Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I have recently come across a very good blog on Vietnam's social development, run by a staff member of the BBC Vietnamese service. It is up-to-date and intellectually curious. For example, the link

Vietnamica: Peasant protests in Vietnam

discusses ongoing peasant protests in Ho Chi Minh City, making reference to my own BBC Vietnamese service interview, as well as an unobtainable article from Reuters. If you are interested in Vietnam, I highly recommend it.

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

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.

Monday, July 16, 2007

land disputes in Vietnam

Last week the BBC's Vietnamese service did an interview with me on land disputes in Vietnam. The full text, in Vietnamese, is available at:

The English-language version of the interview reads as follows:

1. What do you think are the roots of the problems?

The roots of the problems differ somewhat around the country, and particular between the peri-urban regions around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the Central Highlands, and the rice basket in the Mekong and Red River deltas. In the peri-urban areas, despite property rights that are in theory much more secure than in China, by way of comparison, there is still a large degree of discretion on the part of local communes with regards to their ability to administratively acquire land at a less than market price. This means that the acquisition of land is a significant source of earnings from corruption, and many disputes in Vietnam, particularly those staged in Hanoi or in Ho Chi Minh City, reflect peasant resistance to corrupt practices on the part of local government. In the Central Highlands, the issue of corruption is also there, strongly there, but it is also tied in to how land has been allocated to incoming migrants to the area at the expense of indigenous peoples that in many instances have cultivation practices at odds with those suggested by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Finally, in the deltas, there is the issue of rising landlessness. For many this is a reflection of increased prosperity. However, for far more, I think, this is a reflection of debt-induced distress, distress that peasants would like to see addressed by local governments, but which are not, in part because it is local party people who acquire the land to add to their own--party people can be big farmers in rural Vietnam.

Many would argue that these failures in rural 'governance' reflect the lack of an independent judiciary and the rule of legally-binding contracts in Vietnam. The rule of law is highly politicized, all the more so in the countryside. I would agree with this, but would also suggest that more is going on, most particularly massive rises in rural inequality and in urban rural inequality that the government seems powerless to address--or indeed does not want to address because so many local cadres are implicated in benefiting from rural inequality.

2. Based on your observation over the years, are land disputes in
Vietnam likely to get worse, to the level of what happens in China

This is an interesting question. Land disputes in China are well known and documented--the figure that I commonly quote is around 87000 a year. In Vietnam we do not know the extent of land disputes. However, for land disputes to be on the scale that they are witnessed in China would require only 5075 disputes a year in Vietnam. I suspect--but I have no basis to substantiate this--that land disputes each year number far more. In other words, I believe the land dispute situation to already be worse in Vietnam than in China.

3. Are there any solutions, or this is an inevitable result of the
current transition in Vietnam?

Peasant unrest is very cautious in rural Vietnam. Cautious in the sense that it is rare for it to take issue with either the state or the Party. Rather, it takes on the whole issue with individuals (although there are well documented instances of state and party property being vandalized, and state and party cadres being held in forced captivity). In part, this reflects the highly decentralized character of the Vietnamese state--local government officials in most of the country tend to come from the area that they run. They know their neighbours and their families, and people resent people that they know using the state to get rich. So the issue, particularly in rural areas, is personalized. This is important for the government--it does not call into question the system as a whole. If, then, the government could make a serious effort at tackling corruption, the problem would be significantly affected.

However, and this is the important part, corruption is endemic. The relationship between the party and wealth accumulation is so completely interwoven that to try and tackle corruption must mean, eventually, tackling the position of the party in the state--and that is not tenable at this current stage. Moreover, in my view, many people in the party and the government know that the current system is not sustainable. It will collapse, it is just a matter of time. They therefore are using their connections to make as much money as they can while they can before this source of patronage disappears. This is why, for example, the private sector in Vietnam is built by those with party connections, to see them through its eventual demise and to ensure that their wealth continues beyond. In this light, it is no coincidence that those in the countryside with the largest landholdings are always those with party or state connections (or both).

The problem for the party, from a sustainability point of view, is that the government's rule is built upon bringing prosperity to the countryside. If, for whatever reason, this is called into question by the peasantry, there are implications for social stability that the party knows far, far too well. So they have to do something about rural unrest, and their answer is get more wealth to the countryside--as in China. However, this does not do anything about specific land-based grievances, and thus does not tackle some of the systemic issues facing rural Vietnam.

So, is there a solution? In theory, yes. In practice, not that I can see.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

why study international development?

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, and they ask me what I do, I have a pretty hard time explaining, in simple, everyday language, what exactly is international development studies. This has got me to thinking: if I have trouble explaining it to strangers, it must be pretty difficult for potential students to justify to their peers and their parents why they are studying this thing that many people don't understand. In this light, I thought it might be useful to write down a few points about why, to me, the study of international development is important.

We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse would have it. A world of unparalleled wealth and opportunity sits side by side with a world of unjustifiable poverty. Unjustifiable, because, according to Jeffrey Sachs, if those who were rich simply gave up one per cent of all of their income that would generate enough money to end poverty on the planet. No one would have to die because of where they were born. I got into international development because I was fortunate enough to be able to spend my savings, many years ago, on traveling to many parts of the world to which I had never expected to travel. On those travels, I saw some pretty appalling poverty--in Calcutta for the first time (now Kolkata, of course) I could only venture out of my grubby hotel room for a few hours at a time, because the power of the poverty on the streets was just too overwhelming. In Dhaka I saw too many limbless children begging on the street. And one of my strongest memories, from 10 years ago, is sitting on a bench in a village outside Peshawar, when I was doing fieldwork with Jim Freedman, talking to a man, a stranger, who started to cry because he had absolutely no idea how his family was going to eat that night. Poverty of this sort is an affront to humanity. No; it is more. It is a crime against humanity.

In my teaching, I try and enable students to better understand why we live in a world of haves and have nots. I try and facilitate an understanding in my students of the historical forces that have led us to this point, and the ways in which those forces have created societies in which the wealth of some requires the poverty of others. I want my students to understand this generally, but, more particularly, with regard to rural poverty, because that is where the most intractable global poverty is found, even in some places that apparently appear, at first glance, to be quite well off--places like Fiji and Thailand, two countries I know reasonably well.

In addition, however, to understanding why, I also in my professional work offer advice to international organizations, national governments, and local people that are trying, no matter how imperfectly, to change things for the better. Sometimes this feels like I am banging my head against a brick wall, as the orthodoxies of international development are far too ingrained in the institutions that dominate international development. Nonetheless, sometimes I think I have been able to make a difference, at times in small ways, and, on occasion, in actually very big ways that have improved the lives of hundreds of thousands. Thus, I not only try and help people to understand why, I also offer, at times, a how.

Finally, I have, over the years, engaged in a lot of what is called 'capacity building'. This means, in effect, helping those who lack the tools to do things for themselves to get the tools that allows them to do things for themselves. In this way, my whys and hows are not merely those of the outsider with the supposed--and I stress, supposed--knowledge, but are often based upon people themselves coming to an understanding of the whys and hows that they pass on to me...and I pass on to others.

That's what I do. So why study international development? It's not to get a job. Many--most--of my students do end up getting jobs in international development, but a job, important as that is, is not the reason to study international development. Too many of the job skills needed in international development can only be learned by experience, tempered with understanding, to be sure, but based on experience. No. The reason why it is important to study international development is because there is no need in 2007 for a single person on this planet to be poor. There is no need in 2007 for a significant proportion of humanity to have to continue to despoil the environment which we all rely upon in order that they survive. There is no need in 2007 for inequality between people, between us, to trap so many in a life where the future is limited. It is, simply, unjust. The study of international development is about building an understanding that can help eradicate poverty, significantly reduce inequality, and facilitate an era--finally!--of global social justice. And if you are concerned with global social justice, then you should study international development.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

gender, international development, and the UN

Last week it was my privilege to be asked to be a member of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Expert Group on Economic Growth, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction. UNDP is currently revising its corporate strategy for the next 3 years, and the role of the Expert Group is to offer advise to UNDP's Gender Team so that gender can be 'mainstreamed' throughout the organization. To that end, a group of 28 met at the University of Essex, in Colchester, UK, to thrash out a set of core objectives that the Gender Team would like to see UNDP working towards over the next 3 years. It was an incredibly intensive 2 days, and by its end I was exhausted. However, I was also quite exhilarated. The discussions that we had were lively, engaging, provocative and challenging. I think that some of the key themes that emerged from our discussions--of the need to highlight the role of social and cultural norms in sustaining gender inequality, of the need to integrate unpaid work and care into all aspects of economic analysis and policy advice, and of the need to more systematically develop the data base that can be used to sustain gender-aware evidence-based advice, amongst others--could all go a long way towards improving the integration of gender into the day in and day out work of UNDP. Of course, one cannot expect very much from an institution as large and as complex as UNDP. Nonetheless, I remain quietly optimistic that some good will come from these discussions.

I am often asked how it came to be that I became so centrally involved in feminist development economics. To me, it is a somewhat strange question. During my academic career it has always been self-evident to me that a major failing of economic analysis and policy is that it systematically fails to understand who does unpaid work and why, and how care is provided within and between families. The failure to understand these things means that economics fails, as a discipline, in its ability to understand day to day processes that affect everyone. It means that economics as a discipline actually understands very little, because unpaid work and care are the basis upon which all economic activity must take place: without care, there is no economy, stupid. This self-evident truth is not self-evident to most economists, though. Nonetheless, it has meant that I have practiced what we now call feminist development economics for my entire academic career.

Despite a rhetorical commitment to gender within international development institutions, in most instances such commitment is not matched by resources or by paying attention to gender relations when it comes to hard questions of money and its allocation. This was easily demonstrated a couple of years ago, when, as part of a global study of general budget support carried out on behalf of the UK's Department for International Development, I was asked to act as the gender consultant for the study. This was a study that had a budget that ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. The DfID has a strong gender focus. Yet, despite these two things, I was asked to provide 5 days--count them, 5 days--worth of input. In other words, a derisory amount of time and money was actually devoted to gender analysis in this research. Which meant, for me, that the understanding that was generated was not much of an understanding at all. I can only hope that I do not have a similar experience with UNDP.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

all change in international development?

It has been quite a big week in the global world of international development. The body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued. Tens of thousands have died for entirely preventable reasons, such as malaria or resource-induced conflict. Yet these are not the reasons why it has been a big week, for these are the everyday 'facts' of international development: people building lives amidst extremely difficult conditions. No, the reasons why it has been a big week lie in Washington and in London. In Washington, Paul Wolfowitz stepped down at the World Bank, to be replaced by Robert Zoellick. Across the road, Rodrigo Rato said that he would step down as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund later in the year. Finally, in the UK the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, appointed Douglas Alexander as his new Minister for International Development. This latter change might not appear to be on the same scale as the other two, but it is, in my view, of similar significance.

The arrival of Zoellick at the Bank will signal a change in management style, but not a change in content. Zoellick has a lot of experience in international development issues, principally as US Trade Representative, a post that made him the lead US player in the earlier stages of the World Trade Organization's Doha Round. Zoellick had a famously conflictual relationship with Peter Mandelson, his EU equivalent, and was well know for diligently and aggressively fighting for US interests in WTO negotiations. As President of the World Bank, it can be expected that Zoellick will adopt a less confrontational style than Wolfowitz, and will try to build consensus. Having said that, though, it should be noted that Zoellick did have an abrasive reputation while in the Trade Representative's job. Part of that is perhaps a function of his intelligence--he is supposed to be a pretty bright guy.

Nonetheless, in terms of the 'meat and potatoes' of Bank policy, little will change. Wolfowitz's concern with 'governance' will continue, because it pre-dated him. An explicit anti-poverty agenda will be continued, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, based upon the use of 'inclusive globalization' as a means of facilitating development in those parts of the world that have been left behind; in practice, though, what this means is the ongoing building of global capitalism, and global capitalist relations of production, through Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and similar devices. For the World Bank, irregardless of its President, global capitalism is the cure for underdevelopment, and not, at least in part, its source. It is this which divides the Bank from its (vast) array of heterodox critics. Zoellick's previous role, as US Trade Representative and as a senior member of Goldman Sachs, will not mean any fresh changes in Bank emphasis, as both of these roles were perfectly consistent with current Bank priorities and policies: building markets through liberalization, de-regulation and privatization. Those that are critical of the Bank, as I am, will therefore have reasons to continue to be critical of the Bank in light of Zoellick's appointment.

At the IMF, Rodrigo Rato surprised everyone by announcing that he was stepping down, for reasons that no one really understands. There were some rumours that he might be returning to Spanish politics; he himself said that he wanted to be able to focus more on his family's education, whatever that means. In any event, over the course of the next few months the Europeans will be searching for someone to present to the US Treasury as the acceptable face of global monetary orthodoxy. Judging by past experience, there are several European central bankers or former finance ministers that might be acceptable--Gerritt Zalm from the Netherlands comes to mind--but the candidate that does emerge will be little known outside specialist circles. As with Zoellick, we can expect the appointment of another faceless bureaucrat to a position of global importance that affects the daily lives of billions. It is an appointment that once again demonstrates the relentless capacity of the global North to ensure that its global development priorities remain at the forefront of international development.

In the UK, Douglas Alexander was appointed Minister of International Development, and was given expanded responsibilities for the Doha world trade negotiations. This appointment I found to be personally quite challenging. I have known Douglas Alexander for many years, although I have not seen him in a long time, and know him to be a person with a deep commitment to global social justice. However, I also know that as a Minister of the British Crown he will be constrained by government policy to continue the policies of the UK Department for International Development (DfID), policies that are at the very least complicit with the ongoing processes of neoliberal globalization which facilitate the immiserization of millions. Once again, we will witness the spectacle of a person of good intentions presiding over an organization that, with the power to do so much, serves to sustain global hierarchies of privilege.

DfID has the power to do so much because it expanded rapidly under the Labour governments of the past decade, and is now a major player in international development co-operation. DfID likes to see itself at part of the 'like-minded group' of northern European donors that promote market-friendly policies that nonetheless enhance people's capabilities to build sustainable livelihoods. However, its policies belie what it actually does. Too often it suggests that those who are poor simply need to do a different set of activities better, and that is the way out of their poverty. Too often, then, its policy prescriptions fail to recognize the centrality of global redistribution if poverty-elimination is to proceed. If DfID were to try and do what it said it wanted to do, it should try and bring together the like-minded group to reconfigure EU development co-operation. If this were to happen, the global hegemony of the Bank and the Fund could be seriously challenged by a development alternative, because collectively the EU and the like-minded group represent a significant chunk of global development assistance. This will not, though, happen; DfID will continue to work with the like-minded to try and reshape Bank policies from within, even though the power of the Bank lies at the level of the Board, which does not really feel the need to listen too much to the donors, even if they are, cumulatively, quite important. In trying to reshape the Bank from within, then, DfID will be complicit in policies whose outcomes are the very opposite of those to which it is explicitly committed. Contradictory indeed.

There is one other appointment, though, that should be mentioned, for within all this it offers a glimmer of hope. Mark Malloch Brown has been 'ennobled' and is now Minister for Africa in the UK. Whether Brown will be able to work within DfID's constraints will be interesting; when he was Under-Secretary General at the UN he certainly did not go along with a lot of UK government development policy, and his efforts at the United Nations Development Programme, the UN aid umbrella organization, suggests that he recognizes that a lot of the global development orthodoxy simply does not work. His appointment was a bold move for the UK to make, not least because there are many in the US administration that despise him, and it will be extremely interesting to see the extent to which Brown can or cannot reshape DfID to make it a more effective poverty-eradication operation. As always, one should be hopeful of the possibilities, but recognize the constraints, that limit both Douglas Alexander and Mark Malloch Brown to achieve what they would, no doubt, like to achieve.

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