Why can't Central Highland ethnic minorities seem to escape poverty?

April 19, 2016 | 09:26 am PT
Le Giang Lam, an economics graduate from University of Cambridge, UK, argues that the Central Highland ethnic minorities' concept of poverty might be fundamentally different from ours.

In a report to the National Assembly on March 22, former Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that although the poverty rate has fallen over the past five years, government policies are still ineffective in areas occupied by ethnic minorities.

Below I’d like to present my own views on why poverty reduction efforts have been failing ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands following my month long journey in January 2013 across the region, where I interviewed poor ethnic people and local authorities.(*)

There’s one thing poverty reduction projects in the Central Highlands have in common. They assume that ethnic minorities follow the same values and view life through the same lens as Kinh ethnic people (the majority Vietnamese). That is, ethnic minorities want to get rich like the Kinh (it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like the idea of being rich), and so they are provided with a fishing rod, instead of a fish. However, countless livelihood development projects aimed at ethnic minorities have failed to do just that. Once projects finish, many beneficiaries return to their old, inefficient ways.

Perhaps they are "lazy"?

The age old reason given by the minorities is a “lack of funds”. Meanwhile, they continue to have lots of children, dye their hair, wear modern accessories and buy alcohol. However, there are also those severely in debt after repeatedly taking loans from banks or from high interest Kinh lenders. For them, having enough to eat is already great. Then, there are those who take out loans and instead of investing, they bury the money. When it’s time to repay the loan, they just dig it up and return it.

I’m not going to talk about those in severe debt. What I’d like to focus on is the apparent paradox: why don’t the minorities fish when they have the rods and the knowledge. Clearly, they like to spend money on cool stuff. Not long ago, the public was puzzled by the so called “village billionaires” who used up all their land compensation money to buy expensive cars, only later to return to poverty.

The point here lies in the motivation to get rich, or rather the lack thereof. With little motivation, we tend to prefer the old and familiar ways, simply because it’s easier. Think of the elderly. Despite having been told how to use a mobile phone, many still prefer the landline. Clearly, mobile phones are much more convenient but because the elderly don’t have to go out as much, their need to use a mobile phone is lower, and so is their motivation to switch to the high-tech gadget.

So why is ethnic minoroties’ motivation to get rich so much lower?

Although they are poor, they are not hungry. The poorest households are regular recipients of state benefits, which include rice and salt. In addition, many poverty reduction and livelihood development projects take place each year. So if for some reason a household manages to escape from poverty, they will either stop receiving benefits or they will have to work harder. If a cow suddenly dies or a drought hits resulting in big losses, they would not only be poor again but also in debt. Isn’t it then better to be forever poor?

This has earned ethnic minorities a reputation for being lazy and dependent on the state. But one should be careful to jump to such a conclusion, as I think there’s another reason why their motivation to get rich is so low.

Perhaps they're just different

The world of ethnic minorities is built on values that are fundamentally different from ours, or the Kinh’s world. Our world is built and sustained based on the idea that more is better, which encourages competitive behavior. That’s why we think poverty is a sign of weakness and laziness is a vice. A useful and successful person is one who always strives to be efficient, the best, or at least above average. Since I was a little girl, my parents have always told me to study hard. When I started work, it was to overtake my colleagues. In this world of ours, even if you chose to be lazy, you’d likely suffer from a lot of pressure once people start labeling you a weak and useless opportunist. No wonder our motivation to get rich is so great.

The world of ethnic minorities based on my personal observations is decidedly different. I could hardly see any signs of competitive behavior among them. When asked “who is the richest person in the village”, nobody could answer because they were all equally poor. When the poorest households were given rice, they divided it equally among the entire village. This makes me think that the world of ethnic minorities is founded upon an ideal of mutual assistance.

Let’s look at their history to get a better idea about this world of theirs. Before Kinh people settled in the Central Highlands it was rich in natural resources. If people were hungry, all they needed to do was to enter the forest. If anything could near a utopia, this would be it. There was no reason for savings in such a world, let alone competition. Instead, to survive, what they needed was unity and teamwork against mother nature and wild animals. After all, they lived in times when a lone wolf would not stand a chance of survival. Their cooperative system also acted like an insurance scheme. Whoever failed to cooperate faced eviction from the community.

In such a world, equality and helping others are valued most. Nobody wants to be above others; they prefer to be average. Perhaps that’s why nobody seems to be bothered when the entire village is labeled “lazy”.

If my observations are correct then indeed there’s nothing weird about ethnic minorities dividing all the rice equally among themselves; or the fact that no one wants to strive to be above average; or how they don’t save; or when they admit to being lazy with a smile on their face. This continues to be relevant today, when the forests are gone because they’ve been replaced by state benefits and poverty reduction projects. Ethnic minorities might even consider these benefits the government’s responsibility after their land and forests were taken away by Kinh settlers. Or, simply put, they just take charity for granted. That’s why they’re not ashamed of being on the receiving end.

Survival in "our world"

It is clear that life in the Central Highlands has drastically changed over the past 20 years. More and more Kinh people arrive and sooner or later, the minorities will start to wonder why the Kinh have motorbikes, cars and nice houses while they don’t. Actually, it has already begun. From what I’ve seen from my travels, the minorities who work hard to earn a living and get rich are those situated close to district centers, where Kinh people live among them and give these minorities a chance to understand our world.

Meanwhile, those who don’t know what to do with a loan or who refuse to apply high-yielding farming techniques are situated in remote areas. There, one can hardly find a Kinh person aside from a few traders, and so Kinh values have barely reached these communities.

Culture and the value system take years, if not decades, to change. Hence, the question is: how can Central Highland ethnic minorities adapt to this competitive world? Surely, they cannot stick to their old ways. The forests are gone while our world doesn’t tolerate “free riders”. If they fail to adapt, they will continue to be belittled or even taken advantage of.

This is why I think giving Central Highland ethnic minorities a fishing rod is not enough; why livelihood development projects don’t work; why a wealthy Kinh in a different village is not enough to change them. Not to mention other difficulties like limited skills and knowledge, lack of funds, poor infrastructure and exogenous risks like El Nino.

Once they have the right motivation, I believe the above “technical” issues will sort themselves out.

(*) In January 2013, I interviewed seven ethnicities (Ede, Ba Na, M’Nong, Ja Rai, Hre, Co Tu and Gie Trien) in six provinces of Dak Nong, Dak Lak, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai.

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