Golden opportunity, golden pitfalls

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Vietnam needs careful mix of socio economic policies to address "˜demographic bonus'

Vietnam has witnessed an unusual rapid rise of the sex ratio at birth over the last few years. Other countries in the region which went through a similar situation had to import brides to satisfy the needs for marriage.

As a surge in working-age population ushers in a "golden era" for Vietnamese development, education, social security and gender equality are crucial for the development of the country, Bruce Campbell, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative in Vietnam, told Thanh Nien Weekly in an interview.

Thanh Nien Weekly: Vietnam is going through what analysts call its "demographic bonus" period, in which the number of working-age people nearly doubles that of those who are of dependent age. What are the opportunities it brings for the country?

Bruce Campbell: Usually, this period of demographic bonus happens only once in a nation's lifetime and in Vietnam, it is happening from now until 2040.

This era is also known as the "˜golden era' as it presents opportunities for the socioeconomic development of a country. The demographic dividend enables Vietnam to effectively use this abundant and young labor force for the next phase of economic growth, especially from 2011 onwards, when the country will embrace middle-income status.

The abundant labor force and low labor cost used to be considered Vietnam's competitive advantages. However, manual laborers account for a high percentage of the force, while the country needs skilled workers to serve development.

If laborers are skilled, the country will be able to become a competitive production partner for developed countries. In addition, if the country maintains a high employment rate, the dividends of the demographic bonus will be high as well. For example, the larger the workforce, the more taxes are paid, which can then be re-invested in health, education, social security and other social services.

However, a window of opportunity can also turn into a disaster if large numbers of ill-trained young people enter a labor market that is unable to absorb them. It is therefore key to invest in education, human resource development and in employment creation.

To boost economic development, it is also crucial to diversify occupations and industries in rural areas, as well as to increase the productivity of labor-intensive industries.

And what about other challenges, especially to disadvantaged groups such as migrant and ethnic minority people?

The growing population of young people creates challenges to ensuring access to quality services, education and health services for all. If Vietnam wants to take advantage of this demographic opportunity like other Asian and Southeast Asian countries have done, it needs to ensure that the needs of this growing young population are served and that this young population can take full advantage of and contribute to socio-economic development


Since a plentiful labor force does not necessarily mean a skilled labor force, efforts need to be directed to enhancing the skills of young people, and to ensuring that all are given equal opportunities for professional development. This is particularly important for those groups that are currently marginalized such as migrants and ethnic minority people.

Another challenge imposed by a growing young population is access to quality services for all, particularly to sexual and reproductive health services as those young people are of reproductive age and have particular needs that must be met. As for education, also in the health sector, particular efforts need to be directed towards those population groups that currently have less or little access to such services, so as to ensure that they can participate in Vietnam's development path.

A demographic bonus now, and an aging population in the next decades. What should Vietnam do to prepare for the future?

Similarly to fast population growth, fast population ageing also creates various pressures on economic growth, as well as on the existing infrastructure, social security and health care services.

In order to avoid the challenges, we first need to better understand the ageing phenomenon and its impact on the different social and economic sectors.

In addition, innovative and effective approaches for the implementation of the recently approved Law on Elderly need to be developed and should also be reflected in sectoral strategies, plans of action and programs for the period of 2011-2020.

Health care for elderly also needs to be improved. This includes both the quality of the health care services provided as well as equal accessibility to such services by the most vulnerable, especially those in rural and remote areas.

It is also required that the current social assistance scheme is reformed toward a universal scheme based on the principles of solidarity and equality, to protect all old-age people from livelihood risks, such as poverty, and lack of care.

What do you think about the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in Vietnam? Now, for every 100 girls born in the country, there are almost 111 boys. Will Vietnam have to import brides in coming decades, or not?

Vietnam has experienced an unusual rapid rise of the SRB over the last few years, meaning that each year an unnaturally high number of boys are born compared to girls. While, in 2000, the SRB was at normal levels and was estimated to be 106.2 male births per 100 female births, it has increased up to 110.7, according to the 2009 Population and Housing Census.

This phenomenon has raised alarms that the social, cultural and economic implications experienced in other countries in the Asian region could also be experienced here in Vietnam.

If the SRB continues to increase after 2010, those men who have been born after 2005 and who will be entering their marriageable age from 2030 onwards, will find themselves in higher numbers than women their age.

Other countries in the region which went through a similar situation had to import brides to satisfy the needs for marriage. This is also likely to happen in Vietnam if the current SRB trend does not slow down or is reversed.

Besides, not only will the import of brides create social conflicts and increase trafficking networks, the scarcity of women may also add pressure for women to marry at a younger age and could lead to a rising demand for sex work. In short, both men and women will be adversely affected by this very serious issue, and thus, action has to be taken immediately.

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