Food Stamp Program Focuses Aid on Poorest Families in Mongolia

An ADB-supported program is helping Mongolia identify and assist the poorest people in the country.

Namjilsuren Gombo and her five daughters live in a simple ger - a traditional one-room tent home in Mongolia - along a hardscrabble mountainside on the outskirts of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

With an eighth-grade education and no husband, 42-year-old Namjilsuren has struggled for years to take care of her five daughters on her meager income. Some months, just keeping them fed meant giving up other necessities.

“Sometimes we did not have notebooks for them to use in school,” she recalls. Adding later, “There were times before when I used to cry because I felt helpless.”

These days, life is better for Namjilsuren and her daughters. They have been enrolled in a government food stamp program, which is a welfare benefit that helps them to buy enough flour, rice, and other basic commodities to get them through the month. Using the stamps to cover food expenses frees up money to spend on other necessities.

“It means we get to satisfy our daily food consumption needs,” she says. “With full stomachs, the children are much happier going to school and their grades have improved. They never miss school, they are better fed, and they have something to wear. They are happy attending their classes.”

Identifying the poorest households

The Food and Nutrition Social Welfare Program and Project, a partnership between the Government of Mongolia and ADB, was launched to help the government provide assistance to the country’s poor and vulnerable people in response to the global food and fuel crisis in 2008. When food prices spiked in May 2008, inflation in Mongolia reached 33%, the highest rate in Asia. The country was importing almost 80% of its food. Poverty at the time stood at 33% of the population. In poor households, about 70% of the budget was spent on food.

The government first reacted to public demonstrations about high food prices by raising welfare payments for all by 20%. This approach was costly, particularly because it did not channel the welfare benefits to the poorest. Through the ADB-supported project, the most vulnerable households were identified. Being able to target assistance enabled the government to help those who were most in need, while also helping contain the government’s ballooning welfare expenditure.

“The project helped to create a safety net, ensuring food consumption and nutritional levels for the poor.”

- Wendy Walker, a principal social development specialist at ADB

The Food and Nutrition Social Welfare Program and Project helped the government create a food stamp program that carefully targeted the poorest and most vulnerable 5% of the population. This was the first time in Mongolia that poor families nationwide were systematically identified. Food stamps represent about 10% of average monthly spending in these households.

The project designed and conducted a nationwide household survey that identified the country’s poor. The resulting database has become an important tool for poverty targeting, which can be used for other social programs.

An effective safety net

“The project helped to create a safety net, ensuring food consumption and nutritional levels for the poor,” says Wendy Walker, a principal social development specialist at ADB. “The impact evaluation of the project found that the most significant impacts have been ensuring food security and dietary diversity for households, improving self-esteem, and reducing negative coping strategies such as having to borrow money from others to pay for food.”

Many people who receive food stamps have told government officials that their children are particularly benefiting. The extra money is often set aside for their education. Because the food stamps can only be used for 10 essential food commodities, and are most often used by female members of the household, the assistance helps to ensure nutritional impact in the household instead of being spent on other less essential items.

“The biggest advantage of the food stamp system is that the stamps are mostly handled by female members of the household and are intended solely for buying food,” says Lkhagvasuren Myagmarjav, a director in the Social Welfare Service Department in the General Office of Social Welfare and Services. “This support is critical in building hope and confidence among the most vulnerable members of the society. As a result, they can play more active roles in their communities.”

Altansukh Myagmarjav, project manager in the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor, adds “Food stamps in rural areas are paper stamps that are redeemed at shops, but in urban areas they are electronic debit cards with the monthly payment automatically transferred by the bank to the card. This makes it very easy for beneficiaries to use and for the government to manage the program.”

This article is an excerpt from a longer piece originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.