by Hong Minh
It might have been a depressing topic, but the candor on display was refreshing.
It was perhaps the first time that the so-called "common" citizenry actually heard from the horse's mouth the truth about foreign trips made by our officials last year.
At a year-end online meeting between the Government and local administrations several weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh reported that in 2013, 3,200 delegations of Vietnamese officials from ministries and sectors made business trips abroad. Minh said that it was 30 per cent less than the previous year, but still a huge number.
He frankly admitted that besides trips in which delegations did fulfill their diplomatic, business and research objectives, there were many that were ineffective, including overlapping missions that served no purpose.
Such trips, mostly fact-finding missions, attracted complaints from host countries that different delegations were raising the same questions again and again during different meetings, Minh said.
He acknowledged that such trips marked wasteful use of scarce State budget resources.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung immediately directed the foreign minister to tighten control over officials' trips abroad, ensuring thorough consideration and whetting of the purpose, the number and the quality of delegates sent overseas.
The PM himself admitted that during recent meetings abroad, people had told him that several host countries were "afraid" of repeat gratuitous visits by Vietnamese delegations.
National Assembly deputy Nguyen Sy Cuong estimated in an interview that expenses for an official on a trip to Europe would be around VND80 million (US$3,800), plus about $2,000 for an economic round-trip ticket (not to mention a VIP ticker of $4,000-5,000). Even a rough extrapolation would show that the State must have spent huge sums on sending 3,200 delegations abroad.
Of course, it is not a mere matter of spending money. It is what the money is spent on, and how it serves the nation's interests.
I remember that during my two years of studying in Japan (2009-2011), I was called several times to be a tour guide for delegations from Government agencies and corporations. I was able to observe that most delegates were more interested in shopping and sightseeing than the official purpose of the trips.
More recently, I read an article about a Vietnamese delegation with more than 70 members returning from the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students in Quito, Ecuador. At a stopover in Amsterdam, due to some hitches, the Vietnamese delegation was asked to divide themselves into groups to take different flights home. The Vietnamese delegation refused the request, so the 70 plus delegates, along with the Lao delegation, had to spend several days at the airport waiting for a flight that could take them back together.
I was shocked when a friend of mine, who was among the Vietnamese delegates, said one of the reasons that the Vietnamese delegation insisted on coming back together was that many of them were going abroad for the first time and unable to communicate with foreigners on their own.
One does not need to speculate much on what purpose the trip had served, why more than 70 delegates, many of them with very limited communication skills, had to be sent on a trip aimed at conducting exchanges with students and youth from other countries. For comparison, the Lao delegation to the event had four members.
Amidst all the talk about curbing public investment and wasteful expenditure, it should be worthwhile for us to think about why we are not making better use of technological advances. A lot of the learning and exchanges can now be done on the Internet, saving the State budget a ton of money.
For the foreign trips, surely it cannot be very difficult to select officials who are qualified in terms of knowledge, communication and foreign language skills!
I would like that a public forum be set up on the Government website where information on foreign trips by officials is provided. Greater transparency about the purpose and expectations of such trips would lead to greater accountability, especially if follow-up assessments are also publicised.
This would also ensure that we reduce significantly the possibility of money being wasted on overseas junkets and, most importantly, increase public confidence that the State apparatus is genuinely serving public interest. — VNS