by Ngo Thu Phuong
I read in awe on Monday that three Government agricultural officials have been banned from making overseas trips, ostensibily to further knowledge relating to their jobs. It was real action. We taxpayers have waited a long time for authorised bodies to cut back on the squandering of public money and time on often useless "junkets".
According to the Tuoi tre (Youth) newspaper on Monday, the People's Committee of southern Dong Thap Province banned the officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development from travelling to Malaysia for a one-week study tour.
The committee in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta said the department's director had been to three countries this year, mainly on excursions to learn about agriculture and animal health. It added that the proposed tour by the three officials was not necessary, even though it was to have been funded by a local company.
The committee ordered a tight rein on all official overseas trips, given the current economic downturn and the necessity for officials to stay home and tackle problems involving their duties. The southern Dong Thap ban came a month after the Prime Minister issued a document ordering leaders of ministries, sectors and localities to restrict official overseas trips. He said exceptions would be made if the trips were "critically essential and beneficial".
The crackdown aims to develop thrifty practices among State officials as the nation grapples with the credit crunch. Needless to say, it pleases everybody to know that the Government has endeavoured to cut down State spending on unimportant tasks.
But, frankly, the order comes a bit late. A couple of months ago, it was known that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a figure indicating national economic growth – may reach little more than 5 per cent this year, much lower than the earlier anticipated 6.5 per cent. And, in October, Finance Minister Vuong Dinh Hue announced that domestic revenue would drop by VND17.6 trillion (US$846 million) against last year, mostly from a reduction in production and trade. As a consequence, 22 million State employees have had to accept a two-month delay in minimum wage increases.
In August, the Southern Power Corporation unveiled a plan to send 400 directors and vice directors of its companies on study tours in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, even though its mother company, Electricity of Viet Nam, had declared a loss, resulting in a 5 per cent hike in power prices.
Well, late is better than never, if the ban works. No one can deny the benefit of an overseas study trip but, in reality, many officials have been taking leisure trips in the garb of business tours.
A director I know who works in a unit with a State-owned corporation joined five overseas trips to four different countries during his five months in the position. When he moved to a higher level, he left his subordinates with a pile of unfinished plans. None of them were related to his experiences on those costly trips, largely financed from the unit's budget.
Except for trips sponsored by some agents or donors, most are paid from the State budget, which is "justified" as being part of funding for human resources development. An accountant of a joint stock company told me that she often struggled to make the expenditure on her boss' overseas trips sound reasonable.
"For example, it cost the company VND35 million ($1,700), excluding flight tickets, to reimburse one trip to the United States last year. The money was put down to accommodation, food and drinks, entry to exhibitions and other miscellaneous fees," she said, adding that it was hard to disguise.
Unfortunately, until now, not one case has been recorded of officials embezzling public funds for overseas business trips. We have also never heard if the State auditing agency has detected any.
We are full praise of the Government and local administrations in their determination to stop officials from wasting taxpayers' money. Yet, just how many other authorities are prepared to bite the bullet and follow suit remains to be seen. — VNS