Money Matters

Learning from Vietnam

By Majyd Aziz
Mon, 02, 23

I was a student in Midwest, USA, during 1969-73, a period that was a decisive time in the twenty years of the Vietnam War. Most of my American friends and classmates were always in fear that they would be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam under the Selective Service Act. This Act required all men in the USA, between the ages of 21 and 30, to register for military service.

Learning from Vietnam

I was a student in Midwest, USA, during 1969-73, a period that was a decisive time in the twenty years of the Vietnam War. Most of my American friends and classmates were always in fear that they would be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam under the Selective Service Act. This Act required all men in the USA, between the ages of 21 and 30, to register for military service.

Since I am from an ethnic community that abhors wars, I naturally had empathy with them. A question that frequently registered in my mind was why and how come Vietnam was in the scheme of things for Washington.

South and North Vietnam were the main protagonists, but Washington had stepped in to support South Vietnam and to introduce democracy. The outcome was the destruction of a country at a huge cost of men, material, and infrastructure. According to reports, it was estimated that South Vietnam lost between 200,000 and 250,000 fighters, the North lost around 1.1 million combatants, around 2 million civilians were killed in the territories of North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and nearly 60,000 Americans died while 1,562 Americans are still missing. Overall, the American taxpayers forked out $168 billion or $1 trillion in today’s currency. That included $111 billion in military operations and $28.5 billion in aid to South Vietnam. Compensation benefits for Vietnam Veterans and families still cost $22 billion per year.

It is also important to mention the monumental role of Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, who led a long and ultimately successful campaign to make Vietnam independent. His message to his people that “nothing is as dear to the heart of the Vietnamese as independence and liberation” became the motto and rallying cry of the North Vietnamese cause. He died six years before the war officially ended and the Vietnamese honored him by renaming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City. In one of his speeches, he said, “The Vietnamese people deeply love independence, freedom, and peace. But, in the face of United States aggression they have risen up, united as one man.” Unfortunately, Washington did not grasp these strong words and suffered the ignominy of Vietnam War being the first war that USA lost.

The two decades of war ended in 1975 with the USA not achieving the strategic objectives. The US Army had superior conventional weapons but was not able to counter the guerilla tactics of the opponent. One factor that formidably influenced the failure of the United States in Vietnam was lack of US public support. During the period I was studying in Indiana, USA, well known singers recorded many anti-war songs. I still recall the song by Peter, Paul and Mary whose emotional lyrics became hugely popular. “Where have all the soldiers gone?/Gone to graveyards everyone / Oh, when will they ever learn? / Oh, when will they ever learn?”

After the exodus of US troops, Vietnam, among the poorest countries of the world, suffered the impact of economic pressures for over a decade. During this difficult period, the leaders of Vietnam decided that survivability and sustainability of the war-ravaged country needed an economic revolution. The decision led to the introduction of Doi Moi in 1986. This concept, to establish a socialist-oriented market economy by encouraging and promoting the private sector, resulted in an annual growth trajectory of 7 . This policy transformed Vietnam from a poor country into a lower middle-income country enabling it to become a dynamic emerging country and among the Asian Cub countries. Foreign Direct Investment started flowing in because of Vietnam’s massive untapped potential, a relatively cheap workforce, and abundant natural resources. The government’s strategy was to attract high-tech companies with a focus on four primary sectors, namely, manufacturing, agriculture, travel, and services.

Industrial production and construction in Vietnam have maintained exponential growth, creating a great diversity of products. The quality of Vietnamese goods has found popular acceptance in both domestic and international markets. Vietnam has also focused on developing a number of new and advanced technologies. Agriculture has undergone significant changes, transforming the nation from a food-hungry country to one of the world’s largest exporters of rice, coffee, rubber, cashew, pepper, and seafood. Services have flourished from tourism and telecommunications to banking, finance, and legal counseling to meet the growing demand of both businesses and individuals. The extraction of natural resources and environmental protection has been aligned with sustainable development goals to produce encouraging outcomes. Planned improvements have been made to transport, power, information, telecommunications, and urban, education, and healthcare infrastructure. Importantly, Vietnam has endeavored to promote the application of advanced technology as a catalyst for transition to a knowledge-based economy.

A short review of trade statistics underlines the economic progress of Vietnam. In 2022, exports were $375 billion while imports crossed $360 billion. This trade figure enabled Vietnam to continue to post a trade surplus for most of the past decade. Vietnam’s retail e-commerce market in 2022 was around 16.4 billion USD, making up 7.5 percent of total consumer goods and service revenue and, in the process, becoming fifth largest globally in e-commerce growth. Since 2019, it has ranked second within ASEAN in terms of trade value. This exhibits the importance of regional trade. In 2021, it ranked 23rd in the world in terms of export value and 20th in terms of import value. Despite unprecedented changes in the world, Vietnam has taken strategic measures to enhance the economy’s self-reliance and self-resilience, thus helping facilitate exports and attracting foreign investment to further boost economic development and improve the country’s prominence.

The policymakers as well as the private sector in Pakistan need to do some intensive soul-searching as to why the nation has not become an economic powerhouse. Pakistan has never had a pragmatic economic policy or industrial policy or even agriculture policy and hence relied on ad hoc, short-term, and inconsistent measures. If the private sector wants free markets and minimal oversight, they have to stop creating monopolies and buying political support. The time has come to create a firewall between big money and the people’s representatives if necessary, but the nexus needs to be broken. The time has come to correct the present economic model that is false and widespread dystopia. The time has come to accept the fact that this present sham development model cannot sustain itself forever.

I remember that in the autumn of 2006, in a meeting with then President Pervez Musharraf, where increasing exports to $50 billion was highlighted, I mentioned to him to please study Vietnam. Unfortunately, government Ministries and TDAP were, and still are, fixated on just textiles. Pakistan is still tottering around $30 billion while $50 billion is still many moons away. Pakistan is for the elite state capture that is self-centered, and is not for the rest of the 230 million citizens. The golden words of Ho Chi Minh still echo as a beacon for oppressed people in many lands across the globe. He said that, “Our secret weapon is nationalism. To have nationhood, which is a sign of maturity, is greater than any weapons in the world.” Absolutely. The success of Vietnam is a vivid example of citizens uniting to achieve nationhood.

The writer is President UN Global Compact Network Pakistan