Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) workers walk past a power transmission tower at a road intersection in Hanoi. Photo: Bloomberg
We have been hearing a lot about corruption these days.
There are corruption studies, indices are drawn up and nations shown their place on the corruption scale.
Countries like Vietnam rank high on the corruption scale, we are told by a bevy of experts, who warn that this is undoing or undermining the gains of rapid economic growth that the nation has achieved over the last two or three decades. Senior officials of state-owned and private companies have been given stiff prison terms for "economic mismanagement and failure to comply with the state's economic regulations."
Friendly, well-meaning countries like Denmark are helping the nation fight corruption with several projects, helping the country integrate better into the global economy, we are told. Wise heads shake knowingly, fingers are wagged and sage warnings are issued about implications of Vietnam's failure to end "endemic corruption." They warn that Vietnam's reforms have lacked teeth; that an inefficient State-owned sector needs to be privatized post haste before they run the national economy into the ground.
Imagine Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) sold to a private corporation. Going by past experience, it would mean giving public assets away at scrap value, as happened under the IMF aegis in Russia. How many Vietnamese citizens can afford to pay the higher power rates that a market dominating corporation will inevitably charge?
Experts from international organizations including the UN and the World Bank, leading media outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Economist have consistently reported on how Vietnam is not doing enough to fight corruption and greed, that this is a factor that is increasingly discouraging foreign investors, that other countries in the region like Myanmar are now emerging as more attractive investment destinations.
There is no debate that Vietnam has failed to end endemic corruption thus far, but what are these "reforms that have teeth" and who are the proponents of "greater transparency?"
Given the neoliberal policies typically advanced by Financial Times, The Economist et al, policies that have repeatedly bankrupted nation after nation, what standing are we to give them and the "experts" they cite as they pronounce judgments on Vietnamese corruption?
These are media outlets that have consistently supported a succession of illegal wars (you cannot get more corrupt than that) that have made a few corporations huge sums of money, not to mention the bailouts of corrupt hedge funds and banking institutions.
Corruption comes in various shapes, hues, sizes and forms, and neoliberalism, which has spawned a financial architecture dominated by the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO (undemocratic organizations for the most part), can be said to be the most corrupt system of them all.
However, the so-called experts from international organizations and media outlets like the ones listed above focus more on the illegal pursuit of personal gain through bribery and other similar practices, while placing corporate interests above the viability of all peoples of the world, indeed of life on the planet. They are owned by corporate interests themselves and assiduously advocate a corporate-friendly agenda, and we are to take it for granted that this is for the greater common good.
The reforms in Vietnam that have been lauded by the financial elite so far have created increasing landlessness among rural households; they have destroyed forests and mountains and rivers and taken away common property resources that were the traditional buffer for millions of rural households that ensured survival in times of crises; they have reduced millions to almost sweatshop labor conditions and strikes by disgruntled workers are generally frowned upon as a factor that would discourage FDI inflows.
So dwindling FDI in Vietnam will create similar labor conditions and environmental destruction in Myanmar and other countries. And the experts will move on, laud that country's embrace of economic reforms, and shake their heads about the corruption the process engenders.
Given the history of Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia, much lauded for their market-friendly reforms till the people could take it no more, what lessons should Vietnam learn and apply?
In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins describes people like himself, "experts" at the vanguard of reforms that are imposed on countries.
We EHMs are crafty; we learned from history. Today we do not carry swords. We do not wear armor or clothes that set us apart. In countries like Ecuador, Nigeria, and Indonesia, we dress like local schoolteachers and shop owners. In Washington and Paris, we look like government bureaucrats and bankers. We appear humble, normal. We visit project sites and stroll through impoverished villages. We profess altruism, talk with local papers about the wonderful humanitarian things we are doing.. We cover the conference tables of government committees with our spreadsheets and financial projections, and we lecture at the Harvard Business School about the miracles of macroeconomics.
We are on the record, in the open. Or so we portray ourselves and so are we accepted. It is how the system works. We seldom resort to anything illegal because the system itself is built on subterfuge, and the system is by definition legitimate.
It is the system's legitimacy that needs to be questioned. I am not for a moment condoning corruption, and there is no argument that it should be dealt with firmly at all levels, but Vietnam's survival, not to mention the survival of every other nation, depends more upon rejecting the greater corruption of an unsustainable economic system with its attendant excessive greed and recklessness and the injustices and destruction it spawns.
By Hari Chathrattil
The writer is an expat who lives in Ho Chi Minh City
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