to shocks such as the global economic crisis, human and animal epidemics, and more frequent natural disasters, exacer bated by climate change," he said.

"There are emerging groups that are newly poor or especially vulnerable to poverty, including female and male migrant workers in urban areas and workers with unstable and low-income jobs in the informal sector. For these groups there seems to be a lack of mechanisms and policies available to address their needs," Hendra said.

Prior to the mid-term Consultative Group meeting, prominent NGOs like ActionAid and Oxfam had recommended that donors and the government commit sufficient resources to new poverty reduction programs which recognize the new poverty line and the need for greater per capita investment in the poorest communes.

New investments are needed to further address rural "poverty pockets", gender inequality, widening poverty gaps, and to develop comprehensive social protection in rural areas, they said.

In April, the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs had said the number of poor families in Vietnam will increase to between 17 to 22 percent if the new poverty lines are approved and take effect from next year.

The ministry has submitted a proposal to the government to define poverty at a monthly average income of VND300,000 (US$13.2) per person in rural areas and VND600,000 ($31.6) in urban areas. Another option is to set the threshold at VND480,000 ($25.3) and VND700,000 ($36.9), respectively.

The current poverty threshold is a monthly income of VND200,000 ($10.5) in rural areas and VND270,000 ($14.2) in urban areas. Families below this threshold account for 11.3 percent of total families in the country.

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