Educational investments from the lens of ethnic minorities in Vietnam


After a fast-and-furious bus ride, and an overnight train from Hanoi, we arrived in Sa Pa. 318km far from Hanoi, Sa Pa was a world apart. In a summer day, Sa Pa was a surreal charm with picturesque terraced rice fields, scattering ethnic wooden houses here and there on the hills, and bustling markets filled with lively colors. Above all the beauties this little town had to offer us, to me what set Sa Pa apart from other parts of Vietnam was its ethnic diversity. Across Vietnam, most of the inland deltas and coastal areas are made up of homogenous societies in terms of ethnicity. The major ethnic group – the Kinh – accounts for more than 86% of the country’s population, and dominates in all the main economic hubs or midsize cities of the country. Sa Pa, on the other hand, is home to a good mix of ethnic groups, Hmong, Muong, Thai, Dao, Tay, to name a few. Such an ethnic composition has created a unique social dynamic and mindset for people in Sa Pa.

Does education always bring the same value across ethnic groups?

Wandering through the night markets, I was stunned by how the street vendors could master the art of bargaining not only in Vietnamese, but also in English! Their English proficiency was incredibly impressive. Later on, I learned that most of these street vendors were typically very young, probably did not finish their high schools, and they belonged to different ethnic minority groups. As I was told, the ethnic minorities in Sa Pa found it more profitable to invest their time and resources to learn English from books or tourists, than going to official schools administered by the government. For them, speaking well English would bring back a larger gain of income from tourists. Whereas, going to schools would not only reduce their working time, but also schooling did not seem to be much interesting or provide a clear path of returns in the future.

This logic can strike as shortsighted at first. However, once weighing in all the constraints faced by a minority ethnic individual from a small village, it seems to make sense. As in any other cases, an ethnic minority’s decision to forgo attending formal schooling is tightly linked to his or her returns to education. If the returns to education are not sufficient to cover the cost of not working, the individual would be discouraged to invest in schooling per se and more likely to invest in other practical skills, which are rewarded better in the labor market. In the case of education for the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, the returns to formal education are considerably low. This could be due to three reasons.


First, location, location, location… Areas, where minority ethnic groups allocate in Vietnam, are mostly remote or rural areas, which are isolated with the lack of basic infrastructure to facilitate economic activities intra-regions. This leads to limited economic opportunities for an educated ethnic youth.

Secondly, not only is the quality of formal education in these remote areas is substantially lower than other parts of the country, but the content of formal education is regarded as “Kinh-centric”, failing to reflect the history and culture of other ethnic groups. Together, these factors of formal education quality make attending schools become less attractive to an ethnic minority.

Lastly, current or past discrimination factors in the labor market against ethnic minorities could potentially discourage ethnic workers to obtain a high education in order to compete in the workforce. Differences in cultural heritage, and social behaviors or expectations could be barriers for an ethnic minority to enter the labor market, where the major ethnic group dominates. I once overheard a young Dao girl told her friend that most of the well-paid jobs in town would be reserved for the Kinh people. Ethnic workers like themselves would not stand a chance to take the job. Regardless of whether such speculation is true or not, if an ethnic minority believes that there is a segregation in the job market not based on skills, but rather on ethnic identity, her expectations to gain from education would reduce, which eventually translates to her decision not to invest in formal education. What are the perks of investing in something without a return?

A long-term social division

While the Vietnamese government has taken up many social integration or economic assistance programs, such as the Commission for Ethnic

Minorities and Mountain Areas (CEMMA), these initiatives have not succeeded in fully addressing the ethnic groups’ differential needs, which are rooted from dissimilar cultural heritage and social norms. For example, even though commune health care centers could provide ethnic patients with fee exemptions or free medicines, the minorities still prefer going to shamans due to superstitious beliefs. In terms of education, the Vietnamese educational system is centrally planned, and as mentioned before, the curricula are perceived by ethnic minorities as irrelevant to the realities and local needs of the ethnic groups.

Investing in skills that are rewarded better in the local labor market, in this case, learning English, is probably the best (or the second-best?) option for an ethnic worker. However, in the long run, these different attitudes toward educational investments would potentially widen the social and economic gap among different ethnic groups, and increase social oppression in society.

Jacqueline Nguyen

Land is the new gold


A few days ago, I found myself reading an article about Chilean avocados. As an avocado passionate lover (I grow my own little plants, hoping they survive the Lombardian winter!) I enjoy seeing these creamy tropical fruits on the grocery’s shelves. Nonetheless, the article left me with a sense of guiltiness, making me feel accessory to an unsustainable practice.

As an extremely water-intensive crop, indeed, avocados are literally drying entire areas of Chile. The already scarce freshwater reserves are driven away from households’ consumption and other agricultural activities, and devoted to this export-oriented monoculture aimed at satisfying  European appetite for  guacamole sauce.

The fact that small-scale farmers in the developing world dominate the production of many agricultural commodities but have difficulties in building their livelihoods from them, has always been a big question mark to me.

World population is expected to double by 2050, with most of the increase taking place in developing countries. States will have to feed and house growing populations and, in this context, agriculture-aimed large-scale land acquisitions by foreign actors represent a major policy challenge, as they drive huge amounts of resources away from this goal.

Nothing is new under the sun. Since the debt restructuring programs and trade liberalization policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the global south during the 1980’s, land has become a commodity to undersell on the world market. Nonetheless, a wave of land grabs unprecedented in size occurred contemporaneous to the financial crises, fostered by concerns about projected scarcities of food, water, and energy, and speculation purposes.

Foreign investors usually belong to two groups. The first is governments, state enterprises or state funds from oil-rich countries with a lack of arable land, water scarcity and harsh climate conditions. The second group is composed of private companies from industrialized countries and emerging economies with large populations and rapid economic growth investing in agro-fuel projects.

In my Master’s thesis, I analyzed land deals for roughly 30Mha, equal to 42 million football fields and more than the size of Ecuador (data were taken from the Land Matrix database). These acquisitions have been most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos) and Latin America (Argentina and Brazil). The land in question is secured to grow a particular set of crops for export –palm oil, jatropha, trees, rubber and sugarcane– that have uses as both food and biofuel/biomass.

When analyzing the determinants of a country’s attractiveness for land acquisitions, I found that land investments tend to target countries with large untapped freshwater reserves, a high grade of land tenure insecurity and a high forest cover rate.

In Indonesia, for instance, oil palm plantations fueled by transnational land acquisitions have been a main determinant of primary forest conversion into agricultural land. The slash-and-burn technique used to make room for new oil palm cultivations has made the country a top CO2 emitter globally.

What do Indonesian palm oil, Chilean avocados and Brazilian soybeans have in common? These countries are targeted  for growing agricultural commodities for export. Unfortunately, it is not the case that the outsourced agricultural production is motivated by higher yields or water-saving logics. As mentioned, other factors seem rather to drive land acquisitions.

One thing is certain: the impact on local social fabrics and natural ecosystems is huge. Entire communities are “expelled” from the acquired territories and denied customary rights to land and water. In other cases, they are forced to migrate as the production of a single type of crop makes land unproductive and depletes water resources.

For how long will this be sustainable, in view of the climatic and demographic challenges ahead?

Elena Dal Zotto