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Covering the last mile


The effective governance mechanism ensures China's implementation of poverty alleviation policies

China has met its target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020 as scheduled, thus achieving the goal set by the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 10 years ahead of schedule.

Within a span of 40 years, China lifted about 800 million people out of poverty according to the World Bank's international poverty standard, giving a powerful boost to the cause of global poverty alleviation, as it accounts for more than 75 percent of the global poverty reduction over the same period. Also, China's experience is of great reference value to other developing countries seeking to eliminate poverty.

China's experience in conquering poverty primarily included an inclusive development model and government-led poverty alleviation strategies. China concentrated its efforts to improve inclusiveness on the agricultural sector, the industrial sector and urbanization. The targeted poverty alleviation strategy adopted by China since 2013 played a crucial role in solving the "last mile" problem, becoming China's strongest weapon in its battle against poverty.

Well-intentioned policies do not always lead to desired results. The effective governance, acting as a bridge toward expected policy outcomes, should include measures to ensure the full implementation of policies. Only with those powerful measures could China achieve the goal of eliminating poverty with the designed policies. With its most recent targeted poverty alleviation strategy, China has not only developed many creative poverty reduction measures, but also constantly made innovations in its governance mechanism.

The Chinese government's commitment to eliminate extreme poverty laid a solid foundation for victory in this battle. Elevating poverty elimination to a national strategy gathered the will and ensured the collective action of the whole society. Since 2013, the Chinese government has made more commitments toward eradicating extreme poverty than at any other time in the previous 40 years.

Analyzing news reports on President Xi Jinping from the 18th Communist Party of China National Congress in November 2012 to February 2021, the Center for International Knowledge on Development found that during that period, 25.8 percent of the meetings President Xi attended, 39.5 percent of the speeches he made and 45.1 percent of his inspection trips were about alleviating poverty. Putting poverty alleviation at the top of his agenda, he devoted much of his energy to it. The top-down passing of the political pledge to eradicate extreme poverty became the most critical driving force for poverty alleviation in China and a decisive factor for victory.

Such a credible commitment not only enabled China's poverty alleviation efforts to enjoy widespread political support from all levels of government, but also mobilized forces from all quarters, helping build a diverse funding system for the purpose.

The Chinese government has increased local governments' autonomy and flexibility to ensure the policies are implementable in real-life practice, which is of utmost importance in a country as vast and with as many regional disparities as China.

The World Bank's 2017 World Development Report titled Governance and the Law says there is evidence to suggest that policies are more likely to adapt to changing conditions and be successful when they occur in favorable political environments, that is, when local governments enjoy discretion and are downwardly accountable. Under the targeted poverty alleviation strategy, China gave full play to local governments, giving them certain decision-making powers in identifying the poor, fiscal budget execution and poverty alleviation measures, among others.

For a very long time, China's poverty alleviation policies were targeted at regions rather than households and individuals. Considering the difficulty and high cost in acquiring accurate income data for each rural household, when it came to identifying the poor, China allowed local governments to adopt flexible and multi-dimensional standards suitable for local conditions. The local criteria act as a necessary supplement to the national unified income threshold. Encouraging localities to develop their own tactics and making the most of local know-how has become the core experience for precise identification of the poor in China. For instance, Guizhou province has established the "four checks", namely, examining housing, food stocks, labor capacity, and whether there are children in school, in addition to the household income threshold when determining a family's poverty status.

In terms of fiscal budget execution, the central authorities have granted county-level governments the autonomy to pool agriculture-related funds and determine their allocation. Stringent supervision is in place to avoid abuse of power. This reform entitled poor counties the full rights to distribute and use fiscal funds of 20 categories managed by 13 central governmental departments. Counties are allowed to arrange funds based on frontline needs, avoiding fragmentation in the use of funds. For instance, before county-level governments were given the autonomy in budget allocation, Luanchuan county in Central China's Henan province only had 80 million yuan ($12.5 million) available for poverty alleviation annually; after getting autonomy the county had 300 million to 400 million yuan available, greatly improving the efficiency of local infrastructure construction projects that require massive investments. From 2016 to 2020, 1.5 trillion yuan was pooled for the poverty reduction.

All-round incentive and supervision mechanisms are indispensable aspects of an effective governance system, strongly facilitating local-level implementation of poverty alleviation policies.

China has established a multi-dimensional motivation system for poverty alleviation that combines positive incentives with negative incentives, and economic incentives with promotion priority. It has made government officials' achievements in poverty alleviation tasks an important parameter for assessing performance, changing the previous GDP-centric assessment. Therefore, government officials who excel in poverty alleviation efforts enjoy priority for promotion. For instance, Gansu province, one of the provinces with huge poverty alleviation targets, promoted 1,822 government officials who performed well in the fight against poverty during 2019-20.

China has also established an intra-government supervision system. Review and oversight from upper-level governments and specialized inspection agencies addressed the corruption and misconduct in poverty alleviation. In the meantime, a powerful external supervision system consisting of third-party assessment, media and public supervision has taken shape, becoming a strong driver for increasing the quality and speed of poverty alleviation.

Effective governance is the key to fully implementing China's poverty alleviation policies. What fundamentally matters for the effective governance is whether institutional bodies are able to perform their intended functions in a particular setting. China's experience in poverty governance has provided a new model for global poverty governance, and other developing countries can learn from it, choosing governance measures and development paths suited to their local conditions.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Center for International Knowledge on Development. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn