Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What is poverty?

There are many ways of looking at it. Here's an excerpt from Carola Barton's summary of some of the ways of viewing it:

We sometimes treat it as a matter of blame: the poor are poor because they cannot or choose not to be better off. We sometimes treat it as a matter of virtue: people choose material poverty because it generates—or does not interfere with—spiritual well-being.
We have a long history of explanations for the existence of poverty:
  • Sociology: the poor are poor because human beings instinctively look to differentiate themselves from one another, and someone needs to be at the bottom of the pyramid
  • Economics: the poor are poor because economic forces depend on a mass of impoverished workers to provide the labor that makes our societies run
  • Psychology/Physiology: the poor are poor because individuals have unequal faculties, and in a society that does not compensate for those inequalities, someone must wind up at the bottom
  • Scarcity: the poor are poor because there aren’t enough resources to go around
  • Environment: the poor are poor because of regional environmental conditions—climate, topography, soil, etc.
  • Spirituality: the poor have chosen material poverty because they have found, or have been endowed with, immaterial sources of wealth

Monday, July 27, 2009

Vietnam is considering raising the poverty line

In rural areas, the current poverty line is 200,000 vnd/person per month.

That is $11.11 per month.

The new definition would raise that to $19, which will double the number of poor.

Vietnam—“New poverty line would double number of poor”—Viet Nam News


The Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs proposed raising the official poverty line to twice its former level. The move would mean those living in rural areas who earn VND 350,000 (US$19) or less a month or those living in urgan areas who earn VND 450,000 ($25) or less will be considered poor. (The existing poverty line is VND 200,000 per person per month in the countryside and VND 260,000 for those living in urban areas, respectively.) The new standard means that the number of households living in poverty would rise from 13% to 20%...

In a country where you can earn $25+ per hour teaching English with no previous certification.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Release from the Economist Intelligence Unit

Here's what the Economist Intelligence Unit has to say about Vietnam:

Outlook for 2009-10
  • The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam will maintain its tight grip on power in 2009-10, rejecting calls (especially from groups of overseas Vietnamese) for political pluralism.
  • The government's fiscal stimulus package includes spending on infrastructure, as well as tax breaks and a delay in the implementation of the new personal income tax regime.
  • Given that the inflation rate is continuing to ease, the State Bank of Vietnam (the central bank) is likely to keep policy interest rates low in 2009-10.
  • The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that the economy will expand by 1.6% in 2009, before growth picks up to 4% in 2010. But concerns exist that official data will not reflect fully the extent to which the economy is suffering.
  • As domestic demand growth weakens, we expect price rises to continue to abate, and inflation is forecast to slow to an average of 5.4% in 2009.
  • We forecast that the value of the dong against the US dollar will fall by around 8% in nominal terms in 2009.
  • The current-account deficit will narrow sharply in 2009-10 as a result of a major reduction in the merchandise trade deficit.

Monthly review
  • A recent court case suggests that the government is increasingly intent on curbing unfair business practices that contravene the 2006 Competition Law.
  • From June 1st foreign investors will be allowed to acquire up to 49% of total equity in unlisted companies, up from 30% at present. The move brings the foreign-ownership cap into line with that for listed companies.
  • The government’s policy approach to boost economic growth will focus on supporting key sectors; stimulating investment; poverty reduction and social stability; and adopting a flexible approach to monetary and fiscal policy.
  • A study of two industrial zones by an international charity, Oxfam, showed that the global economic downturn has had a negative impact on business. Most firms conceded that production orders have fallen.
  • The trade balance swung into deficit in April. After posting three consecutive months of surpluses, the trade deficit soared to US$700m for the month.
  • Foreign direct investment inflows are down significantly. The government approved US$6.4bn in new projects the first four months of the year, down by over 72% year on year.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Poor Mexico

Lately, all I've been seeing is drug crime and swine flu. Considering I spent my entire senior year focused on people and money moving across the US - Mexico border, I feel a bit involved and attached to transborder flows of any sort, and I've got to say - it's never good news. No one ever talks about on the news, "Oh how great that we have a huge border with Mexico so that we can get easy access to inexpensive labor, fruit, and vacations." Pshaw.

On the issue of drug crime, I'd like to refer you all to the following article: Reflections from Latin America by Ibsen Martinez. He notes, as I have maintained, that the crackdown on drug imports from Colombia have led Mexico to be the new route into the US. The decreasing purity and increase in street price of cocaine in the US are also a side effect of this success. However, he also points out (which I did not know) about a potentially huge gun smuggling business from the US into Mexico. So perhaps increases in gun control in the US would be one policy to help our neighbor?

See an excerpt from the article below:

Mexico has quickly become the other epicenter of the violence activities carried out by criminal organizations associated with drug trafficking. Mexican drug cartels have come to supplant the Colombian traffickers as the main suppliers of illicit drugs to the U.S. market.

Mexico's attorney general reckons that U.S. consumers buy U.S. $10 billion worth of drugs from his country's cartels each year. All that money allows the two main cartels to arm, equip and pay for a highly motivated army of 100,000 that almost equals Mexico's armed forces in size and often outguns them.

"Americans are understandably focused on the flow of drugs and migrants into the U.S. from Mexico," says Andreas Peter, author ofBorder Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. "But too often glossed over in the border security debate is the flow of weapons across the border into Mexico," he told in a statement via the Internet.3 Mexican authorities say 90 percent of smuggled weapons come from the United States.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Photos From Mai Chau

From Mai Chau and Hoi An

Mai Chau is about 4 hours west, and a little south, of Hanoi. It is a low-lying area where mostly the White Thai ethnic people live.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Trials and Tribulations

Vietnam has an interesting sense of history - something I am thinking about today as John McCain is revisiting this city where he was held in prison, now advocating human rights and economic reforms. Two other news stories have touched on this recently: the trial of Alberto Fujimori in Peru and the tribunals of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.

Briefly, the Khmer Rouge was a communist group which came to power in Cambodia. Under its leader Pol Pot, Cambodia was ruled brutally, with a number close to 1.5 million people killed in only a four year time span. No one knows for sure. Of interest now is the way that Cambodia is dealing with that history. The country is incredibly young - over 70% of the 14 million Cambodians are under the age of 30. In fact, 1/3 of the country is under the age of 14. The people who lived through the Khmer Rouge are a small fraction of the population now, and their stories seem far-fetched to the country's young population. It is an interesting question of how you deal with history - do you try to steep these young children in an awareness of the country's past? The reasons that the fields around their homes are riddled with bones? Or do you bury the past and simply wait for the generation of people who lived through it to die?

On a similar note, Alberto Fujimori - former president of Peru - was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of murder, agravated kidnapping, and crimes against humanity. Fujimori was president of Peru during the years when the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") wrecked havoc in the southern countryside. The Maoist group spread through university students who became rural teachers, started by Abimael Guzman in Ayacucho during the 1960's. It turned violent in the 1980's and continued into the 1990's. Fujimori was president from 1990-2000, ruling over the final government attempts to put down the insurgency. After his government collapsed, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the crimes committed during the period, finding a death toll of close to 70,000 people. About half of those were due to the Sendero Luminoso; the government and a few other factions were accountable for the remainder. Fujimori's explanation for the crimes committed under his goverment: “I had to govern from hell,” he said. “That is why I am being judged.”

A variety of mechanisms have been employed to hold leaders accountable for actions taken during their regimes. These mechanisms include national or UN-backed Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (eg. South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Peru, East Timor, Rwanda); national trials within the judicial system (such as Fujimori's or the one intended for Chilean leader Augosto Pinochet; nationally-run but specially formed tribunals (like the one that condemned Saddam Hussein); special international tribunals (like those for Rwandan and Yugoslavian leaders); and the international criminal court (which indited Al-Bashir). Each of these carries carefully nuanced implications. Nonetheless, in absolute terms the number of leaders who have been held accountable post-mortem; while they are still alive; or while they are still in 'office' has grown steadily. If this implies an increasingly credible commitment to holding individuals and regimes responsible for the human rights abuses committed under their watch, then what are the implications? (And, in particular, will the international community ever be able to hold accountable the leader of a G8/NATO/'powerful' country - as some have demanded Kissinger or Nixon be? What would be the implications if that were to happen?)

In this context, the question that a variety of political theorists are trying to answer is whether or not the commitments to try leaders for criminal acts will be credible enough to impact those decisions in the first place. Will these tribunals serve as a deterrent? Are they a part of the process of healing for those who lived through a brutal reign? Or is it a way of reconciling honestly with the past in order to prevent similar acts from occurring in the future?

Cambodia and Peru offer different visions of how holding leaders accountable can play out. Cambodia's population seems broadly unaware of the trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders, according to the Berkeley survey cited in the NY Times. Meanwhile, in Peru, Fujimori's daughter is a senator running for President in the next elections, with the promise that if elected she will pardon her father. His supporters were demonstrating in the streets at news of his conviction. Lessons can be found from other countries as to what the long-term implications of these events will be, yet I hesitate to make too many generalizations based on any one country's experience. Grappling with the past, with the symbolism of 'mythic' leaders, and with the shape and form of justice - these will vary across time and place.

For example, at this point in time, I cannot imagine Vietnam holding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a trial for crimes committed during either the Vietnam war or the more brutal era of communism post-war - only partly because the party is still in power. I don't know what it would accomplish to do so. This reveals to me that I ethically judge these trials on the utility they provide to those alive/unborn, as opposed to seeing the procedure as being necessary because it, in itself, is right/ethical. I have not fully reconciled myself to the implications of that sentiment, the contradictions it implies, or the inconsistencies in legal and political policy that it would require. Fortunately, there are a great number of very intelligent people writing about theories of international justice and mechanisms for achieving it, so at least there's help to arrive at some conclusions...

Friday, March 27, 2009

A thought for a Saturday morning on economic productivity

A chicken in the USA produces 350 eggs per year, because it's in a high capital environment (nutrition, medicine etc.). 

A chicken in the developing world pecking around the backyard the way they were in the USA 70 years ago produces 50 eggs a year.

- EconTalk Podcast, 2/5/07

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What did you have for dinner?

I bet you it wasn't sweet potato french fries refried with dough into a patty, followed by spicy beef, followed by tofu dipped in raw shrimp paste, followed by fried morning glory, followed by fried eel with peppers, followed (finally) by hot pot of banana, snail, tofu and herbs.

Oh, and then tea and fruit.

I am SO full.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

office chit chat around the water cooler

This morning I brought one of my coworkers home-made dulce de leche as a thank you for doing some negotiating on my behalf with our landlady (who is also a dear, but needs to pay for a new air conditioning unit...) Anyway, somehow this got her talking about the pre - doi moi period in Vietnam, which it's not always easy to get people to speak about.

When she was growing up, standard meat consumption was 100 g per child per month. Milk was absolutely a luxury, and many of the supplies they got were from the USSR (and sometimes already expired).

As for choosing a husband, always a good idea to go for a driver or someone responsible for selling petrol - if you found out the guy had a PhD he was definitely a bad prospect!

Standing in line for a half-day or day for your rice portion was standard, so you'd use a brick or a bowl to mark your spot. People who distributed goods - purchasing them and then reselling them at a higher price - had a special name in Vietnamese, that roughly translates to 'scum.'

These are women just a bit older than I am, who now rock cute outfits to work that put my fashion sense to shame. They are raising kids in a totally different world, and they just take it all in stride.

These were the days when the few countries that had aid missions here sent staff, but those staff were not permitted to speak to Vietnamese except for things like transactions in the market. (Though I've already heard of one love story of a Danish woman falling in love with a Vietnamese guy, despite government prohibitions against their speaking and the fact that they didn't share a language. They're still married).

The Wildlife

So I realized on my bike ride home (deftly navigating the twists and turns of my unlit alley in the rain on my bicycle), that this guy

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Policing the Internet

The NY Times recently ran a great article on a tongue and cheek movement to push back on China's internet censorship.

An excerpt from the article:
" a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that."

The future of China's internet policy is of real relevance in Vietnam, because currently the country is not developed enough nor does it have enough resources to take measures similar to China - it would like to though. The Government is, of course, concerned with making sure that the people of Vietnam get only the most accurate information.

One measure to ensure this is to ensure that the press does not publish anything that is incorrect (I mean, that would be awful!). As it exists, the Ministry of Ideology has weekly meetings with the Editors in Chief of all major newspapers, and publications all are associated with different ministries at different levels of government that work with them to make sure nothing that isn't factual is published.

Vietnam does not currently have the reach that China does in its policing algorithms, I don't believe, nor does it seemingly have the capacity to shut websites down as quickly. Moreover, to my knowledge, most international news sites are available in full.

A shout-out to Kurt for pointing this article out to me, by the way.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A New Favorite

Thanks to Seth, I have a new favorite tea. Market Spice Tea from Seattle... kind of hard to come by in Hanoi, but I had a big pot of it last night and it made my day. Just wanted to share.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Phat Diem Cathedral

From Phat Diem Cathedral

My recent trip to Nam Dinh for a Helmets for Kids ceremony scored big time because we also got to visit Phat Diem Cathedral. Hands down, it was one of the most startling sights I have experienced to date in Vietnam. It is a Catholic church built in teh style of a buddhist temple or pagoda, the work of Father Tran Luc from 1875-1899. Chinese characters are interspersed with stone relief work depicting the lives of the Jesus and Mary. A series of smaller chapels surround the Cathedral, and the complex in total is several acres.

The ground under the Cathedral was constructed - originally it was on a reed-filled swamp. It has stood for over 100 years now, including surviving  a 1972 bombing that tilted the Cathedral 15-20 degrees (restoration was necessary).  

Catholics represent a significant minority in Vietnam. In this district, they are 53% of the population. Below is a slideshow of my pictures, posted on my picasa site.

Monday, February 23, 2009

We Just Drew Our Lines

A ceremony will be held either today or tomorrow to mark the official completion of the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and China.

Seriously guys? The 100+ officials from each side in attendance acknowledged it was a "major step" for bilateral relations.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hanoi has its moments

So Hanoi is not a particularly tough place to live. I cannot honestly say that I often feel like I'm really roughing it - we have electricity, running water, and air conditioning (though heat would be awesome in the winter). However, there are moments when little creepie crawlies remind me that, well, these are NOT the fellas you find in your kitchens in the good old US of A. There's Frank, the gecko, and one of the guests that I don't like quite as much is this guy:

This is from quite a while ago, and I cannot claim the photographic credits. One of my very brave housemates put a guitar pick up next to the spider that has now been in our kitchen 3 times. No one has been able to kill it, but we have chased it out. So far, no casualties.