Ending poverty in China: A 20-year perspective from staff in the frontlines

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This blog is part of a series produced to commemorate End Poverty Day (October 17), focusing on China – which has contributed more than any other country to global poverty reduction – and its efforts to end extreme poverty by 2020. Read the blog series here.
Since the beginnings of the rural economic reform process in 1978, China has played the lead role in the global effort to overcome absolute poverty. The World Bank has, since 1981, assisted China both in the country’s extraordinary overall economic growth and its tremendously successful poverty reduction program.
It has been a great pleasure and privilege to have worked with China’s Leading Group Office for Poverty Reduction (LGOP) since 1990 in their highly successful poverty reduction program. I have seen first-hand the complete elimination of the worst aspects of absolute poverty throughout all of China’s poorest areas. I have hiked into hundreds of poor villages throughout the uplands of western China, where in the 1990s it was common to find villages where many households had not achieved basic food security and most households and children experienced malnutrition, where most school age children would not complete elementary school and where there was no local access to basic health care. Homes lacked road access, drinking water, and other basic infrastructure. 
Alan with kids on the project site, Photo: Alan Piazza
It is now impossible to find villages or households experiencing such extreme forms of deprivation in China.  In my opinion, this extraordinary achievement is explained by China’s strong rural and overall economic growth since 1978 and the well-funded, effectively implemented, and comprehensive poverty reduction program since the 1980s. But this took time and collaboration across many sectors, involving several partners, including the World Bank.
As a World Bank staff and consultant since 1981, I have actively participated in this strong collaboration.  The highlight and center of my work at the Bank was an extensive and very close collaboration with China’s Leading Group Office for Poverty Reduction (LGOP) between 1990-2012.  During these 22 years, I led the World Bank team that collaborated with LGOP on two major China poverty assessments and four village-based poverty reduction projects with more than seven million beneficiaries and a total IDA/IBRD lending amount of US$634 million (UNDP, DFID, the Japanese Government, CARE, Handicap International, and many other multilateral, government, and nongovernmental agencies and organizations also participated and contributed to these studies and projects).
The World Bank’s extensive collaboration with LGOP contributed to the government’s work to: 
  • Pilot and refine new, multi-sectoral approaches in its poverty reduction programs in rural China;
  • Strengthen poverty targeting down to the poorest township, village, and households;
  • Establish a world class poverty monitoring system;
  • And enhance community empowerment and participatory poverty reduction.  
Prior to 1990, China’s poverty reduction program mostly comprised only a limited set of single-year and single-sector interventions that were not capable of sustainably overcoming poverty in the worst affected areas. The statistical system also was not adequately directed toward rigorous assessments of where the poor were located and why they were poor. To maintain progress in reducing poverty, the government wanted to explore new poverty reduction measures and modalities, including improved targeting of the remaining poor, and also wanted to secure more accurate and timely information to understand the changing distribution and nature of poverty. 
Central to LGOP’s effective utilization of the World Bank and many other partners’ knowledge and experience was an integrated cycle of analysis, on-the-ground pilot projects supported by Bank and other’s financing and technical assistance,  and continuing feedback into the policy process. The process began with the 1992 study “China: Strategies for Reducing Poverty in the 1990s,” which was followed by the Southwest and Qinba Mountains Poverty Reduction Projects in 1995 and 1997. A second cycle began with the 2001 study “China: Overcoming Rural Poverty,” which was followed by the Poor Rural Communities Development and Sustainable Development in Poor Rural Areas Projects in 2005 and 2010.
A powerful example of the impact of this cycle of analysis, piloting, and policy feedback is the expansion of China’s excellent poverty monitoring system over the last 25 years. One of the 1992 study’s key recommendations was the need to upgrade the poverty monitoring system. This recommendation led directly to explicit poverty monitoring components in the subsequent Southwest and Qinba Mountains projects. With technical assistance from the Bank’s Development Research Group and substantial project support, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) established a rigorous new poverty monitoring system for the projects’ 61 counties. This new poverty monitoring system was subsequently adopted at the national level and rolled out to all of China’s poor counties, and NSB’s poverty monitoring and analysis capacity has expanded greatly since that time.
I have experienced first-hand the dedication of LGOP and other government staff to realizing China’s poverty reduction goals. I have participated in poverty reduction work in all of China’s western provinces (except Xizang), and have observed the dedication, commitment, and integrity of LGOP staff at all levels.  On a personal level, I am most grateful for having been fully accepted within the LGOP system and community. Many of my best friends are LGOP staff, and I am very glad that we have reached the level of mutual trust and confidence that these friends will consider my ideas when they are useful, but feel fully comfortable telling me when I have misunderstood the facts and my suggestions are incorrect.
Looking Forward.  It is very gratifying to see that, since my retirement from the World Bank in 2012, LGOP and the Chinese Government have attached top priority to the complete elimination of poverty by 2020. One key element of the current poverty reduction program has been the completion of the National Poor Registration System (the “jiandang lika” system), which identifies more than 100 attributes of each of the remaining 56 million poor. Having contributed in some small way to the buildup of China’s poverty monitoring system, it is very satisfying to see that China has now taken this important work several steps beyond what I could have imagined back in the 1990s. More importantly, the completion of the National Poor Registration System, in combination with the top leadership’s strong focus on poverty reduction, confirms my view that China will be successful in the complete elimination of poverty by 2020.


Alan Piazza

Rural Development Economist

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