Jairo Acuna and Edmund Malesky

In 2012 Duncan Green, Oxfam’s Global Strategic Adviser and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’, asked the question of “why does everything interesting always seem to come from Vietnam?” He was making reference to the work on building active citizenship and accountability in Vietnam through the annual Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI). Here are three alternative possible reasons.

First, in a one-party regime, citizens are voicing their experiences of governance and public administration. And now, PAPI has become a depository, in which nearly 50,000 citizens in the country have told their own experiences and perceptions. In a way, these perceptions hold up a mirror to the performance of provincial leaderships

Second, as PAPI matures into the largest, nation-wide and longitudinal monitoring tool on governance and public administration monitoring in Vietnam, based on citizens’ experiences, new information is added every year that further refines the mirror’s image. In 2012 PAPI, explored the systemic issue of “informal payments,” concluding  that despite Vietnam becoming a “favourite” of development agencies for its remarkable poverty reduction in the past two decades, and the impressive high rates of growth, the evidence points to an unfair playing field in which unfortunate citizens must either pay bribes or find themselves  less likely to have adequate title to their property, affecting their ability to start and grow small businesses; receive adequate health care, which influences livelihoods and health prospects; and are shut out of educational opportunities after primary school, which affects downstream career advancement and wealth.

 PAPI: A mirror of performance

image0012. Pháp Luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh Newspaper
(“Năng lực lãnh đạo” = “competence of leaders”)

But third and the object of this blog is that this week we launched the 2013 PAPI report with a special chapter entitled “Exploring Equality of Governance and Public Administration within Provinces There is so much talk around on inequality among academic and the popular press these days (see Oxfam’s “Working for the Few”, UNDP’s “Humanity Divided”; but also please remember the debate predates from UNDP’s Human Development Report of 1999 on “Globalization with a Human Face”) that we couldn’t resist the temptation to jump in the discussion … but from a slightly different angle!

The analysis originates on the perception of an unlevelled playing field and the Vietnamese saying “the King’s laws stop at the village gate.” But also, challenges most academic work on governance, which focuses on provinces, because decentralization granted the first-tier subnational unit the most authority. Citizens, however, actually experience governance very differently even within the borders of a province. This phenomenon exists at all levels of authority in Viet Nam, from the province all the way to village, which is not even a formal authority in the Vietnamese administrative structure

The explanation is much more complicated than traditional reasoning, such as rural-urban divides or variation caused by cultural or historical differences across regions. Inequality remains high within regions and rural districts. In other words, simple cultural explanations or discussions of a rural-urban divide fall short. What can be noted for certain is that women, the poor, ethnic minorities, and those without governance connections evaluate the quality of governance more poorly, even within the same rural district.  In short, different types of citizens are experiencing wide divergences in the quality of their interactions with their leaders and with the public services they provide.

The Equality of Governance in Vietnam


The wide variation in PAPI scores within provinces is contrasted with significant differences in inequality within provinces. In some provinces, there is very little difference between citizens within the same locality, but in others, the divergence is severe with neighbours essentially experiencing different classes of administration and public services. While some citizens experience an elite service of high efficiency, others rank their experience as extremely poor. This divergence in inequality is visualised in scatter-plots. The vertical axis displays the overall, weighted PAPI score at provincial level. The horizontal axis depicts the standard errors of the PAPI score for each province. To add additional clarity, bubbles are sized to reflect relative standard errors. The red dashed lines illustrate the average PAPI score and standard errors of PAPI.  Because sample sizes in each province are selected so that have the same proportionate representation of the underlying population, the standard error reflects the size of the variance in governance that is experienced by citizens within the same provincial borders.

Inequality over time. With three years of data, we find that this inequality across provinces is relatively stable over time. Yet, while it indicates that inequality is still common in Viet Nam, it can diminish somewhat over time as witnessed between 2011 and 2012.

Inequality by Sub-Dimension. Focussing solely on the overall PAPI scores obscures levels of inequality observed at dimension level. Administrative Procedures and Service Delivery consistently shine as areas where citizens experience the lowest inequality.  In contrast, ‘Control of Corruption’ demonstrates the highest inequality each year. Moreover, more than any other dimension, inequality in corruption control has increased. This suggests there are wide differences in the impact corruption is having on the everyday lives of citizens throughout Viet Nam and even within provincial borders. Some citizens are barely directly affected by corruption and bribery, while it has become a major problem for others. This divergence has become increasingly pronounced over time.

Drivers of Equality. Citizens’ experiences with governance vary throughout Viet Nam and are only partially explained by differences across administrations. Strikingly, around 73% of the variation in PAPI scores is accounted for by differences between citizens within individual villages. This shows that governance inequality is not simply about regional differences, historical patterns such as north-south development trajectories or even rural-urban divides. Something much more individualized and personal is taking place and affecting citizens’ responses to the PAPI survey. Men experience substantially better governance than women; the Kinh majority report better governance than ethnic minorities; and the wealthy and professional classes experience greater satisfaction than the poorer, household entrepreneurs, and manual labourers. The largest effect is for the group of former and current government officials, which has governance score nearly three points higher than similar individuals without government experience. Young and educated respondents report worse experiences with governance and public administration.

While interesting, this analysis only marks the beginning of further policy research.  Information makes most sense in comparison. To this end, PAPI compares governance across six dimensions, 63 provinces, and over three years in a row in a verifiable and transparent computation of individual indicators, sub-dimensions and dimension scores making it a gold-mine of data for Vietnam policy research. More detailed work is necessary to sort out what is going at a fine-grained level. If you think you have plausible explanations, please let us know!

Map of Provincial Governance in Vietnam


Jairo Acuña–Alfaro is a Policy Advisor for the Public Administration Reform and Anti-Corruption at UNDP in Vietnam (@acuna_jairo).Edmund Malesky is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at Duke University

Banner Photo by Casablanca1911



Categories: Citizenship, Governance