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.

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