* Dr. Vu Tuan Anh is a research fellow at the Institute of Economics, Hanoi


In the mid-1980s some institutions and researchers began to study poverty in Vietnam. Some investigations of the real state of the agricultural economy, the peasants life and the population's living standard as a whole were conducted. Following are the noticeable ones:

- In 1990 the Central Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry investigated the real situation of agriculture and the countryside in 5 provinces with about 5000 household samples. This investigation gathered data on income of peasant households [The Central Department of Agriculture, 1991].

- In 1991 the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry investigated 3057 poor and rich households in the countryside of 7 provinces. A year later, it investigated additional 3046 household in 9 provinces. [Nguyen Van Tiem, 1994].

- In 1992-1993 The General Statistics Office and the State Planning Committee conducted the first investigation into the population's living standard with the financial support of the United Nations Development Programme and the Swedish International Development Agency . It covered 4800 households in the whole country.[General Statistics Office - Vietnam Living Standard Survey. 1994].

- In 1993 the General Statistics Office investigated and assessed the rich and the poor in the whole country with 93732 sampled households.

- In 1994 the General Statistics Office conducted the multi-targeted investigation of the household in the whole country with 45000 samples.

- In 1995-1996 the General Statistics Office conducted the overall investigation of the agriculture and countryside covering over 11 million rural households. This was the biggest one so far. The data were processed. The initially processed data on the rural infrastructure, on the land and property of households have been publicized. The would-be data on expenditure and income of households will certainly be very useful to the study of the real socio-economic state in the countryside.

The above investigations have provided data reflecting the reality of production, economy and life of the people of purpose and method. Therefore the comparison of results as well as through time is impossible. The results have not been dealt with profoundly and analyzed because researchers' ability to approach the document is limited.

In addition, some research and policy-making institutions have also studies poverty. Most of these studies have concentrated on reviewing poverty in the world and experiences of forming macro-policy of some countries. Most prominent among studies dealing more with assessment of poverty in Vietnam are those of researchers of the Ministry of Labour, War Invalid and Social Affairs [Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Thi Hang (1993), Nguyen Thi Hang ( 1996), The Information Center of Population and Labour (1991)]. They have presented systematically notions and policies of various countries in the world gains poverty and brought forward a system of norms to measure poverty based on household income as the main one. This method of measurement is being commonly applied in various localities within the framework of the national programme of hunger eradication and poverty reduction.

In Vietnamese documents concerning poverty. poverty is considered as "the situation where a part of the population cannot satisfy the bare necessities of life". [Ministry of Planning and Investment ( 1996)] .

The essence in this definition is the satisfaction of the man's fundamental needs. However the qualitative standard and quantitative measure of the fundamental needs are open because they depend on concrete conditions of each locality. This definition refers to concept of absolute poverty.

The concept of relative poverty is sometimes raised by researchers but has not practical significance in the drawing up of policies because absolute poverty is the first objective of hunger eradication and poverty reduction.

In Vietnam besides the concept of poverty, that of hunger is also used to designate a degree of utterly poor of a part of the population. Hunger is the situation in which a part of poor population has the living standard under minimum. Their income is not enough to guarantee material needs to preserve life. They are household having no for several months, must borrow from others and cannot repay.

In view of households' capability to ensure food for their life in the year. they are also classified into those lacking in food or those in severe hunger so that the support can be concentrated.

Besides the concept of poverty and hunger applied to families and individuals. in Vietnam the concept of 'poor area' is also used in the field of state management. Poor area is the locality with much higher ratio of poor households and much lower population's living standard than all others in the country at the same period of time. Poor areas usually have unfavourable natural conditions (the soil is bad. frequent natural calamities). the infrastructure is less developed (especially in high mountainous areas). For poor areas the government has special policies of investment and construction to improve the infrastructure and give social aid. Within the framework of this report we only deal with the assessment of poverty of households and individuals. Poor areas of community will be studied in another opportunity.



Qualitative standards for the assessment of poverty is easily agreed upon. However there are many ways to show them by quantitative standards which are ever different, resulting in different ratios of the poor.

The poverty line is the most important standard in the assessment of poverty. As mentioned, the poverty line used in the drawing up of the present government's policy of hunger eradication and poverty reduction is income per capita. It is favourable in investigation and assessment because it has money as the uniform unit of measurement. Households may have trades and sources of income very different in the form of products, but the comparison of their income is possible after it has been calculated by money or by kind (e.g. the number of kilograms of rice).

The concept of income is understood as money paid for labour and profit. For rural households whose member work for themselves without money paid for their labour, their income is defined by the difference between the total one from all economic activities and the production cost, excluding labour cost. The income is calculated by money. In the instability of price in Vietnam, there is the difference in the price between areas moreover according to the peasant's traditional calculation, the kind is used instead of money and the most popular way is the barter for rice. This conventional use of the kind has made the elimination of price factor possible, therefrom the citizen's income can be compared simply and conveniently by time and space. For the poor in general and the poor peasant in particular, the standard of average quantity of rice per man a month is very significant and practical because the first urgent need is the guarantee of sufficient ride.

In theory, researcher and policy makers have also put forward additional standard to assess poverty, such as the nutrition of meals, the quality of dwelling houses, the quantity of clothing and conditions of education medical treatment and movement. In investigations of the population's living standard, these standard have also been gathered but they have not been used to assess poverty. The reason is that the above standard and the expenditure structure depend on regional, ethnic and sexual factors, etc, such as liking, customs and habits, climate.

The poverty line has also been calculated differently by different government institutions and researchers, although, the difference is not so big.

The poverty line brought forward by the Ministry of Labour, Invalid and Social Affairs (MOLISA) in 1993 was based on the results of discussion of an inter ministry research group. It took the average income per capita a month bartered for rice degrees of poverty, hunger and severe hunger. The investigation results in 1993 are presented as follows [Nguyen Thi Hang, 1996].

Table 1: The poverty line and ratio of poor households in 1993.

Degree of poverty




Absolute poverty

Under 15 kg of rice / man / month

30-35 %


Relative poverty

Under the average of the locality



Chromic hunger

Under 12 kg of rice / man / month



Chromic severe hunger

Under 8 kg of rice / man / month



The basic of taking 15 kg of rice as a standard to assess the absolute poverty in the rural population is as follows [Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Thi Hang, 1993]:

- Depending on the average living standard of the community, the world poverty is usually taken to be worth one third of its average income. In the Vietnamese conditions, the population's living standard is still low, the criterion taken for absolute poverty range is only one second the average income of the community. The average income per capita a month in the countryside in 1992 was about 60 thousand dong, equivalent to 30 kg of rice a month. so the poverty line is 30 thousand dong, equivalent to I 5 kg of rice.

- The peasant's household expenditure structure is 70 percent for food and drink, 30 percent of other needs. With the income equivalent to 15 kg of rice a month, the expenditure for food costs l0.5 kg. At this level, the quality of the meal is not good. but calories are sufficiently supplied for living.

- Investigations conducted by many institutions, reports made by many localities on poverty for the implementation of the hunger eradication and poverty reduction programme have taken the standard of I _5 kg of rice per capita a month or ÉxÉgÉiÉÄÉhÉì30000 per capita a month as a level to assess poverty and hunger in the countryside. Owing to the higher level of living standard in the plain and cities than in mountainous areas and islands, the poverty line for the former is estimated higher.

The above-mentioned poverty line is adjusted a little and applied to the drawing up of the programme for hunger eradication and poverty reduction.

Table 2: The poverty line in 1996

Types of household


Average income per

capita in a month

kinds (kg of rice)

value (VND) *


Rural mountainous areas and islands

Under 15 kg of rice

< 60000

Rural plain and midlands

Under 20 kg of rice

< 80000


Under 25 kg of rice

< 100000


The whole country

Under 13kg of rice

< 52000
* Value standard is estimated according to the price of rice at VND 4000/kg at the beginning of 1996.

According to the above poverty line, at the end of 1995 there were 2945897 poor and hungry households in the whole country, accounting for 20.3 percent of the total, with 14788374 people. Among these, the number of hungry households was 598746, accounting for 4.1 percent of the total, with 3005704 people; the number of poor households was 2346133 accounting for 16.2 percent of the total, with 1782670 people.

This number of poor and hungry households is divided according to areas as follows (table 3):

Table 3: The ratio ofpoor and hungry households in 1996.


Total hungry Poor

and households





Number of HH


Number of HH


Number of HH


The whole country







- Northern mountainous midland







- Red river delta







- Northern central region







- Southem coastal area






11 .4

- Central Highlands







- Eastern South region







- Mekong River delta






Source: The Ministry of Labour, Invalid and Social Affairs - Report on the situation of hunger eradication and poverty reduction 1992-1995 and tasks in the 1996-2000 period. Hanoi, 1996.

The General Statistics Office (GSO) also is an institution much involved in the assessment of the degree of poverty and hunger. In the same 1992-1993 period it conducted a number of big national-scaled investigations of socio-economic reality of households. They were investigations into the rich and the poor, the population's living standard, the multi-targeted investigation into households and the overall investigation into the agriculture and the countryside. In all this four investigations, households were classified into groups according to their incomes and expenditures. The poverty lines in these investigations were not the same because a group of experts of the World Bank brought forth their own standards in the investigation of the living standard, the experts of the presented different ones in the others; the results were also different.

The interesting thing was that the investigations conducted by the GSO accepted a poverty standard of food at 2100 calories per capita a day. The experts of the World Bank determined 60 percent of the total expenditures for food, the rest, 40 percent for other needs. The experts of the GSO assumed that 2100 calories per capita a day was equivalent toVND 70000 a month in cities and VND 50000 a month in the countryside (the price in 1993 being estimated as the common poverty line. The way of defining the poverty line of the GSO was similar to that of the MOLISA. therefore the number of poor people estimated by the two institutions was nearly the same.

Thc volume of expenditure per capita based by the investigation of living standard to assess the poverty degree is as follows (table 4):

Table 4: Expenditures for consumption and food from the living standard survey

Expenditures per capita (1000 VND)

Proportion of food


The whole country




Quintile I (poorest)




Quintile 2




Quintile 3




Quintile 4




Quintile 5











Source: Vietnam Poverty Assessment and Strategy, World Bank Report No l3442- VN. p. 3.

Following are some remarks on the definition of the poverty line in Vietnam so far:

First, it is sound to consider the food standard to be the chief one to determine the poverty limit because it is the existence of the poor. However this standard is used with different extents. The standard brought out by the Ministry of Labour, War Invalid and Society is 13 kilograms of rice, equivalent to 1500 calories; the General Department of Statistics presented 2100 calories, equivalent to VND 840000 in cities and VND 600000 in the countryside; in the investigation of the population's living standard, the standard is 2100 calories, equivalent to VND 902000 and VND 710000 in cities and the countryside respectively.

The reason for the use of the standard 2100 calories has not been cleared up. The only reliance is: this is the minimum standard of food recommended by the World Health Organization. The National Institute of Nutrition has also suggested a reasonable standard of food of 2100 calories for the Vietnamese [Vu Manh Thien, 1996] . Comparing this diet with the average consumption of food in group 3 of the investigation into the population's living standard, we see a very wide gap of some types of food such as meat and fat.

We are not skeptical about the accuracy of the numbers gathered by the population's living standard investigation. Nevertheless if only the data of the consumption of vegetables are observed, the number gathered by the population's living standard investigation is too low (over 2 kg/man/month), quite unsuitable to the habit and reality of consumption of the Vietnamese. Perhaps the investigation of the population's living standard cannot estimate all the mount of vegetables which the households themselves have grown and picked to meet everyday needs. Similar outcome may occur to the consumption of shrimp and fish, meat because we hardly have accurate number about this food. If the investigation is insufficient, errors may arise in the poverty line.

Table 5: Comparison of food consumption of quintile 3 in the Vietnam Living Standard Survey with the diet recommended by the National Institute of Nutrition (Unit: kg/man/year).

Food items

Quintile 3 (VLSS)

Institute of Nutrition




Rice and subsidiary crops






Fat & cooking oil



Shrimp fish



Soya curd











Vietnam living standard survey, p.198. Vu Manh Thien - 'Some special characteristics of the Vietnamese people's nutritional situation 1980-1995'. Report for the research project of rural poverty monitoring, The Socio-Economic Development Centre, Hanoi, 1996.

We think that it is not satisfactory in the Vietnamese condition to take the standard of 2100 calories per capita. The norm of food brought out by the National Institute of Nutrition is the ration of adults who are working. About half of the present Vietnamese population are children. If children's calorie consumption is taken to be equal to two third that of adults. the standard of 2100 calories per capita also means 2500 calories for adult consumption and about 1700 calories for children's. According to a recent investigation by the National Institute of Nutrition. only 17 percent of Vietnamese adults have the standard of energy over 2400 calories. The Institute calls it 'the plentiful food standard'.

We estimate that in case the minimum energy needed for an adult is 2100 calories, the energy standard per capita will be 1800 calories (for children it is 1450 calories). According to this standard, the poverty Iine will lie in group 2 of the population's living standard investigation ( 1850 calories).

Second, after the poverty line of food is defined, other needs are calculated with different ratios in the overall poverty line. According to the estimate by the MOLISA, 30 percent of income are used to settle other needs. Other needs are not calculated by the GSO besides food. The household living standard survey takes 40 percent of expenditure for other needs besides food.

Third, the value standard of income and expenditure is used as the main tool (if not the only one) to measure poverty. The investigation of the household living standard survey has relied mainly on the analysis of household expenditure, while the investigations of households conducted by Vietnamese institutions have relied on the measure of Income.

Fourth, although other standard on degree of meeting fundamental needs mentioned, they are not reflected in the poverty line.

So at least there are following problems here:

- How many calories are chosen for the ration?

- Defining the value of food package to supply these calories.

- Defining minimum proportion or quantity of other needs.

- Which overall standard is taken as the main one of poverty line: income or expenditure?


There are t~/O methods to assess the poverty line, the direct and income ones. According to the former, one measures the real amount of consumption of some products and services to meet fundamental needs of the man. By the latter they measure either income or expenditure per capita of the household.

These two methods both have good points and defects. Direct standards reflect accurately the degree of meeting fundamental needs, but they have different units of measurement and so cannot be brought together to a synthetical one. Therefore, by the direct method it is difficult to designate a certain limit as the poverty line and rely on it to calculate the number of poor people. But the concrete standard can be used in forming policies in each concrete standards can be used in forming policies in each concrete field, for example improving the diet of the poor by increasing calories and changing the ration structure, elevating the medical service by giving more sufficient supply of medicines, increasing the number of school children at their proper age bracket or eliminating illiteracy, etc.

In contrast, the standard of income has general significance but it does not imply all aspects of the man's fundamental needs. By the use of this synthetical standard. the poverty line can be worked out, allowing to find out the number of the poor and poor households in each locality.

Both the above-mentioned methods have been used in the assessment of poverty; however the degree of using the standards of the two methods is not the same depending on the purpose of investigation.

To our judgment, there are two types of survey to assess poverty: household survey on the national scale and monitoring survey based on the community.

The national household survey is generally multi-targeted to serve the forming of macro-policies. It can absorb much manpower and finance. It may have sparser frequency rate (2-3 years a time) and a relatively small number of samples. The system of assessing the living standard may include statistic and investigation norms formed by complex formulas of calculation or those requiring investigation and synthesis from many questions and types of observation and measurement.

The assessment of poverty based on the community has narrow target of assessing poverty of each community in order to have concrete treatment of each type of the poor. This assessment can be done in each village according to two levels:

a) The assessment of a number of common welfare available in the whole community (such as the supply of running water, electricity, infirmaries, schools and public security);

b) The assessment of poverty of the household, relying on the degree of satisfying some of the most fundamental needs of life.

This survey is chiefly done by cadres on the spot with application of the participatory principle, and its cost will be directly financed by the local authorities. The data will be gathered and processed without delay uniformly and simply and used immediately to carry out measures of hunger eradication and poverty reduction in the community (e.g. used for the programme of preventing malnutrition. raising the educational level, Ioans for the poor). By this character. the questionnaire and the process of survey must be simple. the system of indicators must be easy to calculate. The difference between these two systems of households' living standards monitoring can be indicated as follows (see table 6).

Table 6: Special characteristics of the two types of living standards assessment.

National household survey

Community-based and participatory poverty monitoring



Directly serving the hunger eradication and poverty reduction in the community


Investigating a certain number of randomly selected households

Investigating households having lower average living standards


Coordinating many methods

Interview and direct observation

Questionnaire and system of indicators


Simple and clear


Once in 2-3 years

Annually or 6 months a time

As already said. the assessment based on the community can be conducted at two levels: the entire community (village or hamlet) and household.

The general survey at the village or hamlet level is aimed at gathering data on the degree of meeting the man's fundamental needs about some kinds of public goods which each family or individual cannot consume separately. Some indicators reflect the situation of urgent infrastructures such as the supply of running water. electricity, roads. schools and class-rooms. sanitation and living environment, public order and security, the participation of the population at the household level has the purpose of gathering data on the degree of meeting fundamental needs individual consumer goods and services.

The system of indicators of households' poverty monitoring

The system of indicators assessing the poverty degree of rural households which we have proposed mainly use the method of directly gathering data. I think that in monotoring based on the community it is not advisable to use synthetical standard as the total income or those whose gathering of data requires a great deal of accurate information. The system of poverty monitoring indicators based on the community which we have proposed reflect a minimum norms on the most fundamental needs of the man: food, clothing, dwelling houses, jobs, health, education. There are total 12 standards reflecting the situation completely (Table 7).

Table 7: Indicators for households' poverty monitoring



I. Food requirement

1. Minimum amount of rice ( 12 kg/man/month)

2. Value of ration (x dong/man/day)

II. Clothing

3 . Enough clothe blankets in cold seasons (lacking/enough) requirement

4. Enough mosquito nets (lacking/enough)

III. Employment

5 . Lacking in jobs (lacking in jobs three months a year)

IV. Health

6. Children in the 1-5 age bracket malnourished (under 80 percent of weight necessary for age)

7. Adults in 15-60 age bracket have chronic disease

8. Unable to have medical care in illness (over 30 days/year)

V. Education

9. Illiterate adults

10. Children in 6-11 age bracket don't go to school

11. Household has no radio or TV

VI. Housing

12. Household lives in tents and huts

Basing ourselves on 12 indicators in each aspect as above, by giving marks, we can classify different forms of poor households, for example:

- Poor households: there are 3 indicators under norms.

- Very poor households: there are from 5 indicators under norm.

More calculation is needed in a few standards of food requirement. We have just argued that the daily minimum required food consumption of Vietnamese at present is about 1800 calories. i.e. 2100 calories for the adult and 1500 calories for the child. Standards of minimum daily or monthly ration will be calculated from this norm. The minimum amount of rice in a month and the value of meals in a day have been chosen because these two standards reflect two basic components of the ration: eating to satiety (amount) and eating enough nutritious substances (structure or value of food) .

Indicator I is based on the following reason: Rice is the principal food of the Vietnamese and the majority of other ethnic minorities in Vietnam. (For some minorities it is needed to use their major food crops). Having enough rice is a criterion to assess the living standard of a household. According to present habit of eating, people only eat rice mixed with maize, potatoes, manioc when they are short of rice. The time of eating mixed food is usually in between crop periods. Therefore the shortage or sufficiency of rice is estimated in the whole year or half a year (one harvest). it cannot be estimated by measurement in the way of taking photograph in a day or a week. The standard of rice amount is a specific one for the poor.

Indicator 2 reflects the quality of the meal. It is investigated by taking photograph of the meal, then calculating into the value of a table of current prices in the locality; finally it is compared to the average reasonable ration of food of 1800 calories converted into value.

The clothing requirement comprises two indicators: 3/ clothes, blankets for people in cold winter areas; and 4/ mosquito nets for all people. These things are very necessary for man's health, however they are usually not enough for the poor.

The indicator on employment reflects the need for jobs and stable source of income. It directly decides the income of households. With the present level of agricultural production and in the poor condition of the Vietnamese economy. all households in the countryside have not had considerable savings. The shortage of jobs for over three months also means the income is not enough to compensate for expenditure.

The need for health care is very important. There are many indicators reflecting the man's constitution. We select three most typical ones: child's health, adult's health and financial capability of the household for medical treatment. The child's health is usually the consequence of poverty, adult's health may be either the cause or effect of poverty. In the present setting, when the government has not yet been able to realize the decision of medical treatment free of charge for the poor. poor households are still worrying whether they have enough money to bring their sick relative to state of private medical institutions.

Similarly, for the minimum need for education, children must have opportunity to go to school until they complete the primary education grade and adult must be literate. In the future, this criterion must be raised. for example children must complete the secondary school. Another criterion belonging to the need of heightening the people's intellectual standard. not education. is the necessary means to receive information loudspeakers. radios or televisions. Ten years ago. it might not be essential, in the present conditions. without it. the basic need of people's intellect is not met.

The need for housing is very diverse, depending on areas and ethnic communities. In localities with frequent typhoons and cold weather. well-built houses. at least with secured roofs are the minimum criterion.

By the difference of habits in various areas. some other basic requirements concerning housing arc not the same (including facilities. area and the toilet. etc.)

The system of indicators to assess poverty of the community.

As has been stated, the standards of poverty degree gathered at the community level (villages) reflect the extent of satisfying the fundamental needs of public goods and services, both in material consumption and cultural and spiritual enjoyment. (Table 8).

Table 8: Poverty monitoring indicators at the community level



1. General living standard

1. Percentage of the poor (or poor households).

2. Price of one working day on the local labour market.

II. Land

3 . Cultivated area per capita.

4. Percentage of landless households or households having too few land (under 1/2 of average area per capita in the community).

III. Employment

5 . Percentage of under-employees (not having jobs more than 3 months in a year).

6. Percentage of labourers in agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.

IV. Health

7. Malnutrition rate of children of 1-5 years old (having the weight under 80% of standards).

8. Child mortality rate.

9. Availability of community health station.

10. Number of medicine staff (public and private) per 1000 inhabitants.

V. Education

10. Adult illiterate rate.

11 . Enrollment of children of primary education age (6-11 years old).

12. Number of teachers per 1000 inhabitants.

VI. Housing and sanitary facilities

13 . Percentage of households having temporary houses.

14. Percentage of households supplied with safe water.

15 . Percentage of households having bathroom.

16. Percentage of households having sanitary toilet.

17. Number of electricity used by households (kwh per capita in a month).

VII. Culture and communication

18. Availability of public cultural facilities in the community (cultural house, theater, Iibrary, broadcasting station).

19. Availability of local market.

20. Number of telephones per 1000 inhabitants.

VIII. People' participation in social activities

21 . Number of members of political, mass and social organizations per 1000 inhabitants.

IX. Gender relations

22. Malnutrition rate of pregnant women.

23 . Number of women working as public holders and leaders of social and mass organizations per 1OOO inhabitants.

The process of gathering and processing data.

The indicators assessing community level are gathered by a cadre of statistics in the village authorities on the basis of reports by administrative institutions, village informants, general schools, and mass organizations in charge of concrete spheres as the Women and Peasants ' Associations . To our judgment, the acquisition of the above data is quite possible if the cadre of statistics of the village (at present generally concurrently in charge of another post) is entrusted with this task and paid a certain subsidy for the job (for example an equivalent of a month's pay for a period of six months). In case the level of knowledge of the village cadre is limited (as in some mountainous areas) the regular gathering of these data can be entrusted to a teacher working in the local school.

The household poverty is also monitored once in every six-month period. Most of the indicators are simple. they can be gathered by interviews combined with rapid observations. Only malnutrition rates requires measurement and this is also a simple job which can be done by anyone. So some surveys can be entrusted to mass organizations as the Women, Peasants, Gardeners' Associations which are active members of the Board of hunger eradication and poverty reduction of the village. Here the participatory principle should be widely applied.

After gathering initial data, the village cadre of statistics will synthesize it according to two systems the community and household levels. The comparisons of poverty standards of the household level will reveal which ones belong to the category getting priority in support.

Corresponding diagrams of the above data are also made at the district and province levels. In order for the process of poverty monitoring as above to have feasibility, the restoration of function of the cadre of statistics in the village is most important. With a simple guide, the system of poverty monitoring can begin operation in a short time to serve the programme of hunger eradication and poverty reduction.



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