April 4, 2021
My good friend, Ramu Damodaran, Chief Academic Impact (UN Department of Global Communications), Editor-in-Chief of the UN Chronicle and Moderator of the session. Thank you for that kind introduction.
Excellency Mr. Michael Dukakis, Co-founder & Chair of the Boston Global Forum and previous Governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. Le Tuan Phong, Chairman of Binh Thuan People’s Committee, Viet Nam
Mr. Nguyen Truong Khanh, Director General, Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism
Mr. Bui Thanh Nhon, Chairman of Nova Group, Viet Nam Distinguished Panelists and Guests,
I am delighted to be participating in this event today.
As the title of my talk suggests, I would like to focus on the UN’s work in Viet Nam—past, present and aspirational future—which is interwoven with my own personal journey and experiences in the country over 32 years.
I have been coming to Viet Nam since 1989, and have witnessed its incredible transformation from a poor, war devastated and isolated country into a dynamic one which is amongst the fastest growing economies in the world today with 2.9% GDP growth even in 2020 when most of the world was in recession.
I have come to Viet Nam in five different roles and guises since my first visit, which has been a privilege. It has allowed me to have comprehensive bird’s eye view on the country’s transformation in less than a generation and has taught me that more than anything else,
Viet Nam’s strength resides in the resilience, openness, optimism and strength of its people.
From the vantage point of the United Nations, over the past 44 years, from when Viet Nam joined the United Nations in September 1977, two years after the end in 1975, of what is known as the American War here and the Viet Nam War in the US, Viet Nam has been a special partner. It has received tremendous support from the UN—political, humanitarian, reconstruction, critical policy advice during Doi Moi (economic renovation) in 1986 and beyond, as well as continuing advice in normative areas and for the design of its legislation in a number of crucial areas, and then for MDG achievement and now SDG achievement—as well as for its increasing regional and global roles on peacekeeping and in the UN Security Council. Viet Nam, throughout this period and especially now has demonstrated itself to be an increasingly active and responsible member of the international community and a consistent supporter of multilateralism even in these challenging times for multilateralism.
After reunification of North and South in 1975, Viet Nam had to both deal with severe war consequences, reorganize its poor and devastated economy and gradually restore production. Joining the UN in 1977 was a great opportunity that helped Viet Nam establish its stature in the international arena and end its complete isolation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, UN assistance accounted for 60% of the total aid offered to Viet Nam. Many UN agencies supported Viet Nam in various fields, particular in post-war recovery and through the provision of emergency aid, for example food and medicine, school equipment and other needs, especially for children and women. There were no other intergovernmental bodies here in the 1980s since the World Bank, IMF, ADB and others including most UN Member States established their presence or Embassies in Viet Nam only after 1993.
In the 1986-1995 period, throughout the country’s early Doi Moi reform process, the UN continued to actively support Viet Nam, providing key policy advice on its economic opening and providing hundreds of millions of US dollars annually. In the 1996-2000 period, the UN’s support for Viet Nam focused on poverty reduction efforts, implementation of social policies, management of environmental and natural resources, aid coordination, state capacity building and management, and resource mobilization. The UN’s support is widely and openly acknowledged by Viet Nam’s top political leadership to have been one of the most important resources for Viet Nam both in the past and present, enabling it to successfully realize its socio-economic development goals.
Between 2001 and 2005, the UN shifted its technical assistance for Viet Nam to prioritize legislative reform as well as the reform of economic institutions and policies, state-run businesses, public administration, law, public investment planning and the banking system. Examples include Enterprise Law and human rights legislation design including support for Viet Nam’s endorsement of 7 out of the 9 core UN Human Rights Conventions. The UN also expanded its help in other fields such as HIV/AIDS and disease prevention, promoting grassroots democracy and gender equality.
From 2000-2015, the UN focused on supporting Viet Nam in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), most of which Viet Nam achieved well before the 2015 deadline. In 2006, Viet Nam was also one of the eight countries selected to pilot the “Delivering as One” initiative and since then, until today, has always been in the forefront of “Delivering as One”, and now UN Development System reform since 2019. This has received high praise from the UN and international community. From 2017- 2021, through the implementation of the One Strategic Plan (OSP) of the Government of Viet Nam and the UN for this time period, the UN has continued to support Viet Nam in making progress towards SDG implementation and achievement.
In light of its recent trajectory, Viet Nam has also begun assuming, as it should, a higher profile nowadays in the global and regional arena, including as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2020-2021 term, and also as the ASEAN Chair for 2020. Viet Nam has much to offer to the rest of the world, including lessons from its effective containment of COVID-19. The UN appreciates Viet Nam’s increasing contributions to the Organization, including to UN Peace Operations and to the UN Security Council’s Women Peace and Security Agenda .
Distinguished Panelists and Guests,
Let me now turn to Viet Nam and its future aspirations.
The amazing transformation of Viet Nam in such a short period of time, is rare in human history, and as I have already stated, was made possible largely by its dynamic and energetic people. I believe that, notwithstanding the dominant role of the Communist Party of Viet Nam, the people of Viet Nam will continue to be key drivers of its future transformation.
At its recent 13th Congress at the end of January 2021, the Communist Party of Viet Nam adopted its ambitious vision of becoming a “high-income developed country” by 2045 – this year will be the centenary not just of the United Nations but also of Vietnamese national independence and the founding of the then Democratic Republic of Viet Nam, now the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. This vision, while very aspirational and ambitious, is not unachievable, but there are many formidable challenges which will need to be overcome if it is to be attained. For a country with Viet Nam’s still quite recent war ravaged past, to even have such an aspiration in such a short period since the end of the American war in 1975 is remarkable. I look forward to discussing this aspiration today in my remaining time.
Realizing this aspirational vision for 2045 will require Viet Nam to harness science and technology effectively and constructively, while remaining acutely cognizant of their diverse effects, challenges and limitations.
Technologies have changed the way we learn, travel, work, interact, and participate. This will accelerate in the post-COVID era not least because of accelerating digitalization. Without a doubt, the opportunities and benefits that technologies have brought to our lives are enormous. Technologies have provided vulnerable sectors in society with access to basic services and allow some people with vulnerabilities to participate productively in the knowledge economy, through assistive technologies for persons with disabilities (PWDs), distance and/or lifelong learning prospects for remote villages, e-health services for underserved areas, social media for e-government feedback mechanisms, e-commerce options for livelihoods among local communities, and technologies for disaster risk reduction and management for at-risk communities. These are only a few examples. There are many more.
However, the very same technologies have posed and raised an array of troubling social and ethical issues. All over the world, numerous issues have been raised, ranging from increased inequalities with respect to readiness and access to technologies, to online safety and security (identity theft, scams, system phishing, hacking, online predators and cyber bullying), misuse of information (plagiarism, access to inappropriate content, and misrepresentation) to health and mental hazards (long exposure to screens, back and arm pains, and game/internet addiction).
I would like to elaborate on several specific challenges, which are pertinent not only to Viet Nam but also for the rest of the world:
- Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) have proven their value in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic: They have contributed to accelerated vaccine development and deployment and to slowing down the economic impact of the crisis through the use of digital platforms. AI also helps researchers crunch substantive amount of data in the race to find a vaccine or treatment. It has also contributed to containing the spread of the virus through test, track and trace technologies. Yet, as people are giving access to their data, the use of AI during this pandemic has reopened concerns regarding privacy, data protection and the use of data beyond the needs of virus infection tracking.
- Disadvantaged populations are at risk of exclusion from the digital economy and therefore from the workforce: Impoverished and disadvantaged communities have many fewer opportunities to acquire the skills needed to advance as a result of the rapid digitalization of the economy. Even when technologies and connectivity are made available and affordable, these populations still face many challenges in accessing and effectively using digital technologies. Failing to create targeted measures for addressing the needs of vulnerable populations will widen the skills gap over time as rapid technological change continues. Online learning and schooling is an obvious example where the pandemic has deepened the digital divide.
- AI may contribute to widening existing gender gaps: Only 22% of all AI professionals are women. Because they are underrepresented in the industry, gender biases and stereotyping are being reproduced in AI technologies. It is not a coincidence that virtual personal assistants such as Siri, Alexa or Cortana are “female” by default. The servility and sometimes submissiveness they express are an example of how AI can continue to reinforce and spread gender bias in our societies.
- Youth jobs are at high risk of automation: An analysis of the results of the 2018 edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that many 15-year-olds anticipated pursuing jobs that were at a high risk of being automated. The ratio was particularly high among those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Industrial Revolution 4.0 and digital economy require “complimentary skills” among workers to navigate in a new technology-driven labor market: With skills required for the jobs changing faster than ever before, employers across the world are facing challenges in finding a skilled workforce at the required skill levels. Technology is evolving faster than ever before and the talent pool through which employers have to select workers for high skilled jobs is shrinking.
Alongside rapid digitization, urbanization is also quickening its pace. With the current pace, it is estimated that about 50% of Viet Nam’s population will live in urban areas by the beginning of the fourth decade of the 21st century which includes 2045. This obviously presents opportunities for national growth and an improved quality of life. However, a range of concomitant problems have also emerged, such as increasing income disparity, informal development, lack of basic infrastructure and services, lack of decent housing, increasing health problems due to pollution as well as environmental degradation. These challenges will likely increase with further urbanization.
If governed well, the technologies that I have cited can contribute to sustainable development by reducing carbon emissions and facilitating the ecological transition, increasing access to affordable housing, enhancing participation in policy making for citizens, and ensuring access to inclusive services for communities. This is where the concept of a ‘smart city’ as envisaged in the AIWS city will come in useful – a smart city is where technologies can seamlessly support more efficient work-life-play-learn opportunities for every individual in an inclusive manner, fuel greater economic growth and facilitate the creation of a sustainable living environment in cities so people can focus more on their well-being.
At the UN, we advocate for ‘People-Centered Smart Cities’, which emphasize making urban digital transformation work for the benefit of all, driving sustainability, inclusivity and prosperity, and the realization of human rights in cities and human settlements. Overall, such a conceptualization enables smart cities and their partners to make a serious and deep contribution to a field that is often otherwise inappropriately focused on the technology itself and not sufficiently focused on inclusion, ethics, quality of life, human rights, and achieving the SDGs.
Allow me to make a few additional points, which are important for the UN, especially in light of the overarching SDG principle of leaving no one behind.
Digital literacy approaches should specifically address the needs of disadvantaged populations. Bridging the divide between education and employment has been found to result in significant “digital dividends” for disadvantaged populations. This includes increases in human and social capital accumulation, productivity, employability, and earnings potential. The ultimate result will be enhanced poverty reduction, income growth, and the creation of a pathway to long-run economic empowerment and financial independence, leading to a more dynamic and inclusive economy.
For women to seize upon the opportunities offered by IR 4.0, there will need to be a level playing field in terms of access to enablers such as education and information.
Regarding people-centred smart cities, it is my view that Viet Nam needs to develop good masterplans for future smart cities to address the challenges of urbanization and leverage the added values of connecting its cultural, social and technological capital.
Lastly, AI cannot be a no law zone: AI is already in our lives, directing our choices, often in ways which could be harmful. There are some legislative vacuums around the industry which needs to be filled fast. The first step is to agree on exactly which values need to be enshrined, and which rules need to be enforced. Many frameworks and guidelines exist, but they are implemented unevenly, and none are truly global. AI is global, which is why we need a global instrument to regulate it.
Distinguished Panelists and Guests,
The implementation of our current One Strategic Plan (OSP) for 2017-2021 with Viet Nam will finish at the end of this year. Hence, we are embarking on the production of our next 5-year UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF) for 2022-2026. The UN in Viet Nam and the Government of Viet Nam will have a meeting of the Joint Steering Committee soon to formally commence this process. Within the UN in Viet Nam, there is an agreement on four broad outcome areas for this next CF – Inclusive Social Development; Climate Change, Disaster Resilience and Environmental Sustainability; Shared Prosperity through Economic Transformation; and Governance and Access to Justice. I look forward to discussing these elements and agreeing on them with the new Government of Viet Nam over the next few months.
The next five years will be a critical time period for Viet Nam, not only to make up for the lost time in 2020 due to COVID-19 which requires a renewed Doi Moi or economic renovation for SDG attainment by 2030, but also to start making the leap towards the 13th Party Congress’ 2045 vision. In this endeavour, it will be of critical importance for Viet Nam to set in place wise policies and strong regulatory frameworks to ensure that emerging technologies benefit people as a whole. We need human-centred technologies which must be both designed and implemented for the greater interest of people, not for the 1%.
From both my experiences in Viet Nam over more than three decades as well as my study of Vietnamese history, one thing is clear to me – when there is political consensus in Viet Nam at the highest political levels, no aspiration or ambition is too big or daunting. Viet Nam can achieve anything. After all, this is the country that has defeated most of the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UN Security Council in war and come first in the world in the war against the COVID-19 virus in 2020, for a country with its population size of close to 100 million people and a 1,450 kilometer porous land border with the People’s Republic of China, the original source of the virus. It has also won the peace with its remarkable transformation over the last 35 years.
I thank you for your listening and for your attention.