Poverty's down, but that's small comfort for Vietnam's destitute

By Phung Duc Tung   January 1, 2019 | 04:30 am PT
Conventional welfare programs, ironically, can’t help the ones who need them the most.
Phung Duc Tung, economist

Economist Phung Duc Tung

A small shack stood next to a paddy field. Inside, light so faint that it would not light up all corners of the 15sq.m space fell on the faces of a H'Mong woman and her two children.

As a local official and I reached the hut, the cries of one of the children filled the space inside the four tattered walls of their home. That child was so severely malnourished that he could neither walk nor talk.

The woman, a member of one of Vietnam’s 50 plus minority communities, only knew how to speak her mother tongue, not Vietnamese. Through my colleague’s translation, I learnt that her husband was out, trying to find someone who would hire him so he could bring some rice back home for his family.

I looked around. It was obvious they didn’t have much. There was a small pot in the corner of the room with a handful of rice in it. A dilapidated bed, with a dusty, opaque mosquito net hung over it, was in another corner. It was 10 a.m and there was no semblance of a lunch being made.

Both husband and wife had mental health issues. They had no wealth, no relative and no land. Even the shack they lived in was temporarily given to them out of goodwill by a neighbor.

This encounter happened in 2006, but to this day, memories of that day were as new as yesterday.

Bleak future

At that time, I was a part of a Swedish charity project that aimed to help farmers escape poverty in several ways, including helping them to buy cattle at reduced prices. A family only needed to pitch in 5 percent of the cost of a head of cattle to own it.

"No," the official told me when I asked if the H'Mong family was eligible to get a cow from the project. They did not have 5 percent of the VND10 million ($431) needed to get a cow.

The official noted further that it was "natural" they could not take care of a single cow, their hands full just taking care of their own children.

Many years later, I still remember the expression etched onto that official’s face when he walked into that shack. It was fear. I suspected he was scared that he would be haunted by what he saw in that shack. He was not alone.

I wondered then, as I do now: Could mentally challenged persons find someone to hire them? Would the wages they get be enough to feed them and their families? Would that poor, malnourished child ever get better, or would he still be confined to his bed, or would he eventually die from his circumstances?

I couldn’t answer any of those questions.

Children walk home after a day collecting firewood in Vietnams northern highlands. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Children walk home after a day collecting firewood in Vietnam's northern highlands. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

At the end of 2018, the government and its numerous sponsors were praising the nation's success in reducing poverty. From 2012 to 2016, the number of 'poor' people reduced from 12.6 percent to about 7 percent of the population, according to the United Nations Development Program. This has also helped Vietnam rank 57th out of 193 member nations of the U.N. in the fulfillment of its Sustainable Development Goals in 2018, nine ranks higher than the previous year.

But for families like the H'Mong family I met, the future is anything but bright. Even if they got some help, it is unlikely that they would manage to maintain their finances in the black for long.

In Vietnam, once you’re very poor, it’s hard to get out of that dark place.

For such families, conventional welfare policies to help the elderly, the disabled and orphans, among others, are not workable options. They need much stronger, more specialized programs to make the smallest improvements in their living standards.

Sure, Vietnam might be among the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world. But what’s more important is whether that growth is carrying all our people along. Sadly, in our case, the answer is: No.

And if we stay focused on fast growth, falling poverty rates will not benefit the poorest of the poor fast enough. They are simply not equipped to seize opportunities the way other population segments are.

We need to provide poor people with welfare programs tailored to each group. Then, we need to fund these programs sufficiently and enlist more assistance from local and international NGOs as well as other independent organizations.

Vietnam needs to practice what it has preached for so many years: "In Vietnam, no one is left behind."

*Phung Duc Tung is the director of the Mekong Development Research Institute in Hanoi and an economist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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