Working with governments to reduce child poverty and enhance equity

UNICEF’s renewed pursuit of equity for children has two central meanings for me. First, children in the worst possible circumstances should always be our very first priority – as UNICEF contemplated our responsibilities under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted 26 years ago – this was one of our very first conclusions.   Secondly – it remind us that all our work should help promote equality of opportunity – UNICEF’s has a responsibility to help build a world where every child has an equal chance to develop, participate and aspire to be the most that she and he can be.

I thought about these goals last March, when I met a family in Vietnam who are poor by every definition: their income is so meagre that they are below both their country’s absolute poverty line and the globally accepted definition of extreme poverty of $1.25 day (recently increased to $1.90). As members of the Hmong ethnic group their marginalisation is even more acute: while the father is able to communicate in Vietnamese, the mother cannot – she has never been to school – and the children struggle in a classroom where only Vietnamese is used.

The multigenerational nature of this family’s hardship is evident in this photo. While I can’t be sure, I’d say that the mother – standing next to me – probably would be closer to my own still-petite 1.56m (5’1”) had she benefited from proper nutrition as a child. The boys are 12 and 8 years old, and seem equally unlikely to reach their full growth potential – just one sign of their unequal chances.

UNICEF staff Alex Yuster with a family in Vietnam.
UNICEF HQ/NishinoUNICEF staff member Alex Yuster standing with a family in Vietnam.

But my equity story is not about nutrition or intergenerational poverty per se – it’s about the importance of getting social protection right to help level the playing field and make equity a reality.   Governments – and communities – provide social protection to help mitigate poverty and reduce risks, through programmes like cash grants to families, health insurance, day care, social work, and public policies to counter discrimination (for example, supporting bilingual education where needed).

This family has some social protection benefits – both school and basic health care are free. This helps a little, though not as much as one might hope. There’s the challenge of the rainy season: the family live high up the mountain: see those are terraced rice paddies? The boys must climb down them, through about a kilometre of slippery mud, to reach their school.

A view of the landscape
UNCIEF HQ/Nishino A view of the landscape around the village, with terraced paddies in the distance.

For health care there’s another kind of obstacle. The family needs a special card from the local council to certify eligibility for free health care; while local officials have no doubt about this family’s need, the paperwork for the card is complex, and they are still waiting for their cards for this year.

But by far the largest support they have received so far is also their greatest financial burden. In the photos you may notice that their home is made from woven reeds – through which insects, small animals, and the cold – a real issue at this altitude – can easily pass. The roof, however, is sturdy and new, so they can at least count on being dry. It was paid for by a combined grant and loan for which their low income makes them eligible. While the roof and the grant must have been welcome, I could not see how this family could possibly manage the loan portion; the equivalent to $600, or about 2 years of their total income.

Fulfilling our equity mandate means keeping families like this in mind as we help countries think through their approach to social protection, as indeed we have begun to do with the Government of Vietnam. How can programmes be made more accessible for the poorest families, linked together so that they are more user friendly for families and cost-efficient for governments, and of course, well-designed so that they truly make a difference? There’s far to go of course, but identifying both what is working well and what could work better is an important first step.

There are many examples of how well-designed social protection can make children’s lives better. Mexico’s Opportunidades and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programmes are often cited. The graph below, shows what a difference transfers make in wealthier countries:


Source: Statistics Uncovered by Yekaterina Chzhen based on Eurostat

I would like though to share a different, promising example of promoting equity through effective social protection. In Ghana, UNICEF has helped the government to strengthen its social protection system since 2008. The Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme is considered a flagship. LEAP provides a bimonthly cash benefit that has enabled the poorest families to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, be healthier, enroll and keep their children in school. The programme is linked with other initiatives: all LEAP participants are automatically enrolled for free in the country’s national health insurance system. You can read more about this remarkable programme here.

A woman carries many things, on  her head and in her hands, and looks directly at the camera
UNICEF/UNI162189/FrisoneJulia uses her LEAP cash to pay for school fees and can now afford to take them to the clinic when they fall sick. She also uses some of it to buy fruit and sell it around the neighborhood. “I’m more hopeful now about the future than I was before” she says.


The LEAP programme is an equity model not only because of who it reaches, but also in how the government has begun to finance it. Globally, it is well established that fuel subsidies benefit the middle class and well off more than the poor. Still, ending these subsidies can still make life harder for those with the least means, since it can affect transport, food and other costs.  Many countries are reviewing the possibility of removing these subsides to make better use of scarce resources, and UNICEF has helped several to review what the impact on the poorest would be and what policy approaches might help to mitigate this.

In Ghana, this analysis led the government to decide to invest the savings from the fuel subsidy reform into LEAP. Currently, the flagship programme reaches 110,000 households and is expanding. A step forward for equity, for the poorest families and children in Ghana, and a reminder that we can and should keep looking for innovative ways to make equity a reality – including through the work we do on child poverty, social protection and better and more equitable public finance for children.


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