Sustainable community development and Vietnam

Discussing the evolution and development of the concept of sustainable community development over the past twenty years, in terms of the extent to which it provides an adequate basis to respond to changing development priorities in contemporary Vietnam.


Sustainable Community Development incorporates various alternate views of development, from sources such as the feminist and environmental movements, to present a holistic and broad-based frame of reference for social and economic programs intended to rebuild or restructure a nation. Its basic principles include consideration of long-term environmental impact, responsible resource management, equity in all processes and outcomes, local and regional autonomy, pluralism and bottom-up participation from planning through to implementation.

Estes best summarised the values inherent in the idea of sustainability with his seven fundamental concepts – Unity of humanity on Earth, Anti-violence, Environmental maintenance, Minimum welfare standards, Dignity of humans, Diversity of cultures and Universal Participation. (Estes, 1993)

But to best understand the radical departure from past ideas of what development should entail, one needs to examine the historical roots of development theory, and the triggers for change over the past twenty years. The present state of affairs in Vietnam can then be understood in light of this evolution of developmental thinking and planning, and the extent to which a new, more sustainable model would be relevant to the country’s future management.

The 'development' model

The dominant 'development' model of past decades has been based on the capitalist, conservative assumptions of an international free-market and industrialisation of undeveloped countries being the only route to economic growth and development. These ideals were followed at all costs, mostly ignoring the social and environmental impact this had, although some believed that short-term sacrifices in these areas would result in long-term benefits as the expected growth would ‘trickle down’ to all eventually. (Thomas, p563)

A definition of  the goals of community development put forward by Bregha in 1970, summarised the third world’s objectives for development as being an increase in resources and productivity, whilst first world countries were concerned with the allocation and distribution of assets and power in society. (Campfens, p22)

No consideration was given to non-material needs and goals, such as self-reliance, equitable outcomes in society and politics, environmental balance, or peace and security for all living in these countries that had already suffered much at the hands of colonial powers and tyrannical national regimes.

This view, largely unchallenged for decades, asserted that the Western model was superior, and to be aspired to by all less-developed nations as the answer to all their problems. Globalisation meant integration and submission to an international economy dominated by the first-world ‘super-powers’.

The New World Order, established in 1944 by the Bretton Woods Agreement, led to the foundation of the World Bank and the International Monetary fund (IMF).The latter institution has played an especially dominant role in the development of nations by requiring adherence to Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) as a precondition to receiving funding.

SAPs recommended that the government cut back on all subsidies to alleviate poverty and unemployment, and rely on the promised success of their free market and export policies to generate wealth and quality of life for all eventually. Governments were to decentralise their power structures, privatise state industry and retain only the low profit, infrastructural industries.

Rather than equipping people to meet their own basic needs, production of surplus was encouraged, with the necessary restructuring of agriculture and industry. The idea of labouring for money was introduced in areas previously held together socially by the age-old customs and traditions of subsistence living.

On top of this tragically irreversible change, came the move to reduce wages, increase the prices of goods and services, reform tax laws in favour of the business sector and devalue the local currency – hoping to encourage much-needed foreign investment. Domestic consumption was considered of secondary importance – countries were basically advised to focus on exports, to pay their international debts ! (Campfens, p15)

Since the ‘development decades’ of the 1950’s and 1960’s this patronising dominant model influenced all international relations and shaped the very fabric of the society we are now faced with. The most short sighted view espoused by followers of this model, was the idea of the environment as a resource that could be exploited without limit or care. There were disastrous results – some of which will be mourned by generations yet to come.

This lack of foresight also translated to the unrealistic expectation that economic growth, once spurred on by major reforms, would continue indefinitely. In most cases, the success of market-style reforms relied heavily on foreign investment, revenue from exports and external intervention in the form of ‘expert’ advice, funding and technology. Unfortunately, in a changing global environment, these could not be guaranteed nor predicted, at great cost to the countries who blindly adopted the harsh programs ‘recommended’ by international institutions like the IMF.

The result of decades of this style of development are mixed, but have mostly failed to deliver prosperity and quality of life as promised – in some cases, countries are actually worse off than before, and keep sliding further down the poverty scale. As some have pointed out, not one third world country has joined the ranks of the first world countries, even with improved literacy rates, lower infant mortality rates and better access to water, on the whole the situation has actually worsened, with at least a billion people around the world living on less than a dollar a day ! (Thomas, pp 565-566)

'Sustainable development' and 'social justice'

Alternative views of development have arisen in response to the void surrounding this narrow, limited worldview. People from various fields have contributed to this model, motivated by issues such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, oppression of indigenous ethnic groups and other marginalised communities, inequal resource distribution and inhuman working conditions.

These neglected issues have also resulted in the formation of many non-government organisations (NGOs) and community, volunteer, church and grassroots organisations. They have campaigned for such diverse issues as water-supply, sanitation, improved roads, schools and healthcare, crime prevention, antiracism, democratic participation and human rights. Essentially, they have become the loudest voices in favour of alternative forms of development in the future.

The concept of 'sustainable development' has increased in popularity since the publication, in 1975, of Dag Hammarskjold’s book, “What now, another development ?”, which put forward the ideals of community development as being both materially and non-materially need-oriented, coming from within the community, relying on resources and culture inherent to that region, being ecologically sound and responsible, and transforming the established structures of power, gender relations, society and the economy. (Thomas, p569)

As counter-assumptions to the previously dominant ideology, the following are some of the basic values that this development paradigm is built on: sufficiency, the value of nature and balance, cultural diversity, communal resources, inclusive or ‘real’ democracy, self-reliance and local autonomy. (Thomas, p563)

Processes are seen to be effective only if initiated and implemented from the bottom-up, with local knowledge and leadership, and small investments on small projects which all can participate in. The old idea that benefits would somehow ‘trickle down’ eventually to all areas of society has been replaced by a more practical realisation that specific programs for social improvement need to be implemented alongside economic reforms to ensure favourable outcomes for all. This is especially important in view of the fact that economic changes impact the most vulnerable groups within societies most of all.

Whereas the dominant view emphasises economic growth and uses Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other similar statistics to measure this, the alternative view surveys the level of political empowerment, the state of the environment, and the ability of people to fulfill their basic material and non-material needs by their own efforts.

The UN Human Development Index has been adjusted since 1995 to measure GDP in terms of real purchasing power, and take into account factors affecting quality of life, like adult literacy rates, years spent in school and life expectancy at birth. (Gamble & Weil, p218) World Bank guidelines to potential recipients of funding now include issues like gender equity, indigenous participation, environmental and social concerns. The IMF has initiated programs recently which aim to reduce debt and help manage health and education resources. (Thomas, p573)

Various alternative summits held concurrently with the UN World Summit on Social Development, for example the 1995 Alternative Declaration in Copenhagen in 1995, have contributed towards new ways of evaluating the success of development programs. At this summit, the concept of sustainablity was discussed, and many people called for an alternative way of viewing our past, present and future – with specifics mentioned including cancellation of world debt, regulation of multinational companies, community participation and empowerment, equity and fair trade. (Thomas, p571)

Protests and demonstrations held at the WTO Meeting in Seattle in 1999, and at the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington in 2000, reflect the growing dissatisfaction around the world with a worldview that does not accommodate diversity or holism, and has resulted in unequal distribution of benefits – causing greater division and alienation than ever before in world history.

However, on the whole, the continued domination of highly developed countries like the USA and UK on the world stage, has ensured that the free market ideals are still held up as the best way to achieve development and prosperity on every level. Most developing countries have experienced the bitter consequences of following these dictates, at the expense of social stability, but are at the mercy of the international financing community.

'Community building'

Schumacher, in 1979, put forward a radical new definition of work and its objectives (although it was hardly new, being based on ancient and biblical principles). He felt that beyond providing our daily necessities, work is a medium for using and perfecting our gifts ‘as good stewards’ – in service to and co-operation with others. (Gamble & Weil, p219)

If this wonderful multi-dimensional interpretation of the value of work were followed by the leaders and planners of community development, people would experience unprecedented levels of fulfillment and meaning in their lives !

Especially in the 1990’s, the voices of dissent pointed out that social and economic conditions were not that different from the turmoil experienced during the industrial revolution of the 1800’s. The alienating and oppressive power structures had to be replaced by a spirit of communitarianism (versus unapologetic self-interest) and community rights (rather than the obsession with individual and business rights).

As far as the practicalities of community development, this more sustainable view would involve not only linking the national governments to the community via direct participation in their own development programs, but also fostering concern for other regions and nations surrounding them – in ever widening circles, to result in genuine co-operation around the whole world !

Development in Vietnam

In Vietnam, the legacy of war and colonialism has only been magnified by decades of irresponsible government and external interference by the dominant international monetary organisations. Sustainable community development for future generations is the only feasible alternative which could halt the downward spiral the country now finds itself in.

In 1987, with the disastrous failure of previous attempts at economic reform, and lack of constructive alternatives, the country was desperate for international funding and advice. Aid was offered by the IMF, finally, but only on acceptance of their usual SAPs and continuous economic recommendations by their advisors to secure further investment.

These recommendations included harsh measures like cutting welfare subsidies, lowering labour costs, reducing capital expenditure on infrastructure, health and education, as well as privatising and decentralising state assets and power. (Kolko, pp. 32-33)

In 1996, the IMF report praised Vietnam’s compliance with these directives, and the resultant ‘growth’ in terms of exports and industrialisation, but expressed concern for the perceived loss of popular support for the development programs, as well as the division within the government caused by those who do not wish to continue on this self-destructive route any longer. (Kolko, pp. 34-35)

This shift in opinion within the country is hardly surprising, given the unmistakable failure of the market-style reforms and one-dimensional economic ideologies to deliver prosperity to most – let alone equity and quality of life ! Nothing illustrates this better than the heart-wrenching fact that as many as twenty-five percent of the population could not satisfy their daily food needs, even if they spent all their money ! (World Health report, Kolko, p103)

Undernourished, underemployed, inadequately educated, unable to gain sufficient access to health care and safe water and sanitation, exploited by unscrupulous local government representatives and multi-national companies alike – is it any wonder the people are less than enthusiastic about the ‘development’ programs which have been thrust upon them?

Following the dominant economic paradigm, the Vietnamese government expected huge growth in the private sector, without investing in the ‘human capital’ or the country’s infrastructure. Their focus on exports and foreign revenue have placed them in the vulnerable position of being trapped in debt, and the promised foreign investment has not materialised.

Increasing dissatisfaction, especially amongst the rural peasants, has resulted in thousands of protests since 1988, some of which were very violent. A number of natural leaders are rising up out of these clashes, and starting illegal or anti-government organisations. The challenges now facing Vietnam are enormous – in partnership with local NGOs and the community, the government needs to ensure participation by the people in local programs and a general raising of the morale and motivation of the nation.

Some major issues which need addressing are in the area of employment  - raising the level of skills necessary in a global market through further education and training; regulations to protect workers’ basic rights (starting with freedom from verbal and physical abuse!) and guarantee fair wages (which are actually paid, not withheld for months !) and increased spending on infrastructure, especially health, to improve long-term productivity and encourage the ever elusive foreign investment needed to move forward.

Better long-term management policies would also ensure sustainablilty – like planned and controlled urbanisation to counter the social ills of overpopulation and slums; effective tax and revenue collection and elimination of illegal exports (in 1995, the illegal shipments of rice to China equaled the shortage experienced by the North due to crop failure ! ( Kolko, p105)) and the drain on  the country’s foreign reserves, mostly by Chinese businessmen; improved agricultural practices to increase productivity and avoid the terrible food shortages experienced in recent decades; and responsible decisions regarding rice exports, eliminating the dangerous practice of manipulating supply figures to hide the fact that a true ‘surplus’ has not really ever existed for export !

Decentralisation, once advocated by the IMF, needs to be re-evaluated according to sustainability and applied with the social factors unique to Vietnam in mind. The central government’s role in planning and sustaining the core vision cannot be delegated or neglected any longer. Central planning is also necessary for balanced distribution of resources, and feedback and monitoring of regional programs.

The greatest benefits of decentralisation – greater participation and empowerment of local communities, retaining pluralism and cultural diversity – can only be fully realised when the local authorities adequately fulfil their roles. Elimination of corruption, better training and resources, public accountability and clear definitions of roles and responsibilities are major concerns holding back its proper implementation.


It is clear that sustainable community development as an overriding principle for every level of Vietnam’s social and economic reform, is the only way to ensure real and holistic growth which will benefit all – bringing balance with the natural environment and bridging the gap between classes, genders and generations to come.

As discussed above, most of the world is slowly coming to realise that long-term, broad-based planning and consideration of the multi-dimensional nature of human social and economic needs, is the best way forward. However, reversing the effects of decades of the narrow pursuit of economic growth and individualism is one of the biggest remaining challenges.

It is hoped that sustainable development will grow in popularity and its principles will be transformed into practical applications, especially in developing countries like Vietnam. The restrictive ideology of the past has produced bitter fruit, and it is with great anticipation that this new era is being ushered in. The most promising attributes of sustainability - participation and pluralism, would seem to ensure its relative success as it is tailored by various nations to achieve their own development goals.


Campfens, H. (ed.) 1997, Community Development around the World : Practice, Theory, Research, Training, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, pp. 13-43.

Gamble, D. N. & Weil, M.O. 1997, ‘Sustainable Development : The Challenge for Community Development’, Community Development Journal, 32(3), pp. 210-222.

Kolko, G.1997, Vietnam : Anatomy of Peace, Routledge, London.

Osteria, T.S. 1998, ‘Southeast Asia : Decentralisation of Social Policy’, in (ed.) Morales-Gomez, D., Transnational Social Policies, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, pp. 117-148.

Thomas, C. 2001, ‘Poverty, Development and Hunger’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S (eds.) The Globalisation of World Politics, 2nd ed., New York, Oxford University Press.

United Nations Development Program, 1998, Human Development Report, 1998, Oxford University Press, New York, Table 7 and 8.

Participatory development and capacity building in Vietnam

Human development has been defined by the United Nations Development Report in 1998 as “a process of expanding choices so that people can improve their overall well-being in a sustainable manner” (UNICEF 1999: 8). 

If development aims to improve the wellbeing of people, then consulting those people is of paramount importance. If, on the other hand, it is economically motivated, then self-centred values will be imposed from above. This approach has in the past been justified by the ‘trickle-down’ theory – the claim that efficient allocation of resources would ensure that benefits would filter down from the privileged few to all eventually (de Wet 2002: 1). 

Since this theory has been very obviously discredited by the increasing gap between rich and poor around the world, the need to plan development from the bottom-up, involving participation by local grassroots and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is now regarded as self-evident by many.

Participatory Development is the only way to ensure sustainability and encourage ownership of local community development projects, once the original donors or organisations have moved on. However, in most cases, participants must first be enabled to reach new levels of understanding, confidence and negotiating skills – their capacity for participation must be built before consultation can produce meaningful results.  

Capacity building has deep and far-reaching value when encouraged in recognition of the respect which every human being has an inherent right to. As Schumacher pointed out, human labour should involve more than a struggle to provide essentials for survival, and should instead be seen as a platform for using and perfecting our individual gifts, in service and co-operation with others. (Gamble & Weil 1997: 219) 

For Vietnam, the development procedure has reached an important crossroads, in terms of winning popular support and achieving equity in society. The only way forward is to build more significant participation by all ethnic groups into the process.

Practical Steps in Participatory Development:

1.Research and Consultation

Participation should begin at the embryonic stages of development planning – not viewed as a means of belatedly informing the stakeholders of projects to be implemented in their community. To assess the environmental and social impact of a project before it is approved, there are now many popular information-gathering tools, such as rapid rural appraisals, beneficiary impact assessments and stakeholder analyses.

2.Education and Training

Building capacity in the community beforehand, is often not given the time and resources it deserves (AusGUIDElines 2002: 13), but much training and education of individuals and organisations is currently sponsored by donor governments and considered indispensable. However, more attention must be given to nurturing flexibility and creative problem solving, rather than regurgitating previously successful formulas. What is needed is “the ability to handle ‘fluid reality’, to analyse, synthesise, and respond appropriately” (Kaplan 1994: 17).

3.Demand-led Ideas and Vision

During all stages of planning and implementation, stakeholders should be able to give input and feedback into the process. Community development should be owned by the community, and leaders and fieldworkers should use this as their starting point in decision-making, so that they do not try to take back the reigns when the project heads down unpredicted paths. 

Specific strategies and participatory activities should be developed according to the vision agreed upon during consultation, and this vision must determine priorities, allocation of resources, training, monitoring and the final evaluation. In this way, every development initiative will be the unique product of its primary stakeholders, and the results will be truly owned and shared within that community.

Current development climate in Vietnam:

1.Loss of Local autonomy

In Vietnam, the process of economic liberalisation and integration into the global system, has begun to errode the control Vietnamese once had over local identity, flow of information and cultural influences. This is part of a global process, but nevertheless, becoming consumers of culture, rather than producers (Jamieson & Rambo 1998: 16), undermines the confidence and creativity required in meeting the challenges of development from a uniquely Vietnamese perspective. Consultation with the grassroots  beneficiaries of new initiatives, should at the same time reinforce a strong sense of the validity of local knowledge and values.

Simply importing foreign ideas and pre-packaged approaches, in the belief that the Western models are inherently superior, is not only arrogant, but short-sighted. Change will only be embraced when it comes from within - when it is seen as beneficial by those who will be most impacted. 

In the past, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were imposed on Vietnam and other developing countries, to remove barriers to competition – at the expense of social safety nets like labour regulations, social welfare benefits and healthcare systems (de Wet 2002: 4). To rebalance this inequitable distribution of benefits, local structures of power and processes of development planning need to be reinvented to reflect the needs and values of all ethnic groups, including minorities and the poor. (Rambo 1998 : 27) 

The current view of government as “best when it governs least” (Campfens 1996: 213), stemming from the neo-liberal ideology, ignores the potential role of mediator and facilitator of unity in diversity, which the central government should ideally fulfil.

2.Marginalisation of Highlands minority groups

Although the cities and surrounding lowlands of Vietnam have developed rapidly in the last few decades, the highlands have lagged behind and are now the main focus of development planning. This area accounts for about a third of Vietnam’s population and covers more than seventy percent of the country (Rambo 1998: 21), with many environmental, economic and social challenges which cannot be ignored any longer. 

Some of these challenges include overpopulation, poverty, environmental degradation, and the multicultural nature of the communities. Development will only succeed when it is viewed as “a long-term commitment to improving the lives of people, providing opportunities and decision-making authority to indigenous people to determine their own future, and the extent of external assistance required.” (McCaskill & Kampe 1997: 6)

3.Mounting dissatisfaction

Although Vietnam has experienced considerable growth in recent decades, this development has been concentrated mostly around the major cities, and the benefits have been unequally distributed. Social equity and empowerment of minority groups has been largely ignored, with workers bearing the brunt of most economic reforms, in the form of lower wages and terrible working conditions (Kolko 1997: 49). 

In the highlands, land reforms, mass migration and loss of land to hydropower schemes have negatively impacted local farmers, to improve the lives of the urban populations far away (Jamieson 1998: 28). Social ills like abuse, addiction and prostitution are especially prevalent amongst minority ethnic groups (Jamieson 1998: 3), and signal a desperate lack of self-respect and motivation in these communities.

Evidences of the growing tensions amongst the poor and marginalised, are the many ‘hotspots’ of conflict around the country in the last few years, and the recent proliferation of illegal organisations and revolutionary leaders (Kolko 1997: 93,94). These are symptoms of a deep-rooted insecurity and sense of powerlessness among the local population, who have been unable to voice their grievances succesfully through official channels. 

Even the Vietnamese government are no longer wholeheartedly supporting the IMF reform agenda, and deep divisions have surfaced, threatening party unity (Kolko 1997: 34,43). What is needed is to restore morale among the general population, by paying serious attention to their concerns and working in partnership to achieve development goals.

Development Priorities:

1.Reducing Overpopulation

The statistics with regard to overpopulation in Vietnam are frightening – the already overburdened land will in twenty years’ time have to support double the population, if the current trend is not reversed. At present, there is less than a thousand square metres of land per capita in some areas of the highlands, when twice that is required to provide each person’s basic nutritional requirements (Jamieson 1998: 10). 

Any sustainable plans for the future of the country must of necessity begin with population control, and family planning education programs, but always in consultation with locals. The situation has already reached disastrous proportions, causing an exponential magnification of all the other challenges faced by the Vietnamese.

2.Erradicating Malnutrition

Another, even more fundamental issue holding back participation and adversely affecting the capacity of local Vietnamese, is the extremely low nutritional levels of most of the population, and the prevalence of debilitating diseases like malaria and goiter. Both of these diseases attack the very heart of the community, reducing levels of energy, motivation and even intelligence.

Many infectious diseases can be avoided simply by providing supplements and basic rations, especially for children, to strengthen their immune systems, and goiter is a direct result of low iodine levels in certain areas (Rambo 1998: 24). If the nutritional deficit of the poor in Vietnam is not given greater priority, all the capacity-building initiatives in the world will have only limited success, if any at all.

Development is, after all, a long-term commitment to improving the lives of the local population in a sustainable way, and a people struggling to meet their basic energy requirements daily, are hardly able to participate in the pursuit of other lofty ideals. It would seem obvious that health and nutrition should be the starting point for any development planning, even though these are difficult issues to resolve – with other layers of development added on in due time, again according to the priorities established by the poor themselves

3.Rethinking the Education System

On a deeper level, capacity building needs to start as early as school education – stimulating creative thinking, problem-solving, analytical and negotiating skills. Children in Vietnam are currently taught many subjects which are largely irrelevant to their immediate or long-term needs – even practical topics like agriculture, environment, health and nutrition are neglected (Jamieson & Rambo 1998: 16). 

More intangible concerns to be addressed, are the pervasiveness of stereotyping and prejudice in the social and educational systems. Cultural identity and a healthy self image must be nurtured at this early stage, to build the capacity of minority groups from the most fundamental level – their inherent significance as human beings, and the validity of their contribution on all levels. 

4.Need for Multicultural co-operation

The diversity of cultures and environmental conditions in Vietnam, as well as the rapid changes being experienced, compound the need for development planning to be firmly rooted in consultation, not preconceived ideas. The minority groups especially, have much to contribute from their own unique perspective of adaptation to their environment.

Diversity should be seen as a wonderful positive attribute of Vietnamese culture, which “gives birth to possibility” (Keough 1998: 190). When mutual respect, trust and co-operation between the government, (or non-government and international organisations) and local people, is built into the development process from the very beginning, and communication channels are free and open, it is more likely to have a lasting impact on all involved.

To attain this high ideal, transparency and accountability on the part of the donor organisation is essential, as well as an attitude of humility and partnership with locals. Once people’s suggestions and feedback are invited, seriously analysed or researched, and implemented, and they begin to see results in their community, they will be inspired with confidence in the process. This in turn would open avenues to exchange knowledge and suggest alternatives to current practices, which are no longer sustainable, without the elitism and cultural bias which currently cloud development planning.

5.Understanding Traditional beliefs

The ethnic minorities in most areas of Vietnam continue to follow traditional practices and this is often cited as the most significant obstacle to change. However, there are many important aspects to traditional values, which are often overlooked. These include the wisdom behind some of these practices in local conditions, and the symbolic meaning attached to certain activities as ‘cultural identity markers’, especially when under threat of assimilation into the dominant culture (Jamieson & Rambo 1998: 20,21).

Centralised decision-making and paternalistic assumptions has created an uncertain environment for minorities, who are not consulted during development planning and allocation of resources, even though the government is seen to be striving to uplift the poor and marginalised. A radical change of attitude and focus is necessary to ensure that current and future programs will address the needs of the local people, in the order of priority established by them. Pluralism and mutual tolerance is the only way forward.

6.Partnership in Agricultural Reform

One of the major challenges in Vietnam is using the available land productively – most of the country, especially in the highlands, is already overpopulated. Environmental degradation, especially soil erosion, have further intensified the pressure on local communities to meet their basic needs. Many suggestions have been made to improve agricultural practices and boost productivity in Vietnam, including new technology and processes, and diversification. But the introduction of high-yield rice to the Ba Na people in the central highlands, for example, was unpopular as it required too much work at the same time of year as a traditional festival (Jamieson & Rambo 1998: 14).

Many similar experiences have shown that consultation with locals should always precede development planning and implementation. This important step in the process would also eliminate dependency on donors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), instead fostering independence and local initiative. It is encouraging to note that, contrary to popular misconceptions, minority groups in the highlands have in the past been eager to incorporate technologies into their lives, when they are considered suitable to their environment (Jamieson & Rambo 1998: 20).

7.Protecting the Vulnerable

Women and children in Vietnam are the most vulnerable groups, and suffer most in the current economic and social climate. Women are burdened with most of the agricultural and housework, as well as childcare. Children are born into an inherited cycle of poverty and debt, and often subjected to abuse and neglect. They are increasingly dropping out of schools – to be exploited from an early age in the labour force, with low wages and terrible working conditions (UNICEF 1999: 11). As a result, child prostitution, drugs and delinquency are already limiting the next generation’s capacity for self-determination and participation on any level of society.

Contrary to the path followed in the past on the recommendation of the IMF and the World Bank, it is clear now that the government needs to reintroduce funding of basic education and health services, invest more in the rural infrastructures, improve accessibility, review the system which prevents urban migrants from access to public services, and look for creative ways of providing more employment opportunities for the poor (Vietnam Development Report 2000: vi,vii,viii,ixi,xii).

Barriers to Participatory Development:

1.Absence of Good Governance

International organisations and donor governments around the world are increasingly focused on encouraging good governance in developing countries. It has been agreed that “improving the quality of democratic institutions and processes, and managing the changing roles of the state and civil society in an increasingly globalised world must underpin national efforts to reduce poverty, sustain the environment, and promote human development.” (UNDP 2002)

As much as participation is important in ensuring the success of development plans, an “enabling environment” (CDRA Annual Report 1994/1995) is a necessary prerequisite, without which all attempts at meaningful consultation will fail. The biggest stumbling blocks are “weak project management or a hostile external environment” (Feeney 1998: 26), both of which are evident in contemporary Vietnam. 

These factors must be eliminated by targeting civil institutions, economic practices, legal and social structures, to ensure accountability, transparency and efficiency. Corruption on all levels must be rooted out, and this can only be done with the input of grassroots and non-governmental organisations, and the firm and thorough backing of the Vietnamese government and legal system.

2.Distorted analysis of progress

The misleading picture painted by statistics and the so-called poverty line, obstructs clear analysis of the results of economic and social reforms in Vietnam, and creates an exaggerated sense of accomplishment among donor organisations and the government. As some have pointed out, although poverty dropped from 58% in 1992/1993 to 37% in 1997/1998 (UNICEF 1999: 9), many people were very close to the ‘poverty line’ in 1993, and just as marginal improvements nudged them over the line, it would not take much for the process to be reversed (Vietnam Development Report 2000: iv).  

There is a tendency to focus on outcomes-based project planning, where tangible benefits can be produced fairly easily and predictably in the short-term, to the detriment of sustainability and local participation (Kaplan 1997: 12). Capacity building measures require long-term commitment, embracing complexity and uncertainty, and the results are mostly mixed and intangible (Kaplan 1997: 6). Flexibility and constant adaptation of development models is paramount to successful development planning and fieldwork (Kaplan 1997: 9).


Moving forward, a new breed of development consultants and workers are needed - skilled in objective observation, perceptive analysis, sensitive change management, generating trust, stimulating creativity and enthusiasm, empathy and partnership, finding the right questions and holding onto the vision over the long-haul (Kaplan 1997: 11,12).

Capacity builders should be seen as “artists of the invisible, continually having to deal with ambiguity and paradox, uncertainty, the turbulence of change, new and unique situations coming to us from out of a future which we have had little experience of as yet.” (Kaplan 1997: 11).

Vietnam can only benefit from this type of approach, indeed no other model of development would be able to deliver lasting results under the current conditions, and past mistakes have clearly demonstrated the need for capacity building and participation initiatives.


AusGUIDElines 2002,, pp. 1-30.

United Nations Development Programme 2002, ‘Promoting Democracy through reform’,, pp. 1-2.

United Nations Development Programme 2002, ‘Promoting national initiatives to empower the poor’,, pp. 1-2.

Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency 2002, ‘Capacity Building’,, pp. 1-3.

Wolfensohn, J.D. 1998, Remarks at the World Bank-NGO Conference on Participatory Development,, pp. 1-4.

Community Development Resource Association Annual Report 1993/1994, ‘In the name of development – Exploring issues of consultancy and fieldwork’,, pp. 1-12.

Community Development Resource Association Annual Report 1994/1995,‘Capacity Building – Myth or Reality ?’,, pp. 1-15.

de Wet, H. 2002, Globalisation briefing paper,, pp. 1-6.

Kaplan, A. 1994, NGO’s, Civil Society and Capacity-Building: Towards the development of Strategy,, pp. 1-28.

Kaplan, A. 1997, Capacity Building – Shifting the paradigms of practice,, pp. 1-13.

Kaplan, A. 1999, The Developing of Capacity,, pp. 1-45.

Campfens, H. (ed.) 1997, Community Development around the World : Practice, Theory, Research, Training, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, pp. 13-43.

Gamble, D. N. & Weil, M.O. 1997, ‘Sustainable Development : The Challenge for Community Development’, Community Development Journal, 32(3), pp. 210-222.

Kolko, G.1997, Vietnam : Anatomy of Peace, Routledge, London.

Osteria, T.S. 1998, ‘Southeast Asia : Decentralisation of Social Policy’, in (ed.) Morales-Gomez, D., Transnational Social Policies, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, pp. 117-148.

Thomas, C. 2001, ‘Poverty, Development and Hunger’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S (eds.) The Globalisation of World Politics, 2nd ed., New York, Oxford University Press.

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