Exclusive interview with UNDP China Country Director Agi Veres.
Since the process of reform and opening up began in 1979, China has achieved unprecedented progress in the sphere of poverty alleviation and has contributed greatly towards global poverty reduction.
China Report ASEAN recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Agi Veres, the Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China to discuss China’s poverty alleviation work.
China Report ASEAN: Our topic today is China’s poverty alleviation work. China is developing very quickly and has done a lot of work towards alleviating poverty. How do you evaluate China’s efforts in this field?
Agi Veres: Over the decades of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) China contributed to the poverty alleviation goal to a great extent. I think that beyond the numbers of how many people are lifted out of poverty, the effect is much greater than that. When we look at poverty alleviation we can look at the absolute number of poor people but we also need to look at the multi-dimensional aspect of poverty. How do we impact, through poverty alleviation, the access to services, healthcare, education and how a country reduces inequalities. So in that sense I think China’s achievement is enormous both domestically for the sheer numbers of people it managed to take out of poverty, but also it has had a huge impact globally. It contributed enormously to the goal of poverty eradication but also by increasing participation in global development multilateralism by supporting South-South cooperation and also by increasing investments that generate growth in other countries; there is a multiplier effect.
Over the decades China has been more and more active in the international arena, helping other countries to engage in South-South cooperation. In terms of China’s international efforts, a lot of people just think of infrastructure, but there is also healthcare, technology transfer, human capital, all of these things help people in developing countries to address their own development challenges. This kind of support should always be part of a national development strategy so that when China and other countries help, it needs to be an integrated approach, and while it addresses poverty reduction and economic growth, it also helps to engage communities and so forth.
UNDP has done a lot of work to encourage China to alleviate poverty in 2016. Please could you give a short introduction to your efforts?
2016 was a special year for poverty alleviation in China for many reasons. Firstly, this was the first year of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global objectives to address development issues, and China has really been a champion of this both domestically and internationally.
Second, the 13th 5-Year Plan just started, and China set out a very ambitious course to essentially eradicate poverty by 2020.
So when we were looking at what UNDP can contribute in 2016 we were very conscious of the role of the Chinese Government in poverty alleviation, so we wanted to make sure that we complement those efforts and contribute rather than do something that the government and dedicated poverty agencies already do. So in that sense our focus was essentially on a few big things.
One, when we look at poverty eradication, one main questions, especially from the international community, will be on data and achievements monitoring. So UNDP has been experimenting with the innovation of big data, to see how we could use big data for more real-time monitoring of poverty. We developed an index and published the first ever big data report on poverty alleviation for China where you can see on an interactive map how poverty is looking in various parts of China, based on various indicators. The idea is to offer a compliment to what the official data is saying, given the fact that the poverty alleviation target is 5 years, so we really need to see how poverty is moving in this period.
Secondly, as I said, 2016 was the first year of the SDGs, and China put in lot of effort and published a national implementation plan for the SDGs. So to achieve this, UNDP, based on our experience in addressing development issues, we really believe that we have to focus on the local level. For a country to achieve major development outcomes at the national level, it really depends on the efforts at the local level. So we started on capacity building, training and advocacy with local governments to help them better understand what the SDGs are about and give them some tools so that they can transform their development planning to reflect an integrated approach. Not just on poverty reduction and economic growth, but also the environment, social issues and healthcare. We hope to continue this in 2017.
You have worked a lot with the central government. In the future will you just work with local governments?
It is important to do both. Of course our main partner is the central government and we always work very closely with the central government. We can identify places that need help with them, for example the Ministry of Commerce identified Qinghai is one of the poorest provinces that could really do with some help from the UN. So then we worked with the local government there on training and to help them to see how they can transform their planning processes to make sure they identify well what they need to do on the ground in their specific context. Every province, every county is different; they all have their own challenges and opportunities, so if we just work at the national level it is very difficult to have poverty solutions that fit at the local level.
So if you want to do your work more effectively do you need to do a lot of research?
First of all, we need to work closely with partners, including the government, private companies, NGOs that have already done a lot of work on the ground. Then, if there’s still a need for additional analysis, UNDP has the capacity to do that. In today’s world nobody has the resources to address everything alone so we really need to work together towards those goals.
For example, we have done an analysis in 2016 for sustainable financing for poverty alleviation in China. This can help us understand the gaps and the success stories for sustainable financing for poverty alleviation.
It is now the New Year. What plans do you have to work together with China in poverty alleviation?
The big data report was new last year, an experiment, so we hope to improve on that and produce something that Chinese poverty reduction agencies can use on the ground.
Secondly, in 2017 we want to support the local level a little bit more, not just capacity building but also the tools to enable local bodies to implement development projects.
Another area we started to work on and want to do more of is to work with ethnic minority women because there are certain groups in the landscape of poor people that really need targeted support. We have been working with women in villages in Yunnan province, helping them to stay in their villages, keep their cultural heritage, but also lift them out of poverty; using their local embroidery, linking them to e-commerce and other income-generating activities so we would like to scale up those efforts.
Which are your most challenging plans for next year?
The most difficult is the localization of the SDGs, making an integrated approach. Because China is so enormous and the resources are very limited. So we need to prioritise the places most in need and consider where we have partners and sufficient resources to actually implement our plans. So the difficulty is to do things at scale in China because of the sheer size of the country, the number of people and the complexity of the setup. So we hope we can focus on the poorest provinces, get good results there, then later it can be scaled up further.
You mentioned that there are lots of different people from different places. So do you think that communication is also a problem?
It can be difficult to understand each other in today’s world when one-on-one communication becomes rarer and rarer, we rely on social media and communication through intermediaries a lot. But communication is the most important part because understanding the challenges and how to overcome them is the first key step. If everybody shares that understanding then we are on the right track together. So that’s why I think our advocacy work on the SDGs is also one of the most important things that we’ve been trying to strengthen over the past year.
China has a lot of experience in poverty alleviation. What do you think China can do for other countries with UNDP?
I think that’s a really good question because we are also very keen on working on South-South cooperation with the government, where there is a lot of good will and initiative to help other countries. First of all, there is an enormous interest in learning from China’s poverty experience. We have country offices in over 170 locations worldwide and we always get this question; ‘Can you share China’s experience?’ People want to know what worked, what didn’t work, but there is not a simple answer to that because China’s poverty alleviation was very unique to China, it had a lot to do with the enormous economic development. And something that’s relevant to China’s poverty eradication may not be relevant for Rwanda, a small African country, for example. So we can help to try to translate China’s poverty reduction experience into the context of these other countries. We don’t just want to document what happened but understand the importance of leadership, governance, and specific targeted measures. In terms of eradicating poverty, China has a lot of resources to boost development in other countries through investment, simple development assistance, technology, knowledge transfer. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative is another good example where shared economic growth can lead to shared development that helps improve people’s lives. If the Belt and Road Initiative can really generate development dividends, that will be an enormous contribution from China for world development.