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Calls for thriftiness fail to end misuse of valuable public funds

Update: January, 19/2012 - 09:16

by Hai Van

Tet, or Lunar New Year as it's known in English, is only three days away. At this time, the Prime Minister often calls on people to celebrate the nation's biggest festival in a thrifty manner.

And he makes it clear: food and money should not be squandered for the occasion - even in a Dragon Year. A more subtle point is that he is warning public servants not to waste State money on luxurious gifts or "thick envelopes" offered to senior officials.

The PM's message is repeated every year - and it's welcome. However, it has little effect on long-established customs. Many Government officials still run around chasing their bosses with gifts, some of which are extravagantly expensive. More importantly, they are often bought with money from the State budget.

What the Government is campaigning for is right, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. The question is: why do people in Viet Nam, one of the poorest nations in the world, still waste so much has never been properly discussed. Worse, not only well-off people are wasteful, but the poor are also, as I recently found out.

Last week, I stopped by Ma Le boarding school for a short visit during a field trip to Ha Giang Province's mountainous Dong Van District, 500km north of Ha Noi. In the late afternoon, children with dirty faces and wearing worn-out clothes were standing in bare feet eating their dinner. No meat, but they all had a full box of rice mixed with peanuts and boiled vegetables.

Not too bad, I thought, if compared to places where people don't even have rice at this time of the year. Then the children, one after another, emptied their leftovers in a container bigger than an office desk. It quickly filled up.

"Why not ask the kids to take less rice if they cannot finish?" I asked the young cook with surprise. "They want their boxes full," he said. I told the cook that cooking less rice or raising some pigs on the leftovers would be a far better option. At least the children could have more protein.

"No, they prefer to throw away!" the cook said with a friendly smile.

That took me back to the incident a few years ago when my tour group dined at a restaurant in Singapore. Welcoming us to the buffet was a notice on the wall saying that patrons who left too much food would be fined S$30. At the end of the meal, two of the group had to pay up, despite seeing the warning!

The humiliation was so strong that I have often wondered if wastefulness is a part of the make-up of average Vietnamese, the country IMF statistics in 2010 ranked as the 54th poorest in the world.

We now hear of Vietnamese moguls adding a luxury sedan to their collection or the nouveau riche spending $10,000 to $20,000 for a handbag! At the same time, you can also see or hear the Government motto "Saving is National Policy" in all forms of media. But looking at all the ways people are wasting things, it is obvious that the motto doesn't really work in practice.

Wastefulness is more than a personal thing, it's a growing trend in Viet Nam. A vivid example of wasting resources is the covering of hundreds of lakes and farms to build high-rise buildings and golf courts.

I agree with a young student from Ha Noi University of Technology who was angry at the way his countrymen were treating their cultural heritage. He argued that the whole nation was proud and excited to offer ca tru (ceremonial singing) and quan ho (folksongs from Bac Ninh Province) as intangible, world-heritage culture - and all were joyful when this was recognised.

"But," he argued, "how many Vietnamese people are patient enough to enjoy these arts from beginning to end?" Such indifference indicates that we may be wasting the very heritage we so often praise!

A Law on Thrift and Waste Prevention has been in place since 2005, but law makers had to admit at the last National Assembly session in November that it has not been very productive. Chairman of the NA Committee for Finance and Budget, Phung Quoc Hien, said the management and use of development investment capital, the planning and use of land in localities and the increase in consumption of raw minerals was causing great waste.

His committee report revealed overspending from the State coffers was at an alarming level. In 2011, the State Treasury had to refuse to pay State agencies and offices a combined amount of VND700 billion (US$33.3 million) in expenses of various forms, declaring they were either too vague or too irrational. Economists estimated this amount was enough to help 30,000 households escape poverty.

It is time the Government stopped dreaming about slogans or month-long campaigns to help Vietnamese become more thrifty. It is time to start teaching the value of saving from early education. Don't waste time! — VNS

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