The issue of measuring social phenomena and processes was always a challenge, both regarding measurement opportunities and regarding concepts, since they change in time. The measurement of poverty and social exclusion is one such phenomenon. In this case, the political sensitivity of the topic represents an additional challenge. Nevertheless, the results gained and the lessons learned are a real treasure that should serve to continuously guide public policy.
The statistical basis for monitoring and reporting on living standards in the Republic of Serbia is being constantly improved. Since 2013, the Survey on Income and Living Standards (SILC) has become part of statistical practices, whereby we have joined European Union practices. In parallel, Serbia is monitoring and continuously improving national poverty indicators, such as absolute poverty. Furthermore, the framework for monitoring social inclusion and poverty reduction in the Republic of Serbia has been continuously improved since 2009.
The latest updating of the list of social inclusion and poverty reduction indicators was completed in late 2017, based on an initiative by the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of the Republic of Serbia (SIPRU) and with support by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia and UNICEF. This process engaged over 20 experts. Furthermore, considerable efforts have been made towards increasing knowledge and popularizing the topic, both among decision-makers and researchers. Several series of so-called “secondary analyses” of data in the field of poverty and social inclusion have been conducted. The latest implemented cycle of these analyses focused on data from the SILC survey. Thus SIPRU, as the expert body of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, confirms its efforts towards opening new topics with the aim of a deeper understanding of exclusion and poverty, with a significant focus on monitoring the impact of methodological changes on the comparability of data in primary data sources.
The outcome of these processes is the creation of significant statistical potential that can be used to guide future directions for the development of Serbia.
The European Union has, however, gone a step further. In addition to monitoring, topics related to social inclusion and poverty reduction have been placed high on the political agenda. For example, ten years ago one of the main goals in the Europe 2020 Strategy was “raising 20 million persons from poverty” by 2020. Ten years later the EU is preparing an evaluation of the Europe 2020 Strategy and announcing the first reflections on the achievement of the main goals in the field of poverty and social inclusion.
Despite a number of criticisms of the concept and methodology of measuring poverty, present from the start, the EU did not give up on investing efforts into poverty reduction. The criticisms put forward can be grouped into “fundamental” ones – does at-risk-of-poverty measure poverty or inequality, can trends in at-risk-of-poverty be related to an essential increase of the living standards of a particular country, and “technical” ones related to the level of comparability of data between countries and through time, further complicated by methodological changes in member states, as well as “political” ones directed towards each member state taking responsibility for achieving the goals set by the EU. This last aspect is important, particularly having in mind that the nationalization of goals makes it possible to define national priorities different to those defined at the EU level. Furthermore, the goal set initially – 20 million persons fewer at risk of poverty by 2020 – was soon changed to reducing the number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion by 20 million by 2020.
Last year’s analyses implemented at the European level confirmed an already noticeable trend – the lowest level of achievement of the goals lies precisely in the domain of poverty and social exclusion. The first reduction in the number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion occurred only in 2017, by three million compared to the baseline year (2008). Furthermore, there are no other main goals of the European strategy further from achieving the desired value defined by the Europe 2020 strategy.
Despite this, the EU did not give up on monitoring and reporting, at least in regards to poverty reduction. Reviews of achieved results are being regularly implemented both by the EU, as well as by member states and a number of independent think-tank organizations. This provides for an overview of various aspects related to poverty reduction and social inclusion and the formulation of more adequate measures that would improve the situation in this field.
Close to 2.7 million people in Serbia live at risk of poverty and social exclusion, while over half a million are unable to meet their basic living needs. Even though the data appears discouraging, the measures that can be undertaken are an important trump card. A significant statistical base has been created during previous years in the field of poverty, at the disposal of public policy creators in Serbia.
EU practices, confirming the inclusion of poverty goals in key strategic documents and monitoring their achievement, are the best guides for our state. However, we should also learn from the mistakes and challenges of the EU. This is an opportunity for the Republic of Serbia and it is important to make use of it.
(The text was originally published as the Introduction to the 57th Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Newsletter.)