Even Vietnamese blame food crisis and malnutrition on government mismanagement

A young mother sits in a hospital corridor here, anxiously trying to calm her 4-year-old son. He is the latest victim of a serious -- and worsening -- food crisis in Vietnam.

Successive typhoons and floods ravaged the rice crop of northern and central Vietnam last fall, destroying about 2.5 million tons of food.

But at least one important health official here blames more than bad weather for the shortage. Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa blames government economic mismanagement.

Dr. Hoa, a former health minister of South Vietnam's provisional revolutionary government who is now director of pediatrics research at Pediatrics Hospital No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, has conducted a survey whose preliminary results show that 38 percent of the preschool children in over 100 of the city's day-care centers suffer from malnutrition. She says that hunger problems are even worse in the north.

And although bad weather, conflicts with China and Cambodia, cutbacks in foreign aid, and the aftermath of three decades of war have had their effect on the food situation, she says the government must take some of the blame as well.

A Food and Agricultural Organization team toured Vietnam last fall and estimated the country faces a food deficit of 2 million tons this year. The worst is expected in the months before the June harvest. The FAO team recommended immediate delivery of some 380,000 tons of food aid to feed the country's 10 million flood victims.

But so far there has been little sympathy for Vietnam's food crisis in the international community. The Soviet Union has informed its ally that Moscow can send no food this year.

Dr. Hoa's hospital has less than 1/10th of the milk it needs to nurse its malnourished patients back to health. The hospital's milk supply was cut when the European Community suspended powdered milk shipments to Vietnam two years ago to protest its refugee policies and invasion of Cambodia.

"Vietnam's food crisis suggests our policy may be working," commented a US State Department official.China, the noncommunist Southeast Asian countries, and the United States have been trying to isolate and pressure Vietnam in the hope that it will be forced to withdraw its troops from Cambodia. "If it doesn't, we can find new pressure points."

Food riots were reported in two northern provinces last fall, and even government cadres in Hanoi complain openly about their families' economic hardships.

But few observers believe that this restiveness will result in significant political opposition or domestic pressure on Hanoi to change its policies toward its neighbors.

Over the past year, Vietnam has begun to accept responsibility for its own economic problems, blaming poor planning and management. "Our party and state have committed the greatest shortcomings and mistakes primarily in economic planning," Communist Party chief Le Duan said recently. "Due to our shortcomings there continue to exist many problems which have caused the masses to feel displeased."

Recently announced economic reforms have backed away from earlier emphasis on collective labor and central planning and provided greater latitude for private initiative and free market forces. Material incentives have been intrduced to stimulate Vietnam's flagging economy.

In January, Hanoi introduced a farm labor contract system to encourage peasants demoralized by rigid collectivism, poor food prices, and rising taxes. Plowing and water control are still performed collectively, but other tasks such as sowing, planting, and harvesting are now contracted to individual peasants or work teams. Any surplus over the contract quota belongs to the producer.

Production increased 10 to 20 percent in cooperatives in the Haiphong area, where the contract system was first tried. "No one objects to working harder if he earns more," a northern peasant said enthusiastically. The government also increased its farm prices to compete with the free market.

Piece-work salaries and bonuses are also being introduced in other economic sectors, replacing fixed monthly salaries. A worker in a metal factory in Ho Chi Minh City said he now earns 600 dong ($275) under the new system, compared with only 70 dong ($33) in the past. The Con Dao fishing company doubled its haul in the past year after the government increased the fisherman's share of the catch.

"We're not abandoning socialism, but changing its implementation," said one Hanoi official.

The numbers of small-scale private traders have mushroomed in Ho Chi Minh City in the wake of the economic reforms. Thousands of street vendors sell American T-shirts, Heineken beer, French cosmetics, and other imported commodities sent to Vietnam by refugees who fled the country over the past six years. Small, private production units have also sprung up in the city producing items such as wooden sandals, kerosene lamps, and plastic buckets.

Hanoi has also relaxed many of its puritanical cultural norms, perhaps as a safety valve for economic and social frustration. Over the past 10 months Western hair lengths, clothing styles, and rock music have proliferated not only in Ho Chi Minh City, but in Hanoi as well.

It is too early to tell what impact recent economic liberalization will have on Vietnam's severe food shortages and general economic crisis. But several new problems have already cropped up.The government's higher purchasing prices for farm products have fueled inflation, doubling the price of rice in Ho Chi Minh City in the past year. Peasants and workers, especially in the north, find few consumer goods to buy with their higher earnings.

Moreover, the reforms have not benefited everyone. Dr. Hoa's records show that some of the malnourished children in Pediatrics Hospital No. 2 are from homes of low-level-government employees whose salaries have not been increased.

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