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Part II – What Do Ethiopia and Vietnam Have in Common? The face of real development

Ethiopia Vietnam

Aklog Birara (Dr)

Part II
(Part I available here)

“Our people are endowed with a vitality, which has withstood every test. We have not been subjected to assimilation despite centuries of Chinese domination. What is more, we have succeeded in exploiting Chinese culture to build a well-organized society and a culture which, without being extraordinary, does not lack originality. It is certain that in the future, our people will find in French literature what it has as its best and responds appropriately to modernity and to the need to preserve culture.” 

Duong Quang Ham, Teacher, Philosopher and Author of Literary History of Viet Nam, 1941.

People want economic development first. The leaders may talk about something else. People want homes, medicines, jobs, schools.” Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Father of Singapore

The ultimate resource in economic development is people. It is people, and not capital or raw materials that develop an economy.” Peter Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow 

All the above are true. People want to improve their lives. People create wealth. To do that, you need peace and human security. 

The powerful statement written by Duong Quang Ham, a prominent Vietnamese scholar under harsh French censorship hammers the importance of Vietnamese national determination to pursue national dignity, identity, pride, humility, thrift, craftmanship, resilience as well as the capacity to forgive and modernize Vietnam. They are succeeding. 

These attributes seem simple and irrelevant to development. They are not. You must know your origin to chart your future. You must entertain the notion that the future is more important than the past. You must save and invest for tomorrow. This is true for individuals and families as it is for countries. You certainly cannot afford to squander human, material and or financial capital. Most of all, people matter. The lives of people matter. 

Setting aside the unworthy rows of Ethiopia’s governing party, the state and government; I often ask myself why Ethiopians, especially those who have achieved literacy are conflict-pone, quarrelsome and hateful? Why are most driven by a proclivity towards parochialism, tribalism, individualism, greed, personal gain, glory, and ego? 

Why are we stuck in a gridlock of ethnic polity? Why are we incapable of initiating healthy dialogue that leads to constructive change that benefits all? Why do we revert to conflict and war in settling our differences? Why did we fail to learn from the failures of the past half century? 

Don’t these tendencies diminish commonalties such as a national identity? A shared culture? Do these tendencies not create a zero-sum game phenomenon in which bribery, nepotism, and corruption reign? Do these tendencies not dehumanize specific communities deemed as the “other or them”? Can mortal enemies coexist? 

Why are Ethiopian “brothers killing their brothers” and why do ordinary Ethiopians and the international community tolerate state and non-state led conflicts that drive hunger, food and human insecurity, unemployment and hyper-inflation exceeding 60 percent? How come the international community fails to recognize and pinpoint who is primarily accountable for this tragedy? Can there be reconciliation and peace or restorative justice without accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing? 

According to a February 2024 FAO report, “25 percent of Ethiopian households are food insecure, and 27.08 percent of households are vulnerable.” The average household consists of five people

 Worldometer estimates that Ethiopia’s population reached almost 130 million in May this year. This would then mean 52 percent of Ethiopian households suffer from food insecurity and vulnerability. More than five million people are internally displaced. Inflation reached a whooping 60 percent. 

So, most Ethiopians share a common attribute emanating from a repressive, tyrannical, and corrupt governance system that prolongs its harsh rule on recurring conflict. It does this by deepening poverty, by extracting rent, and by exacerbating income inequality. Millions of children are victims of war and conflict. 

Is this crushing governance system tolerable? Why is Ethiopian society numb? 

What is food insecurity anyway? How do countries tackle it? 

“The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines that “food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Citizens who suffer from lack of food do not and cannot produce. Experts agree that “Households with lower nutritious food intake compared to food secured households are related to food insecure and vulnerable households.” The adverse effects of food insecurity are well documented: stunting of children, psychological pain and suffering, dehumanization (a productive person forced to beg for food), unemployment, hopelessness, and outmigration and the like. This is why Ethiopia’s Human Development Index remains low, 175th out of 191 countries. 

This low status means Ethiopia is not benefitting from its large, productive and youth population that constitutes more than 74 percent of the impoverished population. Degradation of human capital entails de-capitalization. 

Ironically, the federal government of Ethiopia led by Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party reverts to war and more war as sources of political staying power. 

Ethiopia’s celebrated military that has abandoned its primary role of defending Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty is today an instrument of state punishment. Abiy’s military generals are part of the corrupt and nepotistic system. The military knows Abiy weaponizes hunger, displacement, and the slaughtering of tens of millions as an instrument of public policy. It needs to restore its honor by freeing itself from party control and Abiy’s grip. 

In his malignant frenzy of ethnic elite hegemony, Abiy’s regime is depleting Ethiopia’s institutional capacity to produce and sustain human life. This maddening frenzy of ethnic-elite capture and hegemony has pushed Ethiopia to the brink of total collapse. 

This is why I suggest to Ethiopians and to the international community that Abiy Ahmed and his party pose an existential threat not only to Ethiopia but also to the Horn, Africa, and, by proxy, the greater world community. I remind the reader of the chilling, arrogant, threatening and Mussolini-like message Abiy Ahmed Ali delivered in the city of Lekemt, Wellega, Oromia. 

It is true you can reduce the population size of a targeted group—in this case Amhara– by reverting to war and hunger. However, you cannot eliminate structural poverty; let alone establish a solid foundation of sustainable and equitable development through ethnic polarization and warmongering. In fact, the result is the opposite. Those targeted for slaughter standup and fight back in defense of their very survival. 

Food insecurity compounds poverty, low productivity, unemployment, and inequality, lawlessness, recurrent conflicts, and wars. This is a vicious cycle. Food insecurity induces human insecurity and contributes hugely to country and regional instability. 

More important, an insecure society is at the same time a low productivity and low employment generating society. An insecure society mistrusts its government. 

This takes me to the matter of family and community in nation building. You cannot build one nation without accepting a shared or common national identity as citizens and as Ethiopians. You cannot erase the root causes of poverty without leveling the playing field in education, health services, shelter, physical infrastructure, and the allocation of budgetary resources equitably and fairly. I am referring to the principle of unfettered equality of opportunity. 

Stop fighting one another and focus on alleviating poverty. 

The fight against poverty is a common societal and county level goal. The aspirational goal of sustainable and equitable development and shared prosperity is equally a common goal. A fascist state is anathema to both goals. Such a state incapacitates. 

Development is different from the glitz like activities of building palaces and resorts for the few. Experts do not best describe development to mean the creation of a small class of loyal and subservient millionaires who live sheltered lives. Such a model is Mafia-like. It is a fascistic and delusional model of development.

Simply put, sustainable and equitable development is unattainable if the Ethiopian state, government, and governing party continue to choose winners and losers at will; marginalize or disempower or impoverish millions. This vicious cycle is germane to Ethiopia. It is institutional and structural in nature. 

Back to Vietnam. I wish to state a disclaimer. I am not suggesting that Vietnam is paradise. It is not. No country can claim this status. Vietnamese society accepts the honorable tradition that the only sure thing in the world is change. This tradition allows constant adaptations to a rapidly changing global economy. For example, acculturation is normalized: East and West and the like. 

I observed pulsating vitality and energy among ordinary Vietnamese wherever we visited. I am reminded of the fact that, in their war against poverty, their quest for shared prosperity and a world class competitive economy, the Vietnamese are applying the same national culture of energy, zeal, determination, creativity, innovation, social mobilization and national resolve –the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels they built in the wee hours of night against American constant bombardment—in pursuit of their development agenda. 

I tend to think of the common national vision, integrated and comprehensive development strategy and set of goals championed by the Vietnamese state and government that drive Vietnamese rapid transformation. The family, community and the state operate coordinated. Institutions matter. Culture matters. Public ownership and engagement matter. Peace and stability matter. Accountability matters. 

What drives the Vietnamese economy?

Billions of dollars in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) plays a critical role. Vietnam exports electronics, semi-conductors, automotives and renewables to the global market. This rapid transformation places Vietnam in the forefront of the West’s supply chain in place of China. 

 However, I believe and agree with international experts three sectors dominate transformation in Vietnam:

  • State-owned enterprises that dominate textiles, food, furniture, plastics, paper, telecommunications, and tourism.
  • The services sector representing 41.3 percent of GDP in 2022.
  • Public investment in digital technology, and domestic consumption, in physical and social infrastructure like schools, clinics, hospitals, sanitation.

State ownership is not necessarily bad if it is managed to serve the common good rather than a club of self-serving and Mafia-like elites. 

The setting is important. In all these, a shared vision and set of goals matter. Locally, on the ground, folks relayed to me that shared vision, goals, and effort enabled Vietnam to establish a competitive economy in which ordinary people benefit. Many people told me repeatedly that the leading agency that drives Vietnam’s modernization process is the national government. It defines macroeconomic, fiscal, monetary, investment, trade, and social policies. It invests heavily. They relayed to me their frustration with the lack of transparency. 

The national government (left leaning and social democratic) creates a favorable policy environment for stimulate domestic consumption and to attract Foreign Direct Investment from various sources: East and West. 

Vietnam initiated its economic reform in 1991. This is about the same time Ethiopia changed its Socialist oriented government. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated regime initiated a state-led Agricultural-industrial model of development with tepid socioeconomic results. 

It is true that Ethiopia achieved major social infrastructural development like the expansion of elementary and high schools, colleges, and universities, allowing for greater participation in education.

Quantity was, however, not accompanied by quality. At the end of 2023 Ethiopia’s Human Development Index was 175th out of 191 countries. It ranks 128th out of 133 countries in the Global Knowledge Index: 14th out of nineteen countries with low human development.

By comparison, Vietnam ranked 107th out of 193 countries, a 50 percent improvement from 1990. Quality education and substantial labor participation in the national economy features prominent in the index. In Vietnam, the harnessing and deployment of human capital features prominent. It is a pillar. 

Ethiopia’s low ranking in HDI means that a child born in Ethiopia today will be 38 percent as productive as they could be if they had full health and education. This is worsened by the most recent closure of schools owing to civil conflicts, external aggressions in Gambela, in the western part of the Amhara region as well, as the degradation of human security and rights by government and non-government led forces in Amhara, Oromia and Tigray. 

Why Culture Matters  

It struck me that Vietnamese cities go live at night. Eating places are often packed with groups pf people eating together. This cultural phenomenon is pronounced in Vietnam. 

This culture of eating together traces itself back to the long-established tradition of Vietnamese working together to construct the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the more than 2,000 kilometers underground tunnel the Vietnamese constructed while fighting America’s war of aggression. 

I was informed that families in each village constructed the tunnels in the wee hours of night. Work on the farm during the day and in the tunnels at night. This is a remarkable feat that shows national determination at its best. It takes national resolve, wisdom, creativity, engineering skills and the art of working together for a common cause. This is why I underscore the organic link of the family, the community, and the state in Vietnamese political culture

One powerful illustration of the role of culture is how the Vietnamese manage their horrendous and frightening traffic that clogs major cities—Danang, Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). In the three weeks I spent in Vietnam I witnessed only one traffic incident. Mind you. You cannot cross a single street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city without a Vietnamese accompanying you. 

My plausible explanation for managing chaos on the one hand and a sense of calmness on the other is culture: the culture of consciousness, calmness, and recognition that each car or motorcycle driver has responsibility to the other person, to the family and to the entire society. You are not a solo player even in managing traffic. 

One evening, I decided to walk to the waterfront in Ho Chi Minh city. I was reluctant to cross. I went to a hotel and asked a young man how we can cross the street. He said you cannot do it without a local. He accompanied me across the street and returned. I faced the same predicament crossing back. Another Vietnamese offered help and shielded me from harm. He informed me that Motorcycles account for more than 60 percent of Vietnamese traffic. In the process I witnessed a motorcycle with five family members. The Vietnamese do it with grace. 

How is it that Vietnam can overcome all the hurdles imposed on it by external powers and achieve substantial growth and development since1991?

Why is Ethiopia still going through a cycle of violence, economic malaise, hunger, destitution, and hopelessness despite a change in government in 1991? Can Ethiopia survive such a vicious cycle of war and destruction? 

Ethiopia’s poverty and backwardness is self-inflicted. It is inexcusable. Its cycle of violence is inexplicable and must stop. It is only then that the country can develop at a fast pace. Its system of government is tyrannical and detrimental to human development. It must go. 

Both Vietnam and Cambodia managed to let go of past animosities. They forgave their external enemies. Ethnic differences are accepted as normal and as sources of pride. Both countries are homes to different ethnic groups who live peacefully with one another. 

Vietnam is home to fifty-four ethnic groups, the Viet being the largest. In Cambodia, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups coexist side by side with Khmer, the majority.

In both countries, national identity as Vietnamese and Cambodian respectively overrides ethnic or religious identity. No contest there. 

I paid a working visit to Vietnam and Cambodia because these two post-conflict countries in East Asia and the Pacific region are developing at a remarkable pace. I was also motivated by the fact these countries; like Ethiopia, have glorious histories, civilizations, and national identities. History, tradition, culture, and national identity matter. Ethiopia is not benefiting from its glorious past. It is subverting it at a huge cost. 

More relevant, these post-conflict nations offer the development community lessons of experience in sustainable and equitable development that I find relevant to Ethiopia and the rest of the world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa. 

I would like to cap this series with the following. There is a huge and consequential difference between a social democratic system that values and harnesses its human capital to the fullest on the one hand; and an ethno-nationalist and fascistic system that diminishes and degrades human capital on the other. I urge the reader to focus on institutions and structures that enhance development; and those that thwart it. 

In Part III of this series, I plan to share pictorial representations of both Cambodia and Vietnam, with focus on UNESCO Heritage sites. These sites attract millions of foreign and domestic visitors each year and employ thousands of people. 

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


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  1. Ethiopia and Vietnam are two completely different countries. There is nothing that is considered decisive and common to both. One is apple and the other one is orange. Case closed. If we talk about South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand then we will find ground to have a nice and productive powwow.


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