targeting the poor is not easy

India has made great efforts to target or ‘tag’ the poor. Three times its government tried to enumerate all poor households in the nation, while excluding non-poor from the poverty list. Each attempt failed. A fourth attempt will soon be launched. This, too, will predictably fail.

The Union cabinet last week paved the way for the new round of the below poverty line (BPL) census to be conducted later this year. The new census assumes importance given the dissatisfaction with the previous three attempts to identify the poor. It is also important because BPL census remains the primary delivery mechanism for the majority of our social protection schemes, including the much-maligned public distribution system and most social pension programmes.

But can the new BPL census provide answers to the targeting problems that have ailed our subsidy delivery system? Not really, though the proposed methodology will reduce, albeit to a limited extent, the earlier inclusion and exclusion errors. ….

The pilot data suggests that even with the best of designs, the error rate would remain at around 20%. That number is bound to go up when the survey goes and hits the field. This would be partly due to errors in implementation, but also due to vested interests trying to corrupt the system by wilfully concealing information. In the end, the method may reduce the errors in identifying the poor, but may not eliminate them altogether. ….

The more important message emerging from the pilot is the fact that it is almost impossible to have a method of perfect targeting. This should not be surprising to those who are aware of previous experiences of targeting …. For the record, inclusion errors in Brazil are close to 49% (that is, half of the beneficiaries are non-poor) and in Mexico, 36%. The corresponding exclusion errors (percentage of non-beneficiary poor to total poor) are 59% in Brazil and 70% in Mexico. Incidentally, both these countries have been highlighted as success stories of cash transfers.

Himanshu, “The trouble with finding the poor“, Live Mint, 24 May 2011.

Himanshu is assistant professor in the School of Social Sciences of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Thanks to Charles Knox at HelpAge International for the pointer.

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