Foreign Policy Blogs

Unsustainable development

VietnamIs there a tradeoff between economic development and environmental conservation? I have just returned from Vietnam, where it is easy to believe there is. Modern tourists to Vietnam are often lured by the lush green scenery and pastoral lifestyle. The sharp green hills and women tending rice fields in conical hats are there, but today they work against a background (or foreground) of strip mining, factories, and power lines. Despite its zeal for investment the government has managed to spare certain tourist attractions such as the still-lovely Halong Bay, but it is impossible to travel between them without passing miles of raped landscape. Meanwhile, residents of the most remote mountain villages watch television and talk on cell phones (with New Yorkers still complaining of dropped calls). Is this the price they paid?

Vietnam has undergone a period of remarkable growth over the past twenty years. Like China it has maintained a socialist political system while cautiously opening its economy, and the results are evident. GDP growth was above 7 percent in 2002-2004 and above 8 percent in 2005-2007; while it cooled to just over 5 percent last year, this was still the strongest growth in the region, and despite the global slowdown.

Meanwhile, the cities are under strain as factories displace rural dwellers and urban populations soar. Hanoi’s population has more than doubled in ten years, growing from just under 3 million people in 1999 to 6.5 million in 2009. The government has announced plans to move 1,800 families out of the old city center into high-rise apartments on the outskirts of Hanoi. While this will reduce cramped conditions in historic buildings, it flies in the face of contemporary Western notions of urban planning. Yet as incomes rise and the ubiquitous mopeds are replaced with cars, it is difficult to imagine how the downtown traffic will move at all without some change.

When the economy opened and investment began pouring in, the officials in charge may have thought that economic development was more important than preserving Vietnam’s rural charm. To ordinary people who now have electricity and running water, it probably is. But enthusiasm for investment may have obscured the benefits of sustainable development. Because that is what Vietnam’s development is: unsustainable. Take just one example: When people who live above their shops are moved to high-rises, where will they work? If they continue to run shops downtown, how will they get there without further clogging the streets? And who will shop there if everyone is living elsewhere? The tourists? But will the tourists continue to stream in when their idyllic image is shattered by the reality of the ravaged countryside and hollowed-out city center? And this is to say nothing of the battered ecosystems, the polluted water supply, and the already horrendous air quality.

The government has primary responsibility for reversing the damage it has already done. It must hold companies to account and trust that doing so will reap better long-term benefits than the current free-for-all approach. Foreign investors have a role to play as well. Official environmental (and labor) standards may be low, but foreign companies can maintain their own standards. Provide relevant services for the community, protect local ecosystems, control emissions and other environmental degradation. This is important not only for international public relations but for building a local constituency, as Vietnam is a growing market in itself. Fast and furious development shows impressive results on paper, but when you examine the big picture, slow and steady wins the race.