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Taking a Step Back: What Vietnam Can Teach us about International Development
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International development (at least in modern undergraduate education) is most often discussed from the perspective of the Global North. Development is when governments and non-governmental organizations from developed nations send money send aid to developing nations with the aim of improving the lives of citizens in those nations. To receive these types of programs, the governments of developed nations often are forced to adopt practices that ideologically align with the United States. These terms often have the aims of democratization, fighting corruption, and economic liberalization. While modernization theory has become a dirty term, it is generally accepted that democratic reforms go hand in hand with a growing economy, and therefore a better standard of living for a people. But what happens when a nation seeking development rejects these beliefs, choosing instead to forge its own path? Vietnam is an interesting case of a developing country that bucks the traditional narrative of modern development.

The Vietnamese declaration of independence from French colonial rule begins with, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” directly invoking attitudes towards independence popularized in Philadelphia in 1776. The Vietnamese people fought back the French and subsequently the Americans to defend their claim to their own governance. Since its inception, a core value of an independent Vietnam is self-determination.

After the Vietnam war concluded, Vietnam received some economic and military aid from the Soviet Union. But that flow of resources stopped in the mid-1980s. In 1986, the Vietnamese government announced a series of economic reforms designed to modernize their economy, the Doi Moi. While at its core it represented shifting the economy from centrally planned to more market-oriented within a globalized trade system, Vietnamese leaders stressed that their goal was to modernize the country within a single-party state. They would not be introducing sweeping traditional democratic reforms for the government, vying to maintain their values of a strong, central, socialist state.

Vietnam slowly opened itself up to the international economy and diplomatic ecosystem step-by-step. Foreign investment was legalized in 1987, growing to become 10% of the nation’s GDP by 1994. The country joined ASEAN in 1995 and APEC in 1998. A bilateral trade agreement with the United States was signed in 2001. These slow, cautious reforms have proven to be a massive success. While there have been some bumps along the way, like an inflation crisis in the late 2000s, for the most part the economy of Vietnam is a major success story. According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s GDP grew from 31 billion to 270 billion from 2000 to 2020, with a Gini coefficient of 35.7, beating many developed economies in wealth distribution. Today, 70% of Vietnamese citizens have internet access. Vietnam’s COVID-19 response is an excellent example of how their effective their governance is. Because of strict lockdown and quarantining policies, Vietnam was able to resist any breakouts of the virus until late 2021. As a result, they are one of the few economies with a GDP that actually grew in 2020. Last year, they launched a vaccine campaign to great success. Today, 90% of Vietnamese citizens are vaccinated against the virus, placing them among the top ten most vaccinated countries in the world.

Instead of choosing to align with a major world power, Vietnam remains independent. According to the State department, the United States and Vietnam have a healthy diplomatic relationship since they formally established diplomatic ties in the mid-1990s. The United States vaguely defines their assistance to Vietnam as “[focusing] on consolidating gains to ensure sustainable economic development while promoting good governance and the rule of law.” The only specific aid-related cooperation mentioned in the State Department’s facts sheet is about cleaning up the American’s mess from chemical warfare in the 1970s. One may think that, instead of the United States, Vietnam has chosen to deepen its ties with China. After all, it is a geographically closer emerging world power, and they have very similar governmental structures. But Sino-Vietnamese relations are not so different from American-Vietnamese relations. While almost every American is no doubt familiar with the war fought between Vietnamese and American forces in the 1970s, it is much less well known here that the Vietnamese beat back a Chinese invasion almost immediately after the Americans withdrew. Vietnamese leadership normalized relations with China only four years prior to the United States. Reliance on foreign powers has been soundly rejected in Vietnamese grand strategy.

Throughout all these trials and tribulations in the economy and in international relations, the Vietnamese government has maintained its structure as a strong, one-party state, which has not only succeeded on its own terms but given it a unique strength during a global pandemic. What can this teach us about international development? First, we should reflect upon how much autonomy we really give nations when institution-building. Coercing fledgling states into adopting western models of governance does not always work. Rampant corruption in many newly democratic countries is immediate evidence of this. Local leaders will always know better than foreign developers, despite their best intentions, how to design systems that suit local values and cultural ideals. Secondly, we should re-evaluate our definition of terms like “self-determination” and “liberty.” These values are shared between the United States and Vietnam, despite painfully different ideas about governance and the economy. But when international development programs and rich governments require stringent criteria to receive aid, is that really championing self-determination, or a top-down push of foreign ideals? Vietnam opened itself up to the economy and international cooperation, but on its own terms. At every step of the process, Vietnamese leadership used their ideals of a strong state to build a modernized nation with a promising future.

Ian Cook is a third-year undergraduate at the George Washington University. He is double-majoring in international affairs and anthropology, with a concentration in international development. Ian's research and interest focus on how anthropology can help guide international development in a productive direction.

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