Wednesday, July 18, 2007

international views on land issues in Vietnam

The BBC Vietnamese service has followed up my earlier interview with a further series of questions regarding international attitudes towards land issues in Vietnam. In English, here and the questions and the answers that I gave:

1. Do academics have the same mind about this issue, or is there a
debate? For example, does your view encounter any objection from other
academics or donors?

Within the academic and donor community there is a serious debate about the meaning of shifting access to land in Vietnam. This is slightly different than the issue of land disputes, which are indeed generally viewed as being symptomatic of general failures to deal with corruption. The key distinction here, then, is the extent to which people within the academic and donor community feel that it would be possible for the existing institutional structure of state and party to deal with corruption around land. There are some that a reasonably optimistic: that the state and party are, at the very top, led by senior cadres that recognize the legitimacy of peasant grievances and want to solve problems in a way that does not undermine Vietnam's ongoing transition. Indeed, some have argued that Vietnam's transition is itself the outcome of an implicit political agreement between reform-minded senior cadres that have bypassed the bureaucracy in the state and the party in order to meet the demands of the peasantry, who in turn have sought reform because they know the ways in which the political economy does not work and seek changes to it in order to improve their lives. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who believe that the inability to deal with corruption around land disputes signals a more systemic failure that is incapable of being resolved. People recognize the failure of the system; however, they basically go about their business, and try and avoid the state and party as much as possible, in order to create a better life for themselves and their families. According to these commentators, political opposition is limited because of the risks it entails, but the lack of an opposition does not signal an acceptance of the political and economic order in contemporary Vietnam.

The views I expressed in the last interview on the character of land disputes would and would not be challenged within the academic and donor community. My views on peri-urban disputes and disputes in the Central Highlands are pretty well accepted; my views on landlessness are not accepted by donors, but are accepted within some academic circles, and particularly, in my experience, within Vietnamese academic circles.

2. The agrarian transition and its impact on rural Vietnam for the past
20 years must have attracted attention from international donors like
the World Bank and international NGOs. Are their assessments largely
positive or negative? And do they have any say on the government's
policies?

This is a very, very broad question--we could spend days discussing it. The first point to stress is that the donor community in Hanoi is not a homogenous or monolithic block. There are differences of opinion within it, between, say, the World Bank and UNDP, between international NGOs and some of the multilateral donors. What the donor community has tried to do for the past decade is to develop, as much as is possible, a consensus between the multilateral donors, the bilateral donors and the international NGOs regarding how best to move forward to continue the transition. The purpose behind this consensus-building exercise is to have a greater impact on government. My experience with government is that it listens very carefully to what the international community says, it often takes elements of the advice that is offered, but the Vietnamese government is not reliant on the international community to any great extent. The Vietnamese government is far more independent of the international community than many of the other partners around the world serviced by the international community.

Now, on the issue of the agrarian transition: here, there are major differences of opinion. The World Bank is fairly explicit in its views: changing access to land, and particularly rising landlessness, signals the success of the transition. It demonstrates a responsive market economy in which people shift their occupations in order to do the best for themselves. What is therefore necessary is an appropriate social safety net and social investment that facilitates this process of shifting jobs into better paid activities. UNDP in Hanoi, on the other hand, takes a different view: that the argumentation offered by the World Bank is based upon a very limited and questionable set of evidence, and thus that outsiders have very little understanding of social and economic dynamics in the countryside. Bilateral donors and international NGOs seem to treat changing access to land as an issue of poverty alleviation, and not inequality creation. This is, it should be said, at odds with my own views on changing patterns of access to land and landlessness in rural Vietnam, which is, in my view, constructing a significant set of social issues that the government will have to face in the future. Indeed, senior researchers at the World Bank in Washington have written a working paper that is, in part, designed to explicitly rebut my propositions. What am I saying? Putting it bluntly: Vietnam is becoming a much more unequal society, and while a significant part of this inequality is urban-rural, there has been a major increase in inequality within the countryside. Rising landlessness in the countryside is a sign of this increasing inequality. The political and social issue that the state and the party will have to face is that in the countryside those who are doing well or indeed very well often have connections to the state and the party--particularly in the Mekong River Delta, but also elsewhere. This means that the state and the party are, in the countryside, associated with rising inequality. That is a big political problem if the peasantry starts to see the rise in inequality as a systemic issue.

One final point I should stress: as an outsider, I am aware that my own knowledge is extremely limited even if I have been working in rural Vietnam for almost a decade. However, I am quite confident in my arguments because Vietnamese academics that I discuss these issues with find my views to most closely mirror their own understanding of the social and economic processes at work in rural Vietnam.

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