Five workers in blue uniform are fixing the gate of the Reunification Palace here in Hi Chi Minh City. The gate looks in need of some repair. Thinking about it, these workers may look quite similar to the ones who fixed this gate about 35 years ago. It was the 30th of April 1975 when a tank of the North Vietnamese army smashed into this gate while an American helicopters were evacuating Embassy staff and representatives of the government of South Vietnam. They must have fixed this gate shortly after that.
I remember reading about this in Tiziano Terzani’s book about the American-Vietnamese war. He was one of the few foreign correspondents who were in town the the troops arrived. All awaited a bloodshed and many had fled but nothing so dramatic happened in those early days after the fall of Southern Vietnam.
Thirty five years have passed. Hundreds of motorbikes zoom past this gate every hour (maybe half hour). Three hundred meters from here the very modern and fashionable Diamond shopping centre is all lights. The high-rising of the Sheraton and other luxury hotels are walking distance from here. The top of the 102 stories PetroVietnam tower which is under construction and can be seen above roof tops.
How did all this happen?
This city of 7 million inhabitants contributes 25% to the country GDP with its businesses and enterprises. This country in 1975, though victorious, had suffered enormous loss of human lives and damage of its infrastructures.
This incredibly fast development, has it all been a result of a grand development plan or mere luck?
Every 5 years the ca. 160 members of the Central Communist Party Committee meet to discuss the state of the nation and launch 10 years strategies and 5 years plans. The most famous of these meetings launched in 1986 the market reforms known as Doi Moi. These strategies and plan detail the general direction the country will follow and its priority policy areas. The next Party Congress is due in the first quarter of 2011 and it will certainly focus on the 7% rate of economic growth that the country has enjoyed during the last 10 years and look at the social policies reforms that are necessary for the transition to middle income country status.
Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman argued in an article about the Greek financial crisis that ‘hope is not a plan.’ However, every plan needs, I think, a little bit of hope. The writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, has described development as an open ended which waves a complex and growing web made of co-developments. Plans and strategies therefore give us the illusion that we are in control of the uncertainty of the future but in reality we are not. Co-developments are continuously created in a the process that is out of our control.
Plans and strategies represent co-developments that lead to more co-developments. The absence of plans and strategies would also be a co-development because the absence of plans and strategies that are now in place would be filled by something else and lead to some (but different) outcomes.
There is the tendency, with evaluation of plans and strategies, to find a narrative, a line that links today’s reality to the moment when the decision on plans and strategies were taken. A series of casual links that lead straight from the a moment in the past to where we are now. This is a simplification of reality.
Malcom Gladwell has written that puzzles are easier to complete then mysteries because at every piece they become clearer. Plans and strategies when they are drawn are at best a guess about the mysterious processes that govern development and more in general the future. They just contribute to the expanding web of co-developments, but do not control it. When plans and strategies are assessed and evaluated they are treated as puzzles that, when completed, tells us a story with a logical flow of correct decisions and actions. Unfortunately that story and the lessons out of that story will only help us in reinforcing the illusion of control when we have to deal with the next plan and strategy.
So has Vietnam just been lucky? Plans and strategies provide a limited explanation. The great value attached to the family, the complex web of social relations, the work ethic, the entrepreneurial attitude, the geographical position, its neighbour and its history , all these elements (co-developments) have contributed to the results achieved in the last 35 years. It is nice to think that enlightened plans and strategies and policies have been driving all this, but the story is, I think, more complex than that.
in Ho Chi Minh City