Viet Nam, Technology and the Middle-Income Trap

December 6, 2023
UNDP in Viet Nam

As published by Viet Nam News on 6 December 2023

“Viet Nam’s economic moment may have finally arrived,” proclaimed the Financial Times of London in a recent editorial. Rapid growth of agricultural and manufactured exports has propelled economic development for three decades, lifting millions out of poverty. Now Viet Nam is diversifying into high-tech products like electronics and components, including semiconductors, as major global corporations relocate production facilities to Viet Nam.

At the annual Viet Nam Economic Pulse held on December 6, a policy forum jointly sponsored by UNDP and the Central Institute of Economic Management (CIEM), experts from higher education, research institutes and the private sector discussed prospects for sustaining economic growth through technological deepening and innovation.

Growth has slowed this year because of a post-pandemic falloff in external demand. Yet long-term prospects are still favorable. Average GDP growth of 6.5% over three decades has established Viet Nam as one of the best performers in the region, enabling the country to achieve High Human Development status at a relatively low level of national income. Exports have increased at double-digit rates over the same period.

Viet Nam has emerged as a vital hub in East Asian supply chains, and the relations with the United States—Viet Nam’s largest export market—were recently upgraded. The country’s young population, rising educational attainment and region-leading female labor force participation rates will continue to attract investors.

However, success is not guaranteed. On the eve of the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, Malaysia and Thailand were widely seen as the next generation of East Asian Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs), following in the footsteps of the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Yet productivity growth slowed in the new millennium, weighed down by competition in traditional export markets from China and Viet Nam, and weak linkages between foreign and domestic firms.

The “middle-income trap” affects countries in the process of moving from heavy reliance on production of labor-intensive goods and services to higher value-added, often more technology-intensive production. Middle-income countries face competition from lower-cost producers for their traditional exports, and at the same time from advanced economies in markets for high-tech goods and services. Relatively few middle-income countries have managed to sustain high rates of productivity growth through the transition and ultimately achieve high income status. Most of the successful countries since 1990 were new members of the European Union benefiting from unfettered access to the single market and other forms of EU support.

Viet Nam officially achieved lower middle-income status in 2011 and has targeted upper middle-income status by 2030. To achieve this milestone, Viet Nam needs to accelerate GDP growth to more than seven percent per year for the rest of the decade, sustain its export growth, and substantially increase the share of investment in GDP.

Although export growth has slowed in traditional exports like garments, footwear and furniture, Vietnamese companies are still competitive in these markets. However, as living standards rise, wages—and therefore unit production costs—will inevitably follow. This is good news, as it means that Vietnamese workers will increasingly be employed in higher productivity occupations and earning more money. But like Malaysia and Thailand, Viet Nam will come under pressure from low-cost economies, while diversifying into higher value-added, more technology-intensive production.

To escape the middle-income trap, countries must develop technological and managerial capabilities to help them realize increasing returns to scale, especially in export industries. Successful countries created robust national innovation systems at an early stage in their development.

Viet Nam is a young nation of 100 million people with exceptionally high literacy levels and a deep respect for education. Viet Nam’s secondary school system is a global leader among developing countries, and students display a high level of readiness for scientific and technical education.

When it comes to tertiary education, however, university enrollments and public spending on higher education, research, and vocational education lag behind neighboring countries. UNESCO data reveal that public expenditure on higher education as a share of national output is about ten percent below the world average and half of the levels achieved by regional competitors like Malaysia.

Viet Nam’s expenditure on research and development as a share of national output is 0.5%, higher than Indonesia and the Philippines but half the level of Malaysia and Thailand, and far below regional leaders like the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and China.

Spending levels aside, Viet Nam’s national innovation system suffers from fragmentation and weak linkages to international and domestic private firms. Viet Nam has hundreds of public research institutes, but they are small by international standards, under resourced and lack clear performance targets.

Like other countries in the region, Viet Nam can draw on a diaspora of international scholars and technologists, many of whom have acquired advanced degrees overseas and now work in international universities and corporations. Attracting these individuals back to Viet Nam, to teach in universities and lead strategic research projects, could help jump start the process of building the national innovation system.

Viet Nam can achieve a higher growth trajectory through the adoption of new technologies and penetration of export markets for higher value-added goods and services. Government will need to lead the new push into high tech, increasing spending on higher education and research, and setting performance standards make these institutions more effective.

But the government cannot build a national innovation system on its own. The international and domestic private sector will play a key role, partnering with universities and research institutes to build domestic capabilities, identify new products and processes, and train a new generation of technologists.

Escaping the middle-income trap will require focus, commitment and an unprecedented investment public and private investment effort. International partners—including financial and development institutions, universities and multinational corporations—can also play an important supporting role.