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.


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