Vietnam has made its annual plea for international help to improve its infrastructure and health care in the country.

The European Union's delegation to Vietnam released a strong statement outlining its concern over Vietnam's lack of basic freedoms, the alleged torture of prisoners and its treatment of ethnic minorities.

The EU delegation also says it expects the government to improve its human rights record immediately.

The European Union made its statement as dozens of countries and aid agencies met in Hanoi for an annual donors meeting. The European Union is one of the biggest donors to Vietnam.

One rights activists, Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission, says foreign governments should demand greater transparency and democracy within Vietnam's government but should not withhold aid.

"? it is neither the donors nor the government that decide democracy, it is the people. And if you are poor beyond a certain point and you are made even poorer by refusal of aid, that does not help democracy," said Mr. Fernando.

Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan told donor representatives that aid would go to improving the country's impoverished health care system.

Last year, donors pledged about $2.5 billion to Vietnam and the World Bank says it expects donations to reach a similar amount this year.

To date, donors have not officially linked aid money to reform within the country's corrupt and often inept administration.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday agreed with the European Union and called on donors to pressure Vietnam's leaders to improve human rights, but stopped short of asking donors to withhold aid as a means of forcing change.

Vietnam has one of the region's fastest expanding economies, reporting more than seven percent growth last year. But some one-third of 80 million Vietnamese citizens live in poverty.

Aside from the European delegation, other donors at the conference reportedly voiced concern that aid was not reaching the poor and called on Vietnam's government to speed up the distribution of aid to needy areas.

The United Nations also hinted that aid and economic growth are failing to help Vietnam's poor. The agency blames inefficiency and government corruption, claiming that both impede sustainable growth.