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Ethnic minorities need stronger voice in public policy on poverty

Update: June, 02/2012 - 09:35

Ahead of next Monday's Consultative Group meeting on breakthroughs in poverty reduction, Oxfam's associate country director Bert Maerten talks about the importance of local voices in achieving poverty reduction.

Lives have improved tremendously in rural areas during the last decade, even in remote and mountainous areas. Prior to 2007, women in Ban Lien, a remote commune in northern mountainous Lao Cai Province, had little access to markets and the outside world. Since a market was set up in 2008, they have been able to sell surplus vegetables there. The market is also a place for information sharing and has improved channels and opportunities for communication.

Such a sense of progress and achievement exists among many communities around the country. Millions have lifted themselves out of poverty. Despite such progress, opportunities seem to be bypassing a significant number of people who live in chronic poverty.

According to a joint poverty monitoring survey conducted by Oxfam and ActionAid in 10 communes nationwide, 23 per cent of those surveyed live in chronic poverty – 45 per cent or more of those in ethnic minority communities.

Nationwide, 5-6 million people are estimated to be food insecure, while one of three children under five is stunted. These are far from ‘pockets' of poverty but are large swathes of the country mired in deep, intergenerational poverty.

Similarly, new forms of injustice are also emerging. The manner in which opportunities, resources, risks and benefits are shared is critical in a middle-income country. As access to and control over natural resources become more valuable and contested, risks increase alongside new economic opportunities. Winners and losers are created, shifts in power occur and barriers can become more entrenched. In a more diverse economy and society, the voices of people, especially the poor and marginalised, need to be heard in order to confront exclusion and guarantee a fair distribution of opportunities and benefits.

Poverty is increasingly concentrated among ethnic minorities. Minorities are five times more likely to be poor than the Kinh majority. In 2010, minorities accounted for 47 per cent of nation's total population living in poverty and two-thirds of those in the poorest 10 per cent of the population. Understanding sources of such inequality, including patterns of social exclusion, discrimination and stigma, will be crucial in order for public policy responses to be more effective.

For example, ethnic minorities suffer from poorer quality services, such as health education and infrastructure. They consistently have poorer quality land allocations, even when statistics show they have more land. Restrictions on access to forest lands has had enormous impacts on some ethnic minority communities.

But important innovations in public policy are already underway or being explored. The social security strategy offers opportunities to better target and tailor household assistance. Cash transfers are being considered and piloted, while block grant allocations to authorities in poor areas should enable better decisions about what investments and approaches are needed to address local poverty.

We have also seen important changes in the media, although other shifts are needed to overcome the exclusion of ethnic minorities. Stronger and genuinely participatory processes need to be instituted that enable discussion, debate, and advocacy of ethnic interests. A broader dialogue about the role of culture in poverty reduction and development is important. The ability for a people and nation to reflect on and question the various forms and causes of exclusion is one of biggest challenges facing the achievement of a prosperous and just society. But it is through this that the fight against poverty and injustice will ultimately be won. — VNS

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