Thach Thi Pon, a Khmer woman, along with her children, receives some gifts from a delegation led by Helen Clark, chief of the United Nations Development Program. Vietnam has prided itself on achieving the first of its UN's Millennium Development Goal on poverty reduction well ahead of the 2015 deadline but Clark said at a conference this week that inequalities are still significant between ethnic minorities and other Vietnamese citizens. PHOTO: UNDP-DOAN BAO CHAU
No sooner had an entourage of UN officials left the thatched house of an ethnic minority family in Tra Vinh Province than a spat broke out between several local officials who were apparently troubled by the visit.
“I had objected to them visiting this house,” a Vietnamese official said to his colleagues, referring to the family of Thach Thi Pon, a Khmer woman whose husband has hired out his labor in another province to eke out a living and feed two children, one of whom suffers from lung diseases and asthma.
Her family is one of the most impoverished in Ngoc Bien Commune in Tra Vinh’s Tra Cu District. With a population of around one million, the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh is home to some 300,000 ethnic Khmer people, nearly 70 percent of whom are still living in abject poverty. Tra Vinh is a beneficiary of an anti-poverty program funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Irish Aid, the Irish government’s program for overseas development.
A field visit led by UNDP chief Helen Clark to the province last month to “learn about strategies for tackling poverty among ethnic minorities” was welcomed with great pomp and circumstance.
Provincial leaders lined up at the commune’s people’s committee office to greet the delegation. Children trooped off to classes on their off day so the UN officials could give them gifts. Khmer girls congregated at a public ground to entertain the guests with traditional dance. In a show of trying to impress the guests with their warmth and development, perhaps the local leaders were least expecting the UN delegation to see how stark the poverty really is among the Khmer of the locality.
Such a mindset appears to be ingrained in a country that has bragged about its success in reducing poverty and its middle-income status. But it is in this context that experts have repeatedly urged Vietnam not to rest on its laurels as poverty alleviation will become even more difficult in the coming time.
“Pockets of extreme poverty remain, however, with half of the ethnic minority population in 2012 still estimated to be living below the poverty line,” the UNDP said in a statement.
The World Bank also said in a report last year that macroeconomic instability has now left the remaining poor harder to reach. Inequality is rising, and ethnic minority poverty remains persistently high, the report said. Vietnam's 53 ethnic minority groups make up less than 15 percent of the population but they accounted for nearly 50 percent of the poor in 2010, it said.
According to the bank, for every two Vietnamese living in poverty, one belongs to ethnic minority groups, and for every four Vietnamese living in extreme poverty, ethnic minorities account for three.
“These figures imply that allowance and welfare-based assistance programs are insufficient, especially in the current context of economic difficulty and budget deficit,” said Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs the Hanoi-based nonprofit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment.
Vietnam's wealth gap is only widening and poses the most worrying threat to the survival of the political regime, Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong said last year.
"The rich-poor divide" [only] shows signs of getting worse,” Trong said at a regular meeting last October of the Party Central Committee, a powerful grouping of 175 senior Party members.
It was not the first time the country's top leader has warned against socioeconomic disparity. Though the economic chasm has been oft-discussed, it remains unaddressed, Trong said.
For more than two decades, Vietnam has notched up rapid and stunning economic growth and there have been warnings against the gap between the rich and the poor. But these concerns have largely been ignored in the euphoria of being the latest Asian economic tiger on the block.
Vietnam joined the lower-middle income bracket in 2009, with per capita income rising to US$1,755 in 2012 from $110 two decades earlier, according to the World Bank.
The country has also prided itself on achieving the first of its UN's Millennium Development Goal - a set of targets for education, poverty, health and other areas - on poverty reduction well ahead of the 2015 deadline. The country has lifted some 30 million people out of poverty in the past two decades, according to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs.
But while a number of international reports confirm that the number of middle-class and extremely wealthy people in Vietnam has continued to grow at a dizzying pace, the UN has also warned that ethnic minorities in Vietnam have not enjoyed the benefits of the nation's progress.
“Inequalities are significant between ethnic minorities and other Vietnamese citizens,” Clark, the UNDP chief, said at a conference on economic reforms and sustainable growth in Hanoi last month.
No laughing matter
Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, said at the same conference that escaping the middle-income trap, where rising earnings and costs outpace productivity, and moving towards “a sustainable and inclusive economy requires even stronger reforms in development thinking and vision as well as the determination of the whole economy.”
Experts say the country’s inclusive and sustainable growth cannot be achieved without eradicating the stubborn poverty that has dragged down ethnic minority communities.
But this task appears to be a tall order.
Another World Bank report in 2009 cited "widespread cultural stereotypes" as a factor in the high poverty rate among ethnic minorities compared with the majority Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) group.
Experts concur, saying entrenched prejudices against the minorities have percolated to every level of the Kinh community.
"The prejudices stem right from the scholars who only seek to study the ‘eccentric' cultures of ethnic groups," said Binh, the Hanoi-based sociologist. "Actually, the ‘eccentricity' of any culture is just in the [biased] eye of the outsider, in this case the Kinh people.”
With studies also blaming the media for carrying and fostering prejudices against ethnic minorities, experts say the biased perceptions have led to ill-conceived strategies by lawmakers, who have chalked out top-down, non-participatory policies that, while well-intentioned, have not really benefited ethnic minority communities.
“We propose the government initiate training programs for local government officers to understand and respect the diversity of culture and way of living [of minority people],” Binh said.
During her less-than-three-hour visit last week to Tra Vinh, Clark interacted with local officials and the Khmer people through a Vietnamese interpreter who is also a government officer.
The first Khmer family the delegation called on was an old couple who has to rent their own land to make ends meet after selling it off several years ago.
“Our situation has only gone from bad to worse,” said Thach Soi, the 59-year-old husband.
His wife, 52-year-old Thach Thi Ni, looked much more timid than him. When asked how many children she has, Ni said: “Seven”.
“You know what, she has seven children,” the interpreter told the visiting group. “Seven!” he said with a big laugh.
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