by Thu Huong Le
A recent article in the New York Times describes how Thai youth have been fleeing the rice paddies because they find the work unbearable. Thailand has been the world's leading rice exporter since 1983.
The story is alarmingly similar in Viet Nam. My 22-year-old cousin, who grew up in northern Hai Duong Province, says she would never consider staying in the village to live, let alone working on the farm. Recently graduated from college, she has been earning VND2.5million ($120) working as an accountant for a small company in Ha Noi.
Though struggling to make ends meet in the city, Mung said she's luckier than most of her friends who are stuck in dreary, isolated factories in industrial zones. "Why would I ever return to the village? Most girls have to stay because they either get married or don't go past high school," she said. "It's exhausting work on the farm. We have the education, so we avoid it." The mindset, among most of her friends and other rural youth, is that it's better off to be in the cities - no matter what!
One of last week's National Assembly debates revolved around the country's policy for investing in the three pillars of rural development – agriculture, farmers, and rural infrastructure. According to a report, during the 2006-11 period, public investment for the sector from the State budget and bonds amounted to more than VND432.7 trillion ($26.6 billion), accounting for nearly 50 per cent of total investment.
In the same period, $3.8 billion from ODA agreements, mostly large aid loans, were also devoted to investment in agriculture, irrigation, forestry, fisheries, rural development and poverty reduction. For example, statistics show that in 2011, the rate of poor households in rural areas fell to 9.45 per cent from 12 per cent in 2006.
The Government also plans to inject VND1.7 trillion ($80 million) into the national new rural-area programme in 2012. In 2008, it began a pilot programme for the development of new rural areas in 11 communes nationwide. The programme, whose major goal is to improve the livelihood of residents, focuses on improving infrastructure, environment protection, business and farming production, and culture. By April this year, 40 per cent of the 3,650 communes had their detailed planning approved.
But while national television continues to show the new face of villages – new roads, new markets, new cultural houses, new schools - and while new communes boast about meeting new national criteria, young people and many adults continue to flee.
Pham Thi Trinh, a resident of Hung Thai village in Hai Duong Province's Ninh Giang District, saw her three daughters and one son leave for different cities. "There are only old people, the nearly-old like me, the middle-agers who have some health issues and cannot work and the children," she says. "Maybe the young come back once in a while to attend their friends' weddings or hold their own. We miss them, but we don't want them to stay here and follow us on the farm."
Industrialisation and migration aren't new issues, but considering our level of investment in rural areas in recent years, we should be alarmed about the transformation of rural areas.
Dr Vo Tong Xuan, a key driver in helping Viet Nam become one of the world's largest rice exporters, said without young people, it would be difficult for rural areas to modernise and apply advanced technology.
"Most of our farmers have never received any type of training, so obviously they do not receive high recognition from society," he said. "And that's what deters the young from staying." In Japan, a country that has also experienced rural labour shortages, Xuan says young people are encouraged to participate in other management aspects, such as finding output markets for agricultural products. And the Philippines has programmes to encourage young farm leaders.
Steven Jaffee, a co-ordinator with the World Bank Rural Development Sector, says the key is to increase farm profitability by diversifying production. In Viet Nam, despite progress, there is limited scope for the children of farmers to fulfil their lives in their home towns.
We build new schools, but the question is the quality of education. We build new markets, but the question is improving the efficiency of farming and finding new output markets. We build new cultural houses for each village, but the question is having programmes that can enrich residents' spiritual life.
Rural areas must be able to generate good jobs, otherwise, the residents, especially young people, will continue searching for a future elsewhere. Unless the situation is addressed in favour of farming families, who is going to feed the 100 million or so people of the future?
It's often forgotten that farmers are often extremely capable people. They've been feeding this nation through good and bad times for more than 4,000 years. — VNS