Notes from the Field

The Asia Foundation Celebrates 10 Years in Vietnam

November 10, 2010

When I first visited Vietnam in 1989 as a young graduate student, the country had recently undergone the doi moi, or economic reform policy, but there weren’t any physical signs of change yet. Hanoi in April 1989 was a gray city, preternaturally quiet with bicycles as the main mode of transportation, and electricity limited to a few hours in the evening. Yet that month I spent in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City was filled with intense, engaging conversations with Vietnamese eager to talk about the history and future of their country.

Motorcycles in Hanoi

Rapid economic growth has transformed Vietnam into one of the most successful economic performers in the developing world. Above, motorcycles fill Hanoi's streets. Photo by Karl Grobl.

When I came back to Hanoi in 1991 for my dissertation research, that intellectual flowering was at its height, evident in plays, short stories, and newspaper reporting that reflected the enormous changes underway. Foreign investment was coming in, private sector was emerging, and an incredible level of energy and hope filled the air. Not to mention the visible presence of new motorcycles.

I continued to watch Vietnam’s transformation from afar, but then was fortunate enough to return to Vietnam as The Asia Foundation’s country representative in late 2005. Vietnam in 2005 was a different Vietnam than the one I had known in 1989. Rapid economic growth had made the country one of the most successful economic performers in the developing world, helping it to achieve extraordinary poverty alleviation within a short time. Vietnam had become a member of ASEAN, and U.S.-Vietnam relations were steadily strengthening following normalization in 1995. The drum beat I heard everywhere on the streets, in the news, in conversations with government officials and citizens alike was about growth, growth, growth. The marked number of cars provided a concrete indicator, and the general optimism was irresistible.

And now, on Friday, November 12, The Asia Foundation’s office in Vietnam will mark 10 years of operation in Vietnam. While we formally established an office in Hanoi in 2000, in truth, our story in Vietnam goes back to 1993, when the Foundation expanded its Books for Asia program to Vietnam from our Bangkok office. [Watch the video below].

However we tally the years, The Asia Foundation has been privileged to be present in Vietnam through a period of enormous change and transformation. It is also befitting that the reception will be held at the National Library of Vietnam, our long-term partner for the Books for Asia program.

The core of The Asia Foundation’s earlier programs focused on those two dimensions critical to Vietnam’s initial reform phase:  private sector development and U.S.-Vietnam relations. We provided early support to organizations like the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), the largest chamber representing Vietnamese business interests, to introduce market ideas to the domestic private sector. Later work with VCCI focused on the development of the Provincial Competitiveness Index, which has evolved into a well established and well respected annual ranking of all 64 provinces in Vietnam on their level of support for the domestic private sector. On another front, the Foundation funded training opportunities for officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the U.S., and our series of bilateral workshops between 2002 and 2004 exploring the different dimensions of U.S.-Vietnam relations is still remembered by many as one of the most important channels for exchanges between Vietnamese and Americans during that period.

The excitement of growth – palpable when I arrived in 2005 – became noticeably muted as Vietnam’s rapid growth started to exacerbate fundamental institutional weaknesses and create new challenges, from social inequality and inadequate pubic services to rising pollution. Increasing industrialization has lead to loss of agricultural land, while the education sector struggles with training skilled factory workers to meet the country’s larger ambitions of becoming a stable and prosperous country. The current development discourse in Vietnam is increasingly less about pure growth in numbers, and more about sustainable growth, quality rather than quantity, and the importance of innovations in teaching methodology, business operations, and governance practices that will help Vietnam to improve its competitiveness.

Vietnamese are well aware that the country needs new institutions and practices to support its continued growth and position in the region and in the world. But Vietnam’s new phase of development will take time, and its success requires not only greater openness from the state, but also a higher level of social consensus on what constitutes effective governance and sustainable development for the country. Now, the Foundation is working to support Vietnamese efforts to generate constructive dialogues about governance options and practices, increase public participation in policy discussions, support private sector development, and continue the country’s regional and international integration. Helping to build the country’s human resource capacity and ensuring that the disadvantaged can access economic and educational opportunities are themes that cut across all of our programs here.

Highlights of our ongoing projects include working with the Institute of  Policy and Strategy for Agricultural and Rural Development of the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development to develop a performance benchmarking tool for key rural public services that can help improve government responsiveness for the well being of the rural populations and an initiative with the Institute of Educational Sciences of the Ministry of Education and Training to develop and pilot test an innovative and interactive environmental education curriculum in the hope to instill educational awareness and action in Vietnamese youth. Another project is with the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs to establish a clear minimum standards of care for victims of human trafficking. We also support the Office of the National Assembly to overhaul its current web application to make it much more user friendly for citizens to provide their inputs into draft laws and collaborate with Vietnamese NGOs to provide legal counseling services to migrant workers and the urban poor and to support local communities to implement thoughtful development models of community-based tourism that can actually help preserve traditional culture and artisanal crafts.

Vietnam’s biggest concern over the past year is that it will be caught in the dreaded “middle income trap,” a situation where a poor country is able to achieve middle income status but cannot shift to true prosperity in the high income rank, since this generally requires an overhaul of the economic growth model. Vietnam’s 2009 GNI was $1,010, which means the country has only just entered into the lower middle income rank, but the worry about the “middle income trap” both signifies the potential and the ambition of this country of 89 million. It also highlights the need to adopt new institutional and policy reforms to meet these challenges. Vietnam has certainly shown its capacity to engage in regional and international affairs this year with its successful chairmanship of ASEAN, and that would be greatly bolstered by further socio-economic transformation.

Overcoming the middle income trap has turned out to be a very difficult task for many countries and can take many years or even decades to achieve. I am optimistic that Vietnam will succeed – one of the greatest joys for me working here has been the intellectual vibrancy and passionate nature of the Foundation’s engagement with a diverse range of Vietnamese institutions, organizations, and individuals committed to the development of their country. The dedication of our national staff is also indispensable to the Foundation’s efforts in Vietnam. In celebrating 10 years of service in Vietnam, we also look forward to expand our capacity and resources to support the country to meet the challenges of the next decade.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Kim N. B. Ninh | Bio

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