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What Do Ethiopia and Vietnam Have in Common?

An essay on humanist social and economic development

Ethiopia Vietnam _
From the Web

Aklog Birara (Dr)

‘Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious abuses in a conflict, including reportedly unlawful or widespread civilian deaths or harm, enforced disappearances or abductions, forcible transfers of civilian populations, torture, physical abuses, conflict-related sexual violence or punishment; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; extensive gender-based violence, including rape and sexual violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial or ethnic minority groups; and laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, which were enforced.”

US Department of State, 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices—Ethiopia 

I cite these quotes to show that the government of the United States plays a huge role in the affairs of developing countries like Ethiopia and Vietnam. In the case of the former, the aggressor was the United States itself. Vietnam emerged victorious. It is prospering. It is friends with its former adversary. 

In the case of Ethiopia, the huge hurdle most Ethiopians face is horrendous and persistent ethnicity-based killings, persecutions, jailing, insecurity, a sense of hopelessness, and degradations of human rights. 

The culprit is the ethnic elite-based Prosperity Party led by Abiy Ahmed Ali that inherited the core values, cultures, institutions, and structure of the Ethiopian People s’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It took power in 1991, about the same time Vietnam initiated its reform. Abiy’s Prosperity Party is a continuation of EPRDF led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the current one dominated by Oromo elites. Both gutted Ethiopian national identity, culture, and history. 

There is no substantial difference between this newly minted party and the party it replaced. Ethiopia is more conflict ridden, ethnically polarized, with its economy in shambles under Abiy Ahmed than it has ever been. In shambles because ordinary citizens suffer from scarcity of essentials and from hyperinflation. 

Tragically for Ethiopia, the international community including the United States continue to ignore or give lip service to war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide and crimes of rape. If you consider the issue from the development angle, Ethiopia is doing the exact opposite of what it must do. Settle armed conflicts through consultation and without preconditions. Why is that hard to do? 

Ethiopia deserves international attention before it falls apart completely and irreversibly. On their part, the country’s quarreling elites and the Ethiopian people must set aside minor differences, come together, and overhaul the oppressive system that keeps them divided, suspicious of one another, poor and dependent on foreign aid to survive. They must agree on a common or national purpose and agenda. 

In this regard, it is time for a transitional government of national unity. 

For more than 30 years, my affiliation with the World Bank offered me the rare privilege to travel around the world, learn and appreciate the diversity of cultures, traditions, histories, development challenges as well as models that give real meaning to human development. It really is a beautiful world; if only we knew how to recognize and live with one another peacefully, if we knew how to share the planet’s bounty and wealth equitably and fairly. 

My family members including my son, my wife, friend, advisor and moral compass and I planned and implemented a one month once in a lifetime learning trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. We did the trip with clear objectives—visit UNESCO World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, interact with ordinary people and seek inputs, source only local foods, identify concrete social and economic indicators that demonstrate real changes in the wellbeing of citizens in both countries and observe the extent of social and political harmony. 

Why did I choose these two? Because, like Ethiopia, Vietnam and Cambodia possess long and rich civilizations, traditions, cultures, and other tangible and intangible assets that are under-reported and under-appreciated in the Western world and are threatened by external influences. 

Ethiopia and Vietnam suffered from foreign aggression. Ethiopia faced centuries and centuries of aggression, occupation and domination by the Egyptian and Ottoman empires, the French, the British, Italians and Americans. The bulk of Vietnamese history is replete with external aggression and wars—invasions by Mongols, one thousand years of Chinese oppression and domination followed by national liberation; French Colonial rule from 1884-1954 that ended with the defeat of French imperialism at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. 

A parallel example of fierce national determination, resolve and resistance is the battle of Adwa led by Emperor Menelik and the defeat of Italian colonialism in 1896. Ethiopia established its status as the only free and independent country in Africa, paving the way for the rest of Black Africa to fight for independence from colonial powers that had divided the huge and natural resource rich continent into European spheres of influence. These influences of divide and rule persist to this day, with newer actors also involved. 

Tragically for the Vietnamese people and the region, the defeat of French imperialism was replaced by what the Vietnamese aptly call the “American War.” Author Hu Ngoc quotes Le Monde (the World) that “every day, a hundred American B-52s pummeled North Vietnam.” 

The US intervened in Vietnam militarily in 1954 and inflicted pain and suffering on the Vietnamese people for 30 years. The US agreed to an accord in 1975.

We visited a site where we saw American bombs lodged in a village near the tunnel that the Vietnamese constructed to defend themselves from the American bombing. More than three (3) million Vietnamese civilians perished. Hundreds of thousands of children became orphans. The economy was in tatters. 

I do not know whether the UN considered this horrendous war crime perpetrated on the Vietnamese people. 

I find it heartening that ordinary Vietnamese no longer hold animosity or grudges against the American people. Ethiopians may learn from this phenomenon that you cannot develop your society by holding grudges. 

Why do Ethiopia and Vietnam attract foreign attention? 

The reason Ethiopia and Vietnam attracted external attention is because of their geopolitical and strategic locations. Prime and prized lands, waters, minerals, and trade arteries are always focal points for external aggression and for proxy wars. 

You cannot develop a country sustainably if you face external aggression, proxy wars, constant civil conflict and war, human insecurity, and instability. Peace and stability are quintessential for development. 

For more than half a century, I have propagated the notion that Ethiopia has the requisite tangible and intangible assets to develop fast. I have also defended Ethiopia’s right to nurture, preserve and harness its natural and human resources like lands, mountains, gorges, canyons, lakes, rivers and waters, historical sites, diverse cultures, and human capital for the benefit of its growing population. 

I recognize the fundamental premise that what I say and write are theoretical constructs. But development begins with ideas. Its foundation is based on the principle of a clearly defined and measurable national purpose. State and government actors must articulate and propagate the ultimate national purpose of development: how citizens benefit. The purpose must be owned by individuals, families, communities, regions, and the entire society. 

The national purpose I have in mind is to extricate society from abject poverty by meeting basic needs first; and by creating a solid foundation for sustainable development in which everyone benefits requires competent state and government leadership. It requires bold ideas, constructive collaboration, complementarity, and constant assessment of progress. 

Development is about improvement in the human condition or human welfare. It is multifaceted and primarily social and cultural rather than political. 

Huu Ngoc, one of the leading Vietnamese intellectuals, philosophers and writers argues in his acclaimed book Viet Nam: Tradition and Change that national culture “must hold a central position and play the coordinating and regulating role” in economic development and “that national statistics are not an adequate measure of the quality of life of a people.”

A fear culture is anathema to development. If a country’s culture is bedeviled by ethnic animosity, hate, polarization, revenge and counter revenge, and elite capture, no amount of rhetoric and no amount of foreign aid will stimulate sustainable and equitable development. 

For example, land that should serve the common good by enabling farmers to own their lands, produce more and sell surplus has, currently in Ethiopia, become a source of control, corrupted wealth, and political power for elites. This is the case in most Sub-Saharan African countries, North Africa, and the Middle East where elites thrive from rent-seeking using natural resources like land and minerals while the majority suffer. 

In the process of this zero-sum game, “My time to eat” and your time to perish becomes the norm. The causes of hunger, malnutrition and stunting of children are often blamed wrongly on or are associated with explosive population growth rather than weak and primitive agricultural production as well as state ownership of land. This is the case in Ethiopia. “Land to the tiller” is degraded to mean land for elites to dole out to peasant farmers and the poor and gain their loyalty in the next election. The cycle goes on. The structure of production remains the same. 

What drives Vietnams’ remarkable development?

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for sure. Experts agree that Vietnam economic success is driven by structural and institutional reforms; and is nurtured by shared and common values like “patriotism, national pride, a strong sense of community, diligence, and thrift.” Hu Ngoc underscores this. “Our institutions of the family remain quite strong, thanks to efforts to uphold traditional values. These include the importance of community, parental authority, the worship of ancestors, the rituals of birth, marriage, death…. The family must itself by relieving itself of Confucius constraints while adopting selectively some Western values, such as gender equality and authentic rights for the individual.” 

These are components of culture, traditions and values that permeate Vietnamese society. In addition, Hu Ngoc suggests persuasively that “To address our economic problems, first, we had to change production methods. The government kept the state-owned sector but encouraging trade, the arts, crafts, and private industry. The export in 1989 of two million tons of rice and two million tons of oil and oil products signaled the beginning of recovery.” 

Primarily, development is the capability and capacity to meet basic needs—food, health services, education, sanitation, shelter and the like. 

Thirty-five years later, Vietnam ranks as the second largest producer and exporter of rice in the world; and the second largest producer of coffee after Brazil. 

 Vietnam is now a hub of sophisticated manufacturing and is an exporter of products like mobile phones and television sets. 

A distinct feature of Vietnamese development is that Vietnam has retained and preserved its national identity “ensuring the harmonious development of culture and our economy.” You do not give up your national identity and culture because of modernization or foreign aid or FDI or remittances. 

In framing its development agenda while preserving its national identity and culture, Vietnam benefited hugely from its patriotic and modernizing leaders. At the top of this is Ho Chi Minh, the founder of modern Vietnam. “A revolutionary, humanist scholar and a wise politician,” Ho Chi Minh demonstrated a “flexible attitude,” blended Marxist concepts and ideals with the values of “rationalism, concern for social morality, and the overriding importance of action.”

Development entails morality and good ethics like not allowing bribery and corruption or eating away limited resources or diverting them for glitzy projects like palaces and resorts

Ho Chi Minh’s genius is manifested in his strong belief that “East and West, nationalism; and internationalization and dreams, tradition and revolution, reason, and heart—Ho Chi Minh reconciled these opposites into harmony. His life and work symbolized Pascal’s concept that a person shows his greatness not by sticking to one pole but joining two opposite poles together so that they complement each other,” argues the author, Hu Ngoc. Vietnamese children learn these values in school and practice them when they grow up. 

In short, leadership and institutions matter. Governments exist to serve citizens and to defend national interests. These deficits bedevil Ethiopia conflict ridden society. 

Ethiopia is endowed with rich and diverse cultures. Its varied climate is a treasure. It has ample land. 

But it has failed to conduct institutional and structural reforms that make sense. it has also failed to nurture, promote, and institutionalize core cultural values that stimulate indigenous development through specialization, quality production and domestic market competition. Like everything else in Ethiopia, culture is considered a zero-sum game too: your culture must go away while my culture must flourish. 

 National culture– the way citizens deal with, recognize, and appreciate one another regardless of tribe or religion, the way they deal with the individual as a person, the family, community and the state (the foundation that characterizes Vietnamese and Cambodian society), the way citizens appreciate and nurture their diversity and natural environment as well as their appreciation of their unique history, national identify and place in the world all matter in development. High GDP alone does not define a country’s health. 

Vietnam’s model of development appeals to me. This is because it is humanist and caters to the entire society rather than to classes of people, especially elites. Universal access to education, electricity, access to the internet and Wi-Fi, food self-sufficiency and security and the like are good indicators of good and strong Vietnamese government leadership and state policy. This does not mean it is perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect development model. 

No society develops without women. The role of women and labor is recognized, appreciated, enforced, and institutionalized in Vietnam. Women played a lead role in the construction and management of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail.  Women run most small enterprises. 

While ordinary folks complain about the lack of transparency in state affairs, Vietnamese citizens are satisfied with their government. Their commitment to a united Vietnam (North and South Vietnam) is unassailable. This is why Vietnam overcame thousands of years of aggression and is today demonstrating a highly competitive and dynamic market economy. 

The buoyancy of the economy on the ground shows high energy, innovation, creativity, and activity. There is no doubt that Vietnam is poised to become the next China.

Vietnam is an industrial hub producing electronic goods for the domestic as well as the foreign market. More interesting is domestic competition and the availability of goods and services in the consumer market. 

Numbers cement my core arguments. In 2023, Vietnam’s GDP reached $430 billion, GDP per capita reached $4,234, export volume reached $355 billion. Its current population is estimated at one hundred million; most of them young. By comparison Ethiopia’s is $164 billion, $1,020, and $4.2 billion, respectively. Ethiopia’s current population estimate is 123 million. 

We saw evidence throughout Vietnam that the domestic consumer market is vibrant and robust. Products and services are aligned with the dynamic domestic culture in both Cambodia and Vietnam. 

The vital role of infrastructure 

Infrastructure is critical for development. Vietnam’s social and physical infrastructure is well developed and interconnected. 

I was struck to learn that 80 percent of Vietnam is rural. These rural areas are, however, organically interconnected with urban areas. The rural community depends largely on rice farming. 

Social and physical infrastructure and favorable government macroeconomic policy conditions contribute hugely to the steady flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) and to a vibrant domestic economy that is complementary. In terms of FDI, most prominent investors are Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and South Koreans. FDI has propelled Vietnamese exports of electronic goods. 

These investments do not take place in a vacuum. They are guided and governed by strong state and government institutions and policies that ensure Vietnamese national interests like consumer needs, employment and technology transfers occur. 

Part II shall follow soon.

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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