Sustainable development has emerged as a top concern of mankind. The issue is echoed at various international forums, in public documents, as well as in national policies and plans of action. In Vietnam, sustainable development is one of the fundamental elements of economic growth model reform and a primary goal of the national economy. Communist Review features an article by Prof. Dr. Vu Van Hien, Vice Chairman of the Central Theory Council, on the issue.

Pressing issues on a national, regional, or global level have become increasingly common. The more the economy grows, the scarcer materials and energy become, due to steady depletion of un-recycled natural resources, degradation of the natural environment, and disrupted ecological balance. As a result, nature’s backlash has led to devastating disasters.

Economic growth is out of step with social progress and development, sometimes even running counter to social development. Specifically, economic growth does not guarantee social progress and equality. Economic growth characterised by industrialisation and urbanisation can have a negative effect on rural areas. Economic growth does not necessarily result in increased income for workers. Culture and morality degrade despite economic growth. Economic growth widens wealth disparity in society, leading to social instability, which has become a burning issue in many countries. Therefore, a development process in which economic growth is harmonised with social stability and environmental protection is urgently needed around the world.

Sustainable development

The concept of sustainable development came from growing environmental awareness and was inevitable. Thinking about sustainable development began with an awareness of the importance of environmental protection and subsequently followed a growing need to address issues of social instability. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro set out a global agenda for the 21st century in which sustainable development was defined as development that satisfies the needs of the present generations without doing harm to the ability to meet the needs of future generations. Three pillars of sustainable development were identified: First, economic sustainability, or sustainable economic development, means rapid, safe, and qualitative development. Second , social sustainability means social equality and social development, for which one key measure is the Human Development Index (HID) based on per capita income, education, health, life expectancy, and level of enjoyment of culture and civilisation. And Third , biological and environmental sustainability means reasonable exploitation and utilization of natural resources, environmental protection, and improvement of the living environment.

The world’s perception of sustainable development has reached a consensus and the goals of realising sustainable development have become the world’s millennium goals.

In Vietnam, sustainable development has caught the close attention of researchers and policy makers. The concept of sustainable development is approached in two aspects: First, sustainable development is development that maintains the living environment and considers the biological environment one of the primary factors in reaching each development level. Second, sustainable development is development for today and for the long-term future; today’s development should not sacrifice future well-being.

Article 4, Clause 3, of the Law on Environmental Protection defines sustainable development this way: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of present generations without doing harm to the ability to meet the needs of future generations based on a close and harmonious combination of economic growth, guaranteed social progress, and environmental protection.” This general definition highlights the most essential needs and goals of sustainable development, which matches the conditions and situation in Vietnam.
From the concept of sustainable development, it is obvious that to achieve sustainable development goals, a number of issues related to economics, society, and the environment need to be resolved.
First , economic sustainability. Every economy viewed as sustainable should meet the following requirements:
- High GDP growth rate and GDP per capita. Developed countries need to maintain their growth rate, while poor and low-income countries need higher growth. Developing countries in the current circumstances should have a GDP growth rate of 5 percent per year to be considered as showing signs of sustainable economic development.
- Countries with high GDP growth but low GDP per capita are still considered to be failing to meet sustainable development requirements.
- The GDP structure needs to be considered. Only when the ratio of industry and services in the GDP is higher than the ratio of agriculture, can sustainability be achieved.
- Economic growth should be highly-effective growth. Growth at all costs is unacceptable.
Second , social sustainability. The sustainability of social development in every country is assessed via such criteria as HDI, income equality, education, health care, social welfare, and culture enjoyment. In addition, social sustainability is a guarantee of a harmonised social life with an equality of social strata and genders and wealth disparity that creates not too wide a gap between different social strata or regions.
Third , environmental sustainability. The process of industrialisation, modernisation, rural development, tourism, and urbanisation all have a negative impact on the environment. Environmental sustainability counts when natural resources are used without damaging the quality of people’s living environment. It is a guarantee of clean air, water, soil, geographical space, and scenery. The quality of these elements needs to be honored and regularly assessed and verified in accordance with national or international standards.
Vietnam’s strategy for sustainable development and initial results
Keeping abreast with the era’s trends, the Vietnamese Party and Government promptly realised the importance of sustainable development. On June 25, 1998, the Politburo issued Directive 36-CT/TW on strengthening environmental protection in the period of national industrialisation and modernisation. In the documents of the 9th, 10th and particularly the 11th National Party Congresses, the viewpoints on sustainable development were given more attention and repeated through various approaches. To successfully fulfill the Strategy for Socio-economic Development in the 2011 - 2020 period, the Party has raised five development viewpoints. The first viewpoint is “Rapid development combined with sustainable development, which is an overall requirement set by the strategy”.
Implementing the Party’s stance and based on the global Plan of Action for the 21st century, on August 17, 2004, the Prime Minister issued Decision 154/2004/QĐ-TTg “Strategic Orientation for Sustainable Development in Vietnam” (known as Vietnam Agenda 21). The strategy highlights arising issues in economics, society, and the environment as well as challenges that Vietnam is encountering. The strategy has established the reciprocal relationship between economics, society, and the environment, set a time frame for implementation, and identified the responsibilities of sectors, localities, organisations, and social groups, taking into account the use of overall resources for implementing the strategy. The Government established a national Council for Sustainable Development, which is in charge of overseeing the fulfillment of the set goals.
Although Vietnam started implementing the Strategy for Socio-economic Development not long ago, it has achieved encouraging results, paving the way for the next steps. Highlighted achievements are as follows:
Economically , from 2006 to 2011, the average economic growth rate was nearly 7 percent; in 2012 GDP increased 5.03 percent and GDP per capita stood at 1,540 USD. The economic structure made progress. The proportion of industry and services in GDP was on the rise, while the proportion of agriculture in GDP decreased. Economic achievements contributed to sustainable development in other fields.
Socially , major progress has been made. Education has developed. State budget spending for education and training accounts for 20 percent of total state budget spending. By 2011 all provinces and cities had met the standards of lower secondary education. Job generation has achieved positive results: in the 6 years from 2006 to 2011 more than 9 million people were employed. In 2012, 1.5 million people were provided with new jobs. In 2013, it is expected that 1.6 million will be employed, 1.9 million people will be provided with vocational training, and the strategy on vocational training will be incorporated into job generation. In 2012, the unemployment rate was 3.53 percent in urban areas and 1.55 percent in rural areas. Hunger eradication and poverty reduction work has improved. The percentage of poor households was reduced to 9.6 percent and is expected to be 7.6 percent by the end of 2013. In 2012 Vietnam ranked 127th in HDI among 187 listed countries and territories and was included in the group with the high rate of HDI increase. Vietnam has achieved six of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations for developing countries by 2015.
Environmental issues have been given more attention recently. The protection of natural resources and the environment has become better organised. With appropriate policies and aggressive measures, the work of protecting our living environment and combating the pollution of our air and water resources has been supported and joined by all localities, sectors, and people. Forest planting and protection has been given more attention, resulting in reduced forest fires and logging.
Arising problems and three breakthroughs
Recently, Vietnam has been quite successful in implementing tasks for sustainable development. However, achievements and progress have not matched the country’s potential. The level of economic development remains low compared with other countries in the region and around the globe. The three aspects of sustainable development - economics, society, and the environment—all have problems that need to be addressed.
First , the effectiveness and competitiveness of the economy remain weak. Internal accumulation is still low. Economic growth shows signs of stagnation, lower than the rate in previous years due to the impact of the global financial crisis and economic recession. State investment has had low effectiveness with a great deal of loss and waste. The ratio of public debt to GDP has been relatively high, standing at 56.8 percent in 2010, 54.9 percent in 2011, and 55.6 percent in 2012. Although the total volume of debts is considered within the safe mark, there are potential risks.
Despite relentless efforts, there have not yet been major changes in the reform and development of state-owned enterprises. The macro-economy is not yet stable. Economic sectors have not yet made full use of their capacity, achieved equality, or felt assured to do business. Distribution mechanisms and policies have proved to be irrational and have failed to boost savings, productivity, and investment. The reform of the finance and banking system is slow and operational quality remains low. The investment and business environment has a number of troubles and is failing to facilitate economic development.
Second , the quality of education and training, particularly the training of high-level human resources, has not yet met the needs of development and social demands. The curricula and teaching methods remain antiquated and are being reformed too slowly. The training structure is imbalanced.
Cultural development has not been on a par with economic growth. Culture management reveals weaknesses. The cultural environment is becoming adulterated. Social vices and the influx of toxic products and services are degrading morality to an alarming level, particularly among youths and adolescents.
Unemployment remains high. Salary and income policies have failed to motivate people to be dedicated to their jobs. Living conditions of a portion of the population, mostly in remote areas, are difficult. Hunger eradication and poverty reduction are unsustainable, and many have relapsed into poverty. The already-large wealth gap is widening.
The quality of health care remains low. The healthcare system and its service quality do not yet meet the needs of the people. Food hygiene and safety have not been strictly controlled.
Third , the building of laws and policies related to environmental protection is falling short, is proceeding too slowly, and enforcement is lax and inefficient. The environment continues to degrade in many areas and has reached an alarming level in some areas. Feasible measures have not yet been taken to respond to climate change. The consequences of natural disasters are severe. Illegal logging and forest fires continue to occur. Insufficient resources have been mobilised to protect the biological environment and people’s living environment.
To root out these arising problems, the Strategy for Socio-economic Development from 2011 to 2020 identifies three strategic breakthroughs that will create a premise for restructuring the economy and shift the growth model towards sustainable development.
First , the completion of a uniform and modern market economy mechanism is of great importance. With a full mechanism, various types of vibrant market will develop and be well managed. A healthy environment for competition will balance the distribution of national resources, creating conditions for highly-effective economic growth and development. To achieve a high-quality and effective system of mechanisms, we need to overhaul the national administration in all areas - apparatus organisation, administrative procedures, public administration - and institute a rational and effective system of delegating power. The relationship between the State and the market needs to be resolved in line with a shift from the State’s managing the economy to the State’s designing and developing mechanisms. The State’s function is to build and plan development in accordance with a correct strategy, creating a healthy environment for competition and international integration. Other State functions are to strengthen supervision and detection of possible imbalances and to ensure macro-economic stability and the safety of the system. The State should focus on refining the social welfare and security system and making sure that every citizen is able to enjoy the fruits of growth.
Second , developing human resources, particularly high-quality human resources, and closely combining human resources development with the development and application of scientific and technological advances should be a priority. This is the most important breakthrough for fostering national strength and effectively serving sustainable development strategy, and will have a decisive impact on economic development, social stability, and environmental protection. The new highlight of this breakthrough is that human resources development will be coordinated with the development and application of scientific and technological advances. This factor will help turn the potential of human intelligence into outcomes of scientific and technological application and innovation—the momentum for rapid and sustainable development.
Third , infrastructure should be recognized as the conductor of socio-economic development, the conduit for distributing production forces and accelerating the circulation of goods. A uniform infrastructure will expand spaces for development, link economic regions, and increase the scale and effectiveness of production. To implement this breakthrough, we must change our approach, from planning and setting priorities to mobilising resources, and defining project procedures.
This analysis shows that sustainable development has become a general, multi-sector and inter-sector mode of development and an action program with clearer, more detailed criteria. Sustainable development is inevitable and the most noble goal of the development process.-VNA