Leadership change and rapid socioeconomic development in Vietnam

On November 18, 2011 I published an article titled “It is leadership that counts” in the development process. I contrasted performance of two dictators: General Park of South Korea and General Museveni of Uganda.

General Park developed the economy and society pulling them out of poverty to prosperity and laying the foundation for sustained development.

By contrast, General Museveni has sunk his country and society into deeper poverty even when Uganda was relatively better endowed in 1986 when Museveni came to power than South Korea when Park came to power in 1961.

Based on this presentation I have concluded that Uganda will continue to sink into poverty unless Museveni and NRM leadership is removed and the sooner the better.

Those who are currently benefitting from NRM do not seem to realize that these are temporary gains – especially by those paid in intelligence services at home and abroad to hunt down their compatriots – which they will lose if they fail to allow leadership changes that may save them or their children in the days ahead.

During a subsequent private conversation, I was advised that what I wrote makes sense but one example is not enough. I needed to provide at least one more example showing that leadership is what counts. I have revisited my notes on Vietnam and found an appropriate second example. This is what has happened in that country’s leadership and subsequent improvements in people’s lives.

Vietnam suffered extensive damage during wars of independence and reunification which ended in 1975 with the communist North absorbing the capitalist South. The economy was in ruins, rural areas had been deserted, towns overcrowded, foreign aid had dried up and the country faced trade restrictions.

Upon conclusion of the war, many guerrillas found it difficult to develop bureaucratic skills and an endearing habit of dealing with the masses. Cases of flagrant official corruption, arrogance, incompetence and sectarianism were common. The situation got worse following introduction of policies that nationalized the economy, confiscated property, forcing some people to flee the country.

Towards the end of the 1970s, the situation deteriorated to the extent that some party leaders demanded fundamental changes in leadership. They confirmed that many party members were guilty of serious crimes such as corruption, favoritism and oppression of the masses. Many of them were weeded out.

Concurrently the deteriorating economic situation forced introduction of reforms designed to increase productivity, stabilize the economy, address unemployment and poverty challenges. Policy changes included incentives to agriculture to increase food production in particular, decentralize planning processes and promote small scale industrial and commercial enterprises with state strategic participation. These changes were seen as the triumph of pragmatism over ideology in the Politburo.

However, these political and economic changes did not go far enough. In 1986 the Sixth National Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party announced major changes that marked a watershed in the history of the country and the party. A program known as Doi Moi (Renovation) was officially launched to extend the reforms introduced in the late 1970s with the primary purpose of ending stagnation through speeding up economic growth with equity.

To serve the people better, the new leadership adopted a strategy to increase the role of the masses in the political and economic decision making process and make further leadership changes by dropping more senior party officials. Most remarkable was the elevation of a relatively unknown individual to the powerful position party secretary general.

As an aside this was repeated in Czechoslovakia when the legislature unexpectedly elevated Havel to the presidency of that country after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989.

The new leadership put the people of Vietnam at the center of socioeconomic development. It launched a multi-sector economic and social program based on market mechanism with state management, rule of law of the people, by the people and for the people of Vietnam. The program had support of the people and development partners. The program was designed to create jobs, improve incomes and ultimately quality of life.

Industries were restructured for more efficient performance in sectors such as energy, cement, textiles, leather, garments and forest and fisheries. They have created many jobs and reduced the number of unemployed in rural and urban areas.

Agriculture received a boost including provision of credit, capital investment by the state with a focus on irrigation, selection of high yielding seeds and infrastructure construction of schools, clinics, power stations, roads and clean water, commune and inter-commune markets. The most remarkable achievement has been food production with surplus rice for export. Coffee production has also increased rapidly.

The National Assembly created an enabling environment by enacting appropriate laws such as on taxes, private enterprise, land, domestic investment, labor and the environment. The government has also undertaken public administration reforms to ensure that policies are adapted to the needs of the people and realities of Vietnam.

All these activities have created jobs especially for school leavers and improved incomes and human lives. The social outcomes are visible. Living standards in all classes have improved through production and equitable distribution of goods and services. Chronic hunger has dropped and the proportion of the very poor has declined significantly. In short, people’s basic needs of food, clothing, housing, and transport have been considerably met.

This remarkable achievement has been realized in a relatively short period of time simply because the new leadership placed the people of Vietnam at the center of socioeconomic development strategy. Investment funds were sank into social sectors of education, healthcare, water and sanitation, employment creation, maternal and reproductive health, social welfare, environmental protection, poverty reduction and humanitarian programs.

Vietnam has faced global economic recessions and natural difficulties sometimes described as “Acts of God” like Uganda but it has grown economically, transformed its economic structure and improved the standard of living of all classes considerably. This is, without a doubt, the outcome of leadership that has put the people at the center of development.

By contrast, we have leaders in Uganda that have put profit maximization quickly through corruption, sectarianism, marginalization of the masses and oppression of dissent at the center of Uganda’s economic growth. Consequently, Uganda has had skewed and exploitative economic growth without development.

Let us keep reminding ourselves that Uganda is an endowed country in natural and human resources but with a leadership that has chosen to impoverish, marginalize and dispossess the people thereby denying them economic voice and political power to participate in political and economic processes that would improve their lives. The leaders have falsely used adverse external factors and “Acts of God” beyond control excuses to continue impoverishing thirty four million Ugandans.

Ipso facto, NRM leadership has reached such a level of decadence that it cannot be “renovated”. To save Uganda and Ugandans NRM must be removed by peaceful means in the first instance. All that Ugandans need is to shed fear and selfishness – waiting for someone else to do the dirty work and then jump onto the bandwagon fighting for leadership of the country – and muster inner conviction and determination that unseating NRM system is the only option available.

Short of this you can be sure that Uganda will continue to sink into poverty and marginalization from the international scene. Those Ugandans, neighboring countries and development partners who still support the NRM regime, need to think again. All indications in Uganda are leading into a very long and dark tunnel.