The World Bank considers Vietnam a success story. At first glance, the claim might seem to be true: The country has reduced by half the number of its citizens living on less than $2 a day; its commerce is thriving; its cities are rapidly expanding. But the Rev. Francois Houtart says the situation is not that simple.
A Belgian sociologist, writer and one of the most active members of the World Social Forum, Father Houtart is also the founder of the Tri-Continental Centre (known as Cetri), a nongovernmental organization he established in 1976. Based in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, Cetri studies the development of North-South relations. Since 1968, Father Houtart has been a frequent traveler to Vietnam. During a recent visit to America, he described the dramatic changes that have been taking place in the country since the end of the Vietnam War.
For all the success Vietnam has achieved in the area of individual material progress, Father Houtart said serious problems remain as the country attempts to absorb elements of the capitalist market system without abandoning its ideals of promoting the collective good. The country currently is working toward its goal of becoming a semi-industrialized nation by 2020. However, Father Houtart thinks the introduction of a capitalist market economy—while reducing poverty for some—also has threatened the environment and widened the gap between rich and poor.
Five years ago, the Institute of Sociology in Vietnam asked Father Houtart to come and revise the study of a rural commune in the Red River Delta that he had directed in the 1970s. “The idea was to measure the economic and social changes that have taken place in Vietnam because of the introduction in Vietnam of the market economy,” Father Houtart said. And there are many. “The current situation is one of spectacular growth, especially in the big cities like Hanoi, but also to some degree even in the countryside,” he said.
Poverty in Vietnam before the advent of market forces was very different from poverty in some other parts of the developing world because it was poverty with dignity, Father Houtart explained. In general, “everyone had the necessities of life in terms of basics like free education and health care, so a minimum standard of living was assured.” He noted that this was made possible by the socialist system that was already in place in North Vietnam. “But now, with North and South Vietnam united and a primarily market economy, besides the spectacular growth of a minority of the population and the relative economic growth of a substantial part of the population, you increasingly have a new and deeper kind of poverty.”
Father Houtart observed that the Communist government believed that after the introduction of a market economy, it could control the market forces—both those from within and others from outside in the form of foreign investors and multinational companies. “But when you look at what has happened,” he said, “you realize that in great measure…the market is largely controlling the political scene.”
The commerce of Vietnam is booming, Father Houtart said: “Everyone is buying and selling, with new construction visible everywhere, particularly in and around the big cities.” He described the level of construction near Hanoi as so intense that “it amounts to what is almost the rising of another city because of all the new buildings” in what were once sparsely populated outskirts.
In some rural areas, the more fortunate Vietnamese have built brick houses, a sign of their higher standard of living. The government has established public credit institutions that make low-interest loans to small farmers who organize crop initiatives. Such initiatives are seldom found in Africa and Latin America where the poverty is harsher. Even among the peasants, there is a tradition of self-organizing to collect funds to assist families in need.
Health, Education, Environment
At the same time, Father Houtart said the “logic of the market” has caused negative repercussions affecting matters like health care. “Before, effective medications were produced locally and sold at low cost in village workshops,” he said. “But, now, multinational pharmaceutical companies are bringing their products to the villages, where they are sold at much higher cost. There is less possibility for traditional medicine.” Such an outcome is a reflection of the increasing social distance between portions of the population, a distance caused by the market economy.
Education in Vietnam, especially higher education, also has changed. Father Houtart said the system has become partly privatized, as Western universities and schools establish themselves in the area and cater only to those whose families can afford the tuition. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has several thousand students at its school in Hanoi, all of the courses are taught in English. Such an education is available only to students from families that have succeeded in the new economic system. Father Houtart spoke of a colleague at the Institute of Sociology whose son won a scholarship to the University of Maine in the United States. “When he came back [to Vietnam] on vacation and visited his high school classmates who were at M.I.T. and other [Vietnamese] institutions of higher education of North American origin, he was shocked to find them speaking English even among themselves,” Father Houtart said. English had become their preferred language.
But foreign influence does not come only from the West. Father Houtart noted that 60 percent of the burgeoning foreign investments in Vietnam are from Asia. Many Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean entrepreneurs have taken advantage of Vietnam’s cheap labor force. But since these entrepreneurs import some of the raw materials they need—steel, plastic and the like—and even manufacture some of what they export, such economic activity is of relatively little value to the Vietnamese economy.
Despite the government’s efforts, corruption among those in authority is rampant. Father Houtart said, “With bribes to the right people, you can construct buildings that may not conform to the required city planning norms.” Another form of corruption is exemplified by the growing presence of foreign intermediaries who are gaining influence, not least in land appropriation, he said: “Officially, the state owns all the land in Vietnam, but a peasant has a right to its use for a period of years on a contractual basis with the government, perhaps four or five acres; he can even pass it on to his descendants.” But, Father Houtart added, a peasant also can sell his right to the use of the land for a number of years specified in the contract. As a city expands, private companies can purchase a peasant’s land rights.
Peasants who choose to sell ordinarily receive little financial compensation, only enough to live on for a few years, but the private companies can sell and resell the land at great profit. After exhausting the money they have received, the peasants face the increasingly widespread problem of unemployment that besets Vietnam. Some start work in the new factories, the chemicals from which are creating land and water pollution. “Not long ago, in the southern part of the country, the water pollution killed the fish, and the peasants, in protest, occupied the factory, but little changed,” Father Houtart said. “All the rivers of the Red Delta are polluted now, and the fish are diminishing in number.”
During his travels, Father Houtart observed the ways in which climate change is beginning to affect Vietnam. The country has 3,000 kilometers of coast and is losing land as the waters rise. The remaining land is damaged by the salt water. Both factors negatively affect rice production. If this continues, it is estimated that by 2020 the loss will be so great that the country will have to stop exporting rice entirely. Currently, Vietnam is the biggest exporter of rice in the world.
For many companies, disregard for the environment is matched only by disregard for their workers. Father Houtart said that when factory owners (mostly Asians) learn of a movement among workers for higher wages or hear threats of a strike, they attempt to find the leaders and dismiss them.
Yet some labor efforts have succeeded. “In the Province of Vinh Phuc that I visited this past summer,” he said, “its vice president told me of a conversation he recently had with the director of a Toyota plant, who spoke of hearing that the workers were preparing to strike for higher wages. Toyota was making big profits because of the low wages. ‘But we respect the laws of Vietnam and pay the minimum wage,’ the director said to him. The vice president of the province replied, ‘It is not possible to live on the minimum wage.’ So the director said later that he would increase the pay by 20 percent.”
The give-and-take between employers and workers, the rich and the poor, is indicative of Vietnam’s struggles as a whole. New solutions give rise to new and different challenges. Vietnam’s reactions to these challenges will define the nation it becomes, a nation whose future, for now, remains unclear.
View a slideshow  depicting the life of the church in Vietnam today.