New weapon to help win China's war on poverty

The Chinese government has identified poverty alleviation as one of its critical battles and pledged to eradicate absolute poverty by 2020.

The Chinese government has identified poverty alleviation as one of its critical battles and pledged to eradicate absolute poverty by 2020.

To ensure poverty reduction funds actually benefit the poor, after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China local governments are now required to implement comprehensive performance management of poverty alleviation funds to monitor how the money is spent, guide policy-making and hold officials accountable.

At the recent “2018 Asian Evaluation Week” held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, a forum co-sponsored by the Ministry of Finance and the Asian Development Bank and co-organized by the ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department and the Shanghai National Accounting Institute, experts at the forefront of combating poverty shared their experiences of performance evaluation in poverty alleviation and highlighted the challenges.

Yan Huaihai, Deputy Dean of the Sichuan Vocational College of Finance and Economics, said the poverty-relief efforts of Sichuan Province in recent years have yielded remarkable results. The number of rural poor in the province fell to 1.71 million by the end of last year from 7.5 million in 2012. But because of the huge population of the province — almost 90 million — combating poverty remains an uphill battle.

Yan was previously involved in evaluating the performance of support policies for the disabled. He said that projects and policies should be demand-driven.

“For instance, one of the policies directed at the disabled is to subsidize the fuel costs of motorized wheelchairs,” he said. “But through our evaluation, we came to notice that, given the road conditions in rural areas and the development of new energy automobiles, very few of the disabled were actually using the motorized wheelchairs. Policy design has to adapt to the changes in beneficiaries’ demands.”

For proper evaluations, customer questionnaires must be carefully designed, Yan said.

For instance, the last question in a satisfaction survey tends to be whether clients are satisfied with the current policies. To Yan, this is too general. No wonder it is often met with bewilderment. “Instead of asking general questions, our questionnaires need to be centered on specific policies or services,” he said.

To fuel the country’s ongoing endeavor to fight poverty, Yan stressed the need to strengthen third-party assessment in addition to the government’s own internal teams.

Changhong Group is one of the enterprises that plays an active part in the poverty alleviation program.

Changhong Group vice general manager and general accountant Hu Jia said what they do in terms of evaluation of poverty relief is something rather “basic.” It is to ensure data accuracy, which Hu sees as a crucial step in the performance evaluation of poverty reduction projects.

But it is easier said than done, given the large number and wide geographical distribution of poor households.

As Changhong Group’s investigation suggested, people responsible for financial data collection and processing at the township level are mostly local financial staff. Although the task requires specific expertise, most of the financial staff were not even full-time, let alone professionally trained. Hu found invoices and documents provided by some local financial staff to account for poverty relief funds were often incomplete or scribbled.

“How can such a mess provide evidence of the effectiveness of poverty-reduction funds?” she asked.

Working with the Sichuan Provincial Department of Finance, Changhong Group has set up an online platform integrating targeted poverty alleviation, bookkeeping and the latest technologies, such as cloud computing and big data.

Hu said this platform had been piloted in over 6,000 villages. Ease of use is one of its key features. The local financial staff only have to scan the receipts or invoices and upload them online, and the platform will automatically process them and generate financial reports.

The expenses are supervised by the platform and disclosed to the public. It not only cuts the workload of the staff and reduces human errors, but also improves transparency.

“What really needs to be done is not to be critical when it is too late. It’s more important to identify and correct the problems beforehand,” Hu observed.

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