by Thu Huong Le
Recent newspaper stories on holiday bonuses have been worrying. In some mountain schools in Lai Chau, teachers often receive only a wall calendar for Tet, the most important festival of a year. But records are being set in HCM City where one company is reported to be handing out VND400 million (US$20,000) to its top employees.
As Tet draws close, speculation on bonuses fills most offices. While office workers might be disappointed at the lower Tet bonuses they hope for or expect, those working in isolated areas don't dare think about an annual gift.
In 2011, a report from the General Statistics Office indicated that the income gap between the rich and the poor had widened ninefold. And during the year, people were also dumbstruck at a story about people actually spending VND750,000 ($35) regularly on a bowl of beef noodle soup (pho bo) in Ha Noi, the equivalent of half a month's income for many factory workers.
The widening gap has been discussed for years, but it hits home when Tet approaches and becomes more bitter as inflation bites the poorest.
The nation has managed to overcome another turbulent economic year with GDP growth closing at 5.89 per cent and inflation hitting 18 per cent. Another difficult year is predicted for 2012, so policy makers should adopt more direct social welfare policies if they want to maintain sustainable growth. Otherwise, Viet Nam could head down the road to social instability.
According to official statistics, more than VND8.5 trillion ($404 million) was allocated from the national budget for poverty reduction in the 62 poorest districts between 2008-11. The Prime Minister also ordered the implementation of programmes, including those backed by official development assistance (ODA), and the cashing in of Government bonds worth VND22 trillion ($1.04 billion) to reduce poverty in these districts. While some argue that the $1.04 billion may be insufficient to improve the lives of so many people over three years, the subject is not just about money, but also the policy.
Have we optimised all available resources? Has money been used effectively by localities to spur production or assist households to find other ways to earn a livelihood? Does it come with programmes that increase residents' access to basic services, such as education, healthcare and clean water? How much has corruption hindered the disbursement of aid?
The United Nations in Viet Nam said its strategic plan for the 2012-16 period would put more focus on policy advising instead of project implementation, considering the country's new middle-income status. Priorities will be given to strengthening good governance and pushing forward administrative reforms. With less money from international agencies, how can we adapt? Viet Nam's current Gini co-efficient, an income distribution measurement used by economists, is under 0.4. When that index drives above 0.4, it's considered socially destabilising. China's Gini co-efficient is already near 0.5.
The Government has made efforts to increase health-insurance coverage, help rural workers receive vocational training and provide low-income housing, but more must be done. And there is also the question of making the incomes of top earners more transparent - and having a tax system that better accounts for income earned from capital gains on real estate and stocks. The rich-poor gap is an inevitable part of economic growth. However, it must be kept at a level deemed safe for social stability. Real growth can only be achieved if everyone has an opportunity to succeed so they feel included in their communities.
And maybe in the years to come, teachers in mountain areas will not feel so left out when Tet arrives. — VNS