Notes from the Field

Survey Reveals Increasing Diversity of Civil Society in Vietnam

October 31, 2012

On September 23, a Vietnamese organization arranged simultaneous flash mobs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. A few days later, another organization helped a youth group hold a festival to promote anti-corruption among students at the Press University. On September 30, a series of groups held mid-Autumn Festival  parties for deprived children. At the other end of the spectrum, another organization is conducting an annual citizen survey on the quality of provincial governance and public administration, with the data forming the basis of a high-level dialogue with senior government officials. All these organizations are Vietnamese civil society organizations (CSOs). They work on different themes, in different areas of the country using different operational models but are nevertheless part of the increasing number of Vietnamese CSOs that have emerged over the last decade.

The rapid growth of the past two decades has transformed Vietnam economically and socially, raising living standards and lifting millions out of poverty. However, this growth has generated new and more complex development challenges, from urban poverty and environmental degradation, to rising income inequality.
Basic public services such as health, education, and clean water are under serious stress, and the government is struggling to maintain adequate standards and ease of access for all citizens. Increasingly these CSOs are emerging to respond to the country’s needs through a variety of approaches, from independent research and policy advocacy to charity work.

The nature of civil society in Vietnam remains a source of debate. Although it’s estimated that there are between 1,700 and 2,000 CSOs in Vietnam, it is not uncommon to encounter the view (both in Vietnam and elsewhere) that there are no independent civil society organizations in the country at all. It is certainly true that the situation is complex. Many organizations claiming to be CSOs are quasi-governmental, receiving core financial support from the state, at times functioning as part of the bureaucracy while at other times carrying out independent policy research and advocacy. This situation can blur the definition of what constitutes a CSO or an NGO, but in the current context of civil society development in Vietnam, it is important to recognize meaningful civil society action and contributions to the social life of the country even if they come from organizations that are small or are associated with the state.

To improve understanding of civil society development in Vietnam, The Asia Foundation just released findings from a new survey of CSOs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City conducted from November 2011 to June 2012. Given that the majority of CSOs are located in these two major metropolitican areas that also serve as the political and commercial centers of the country, an in-depth understanding of these organizations helps provide an understanding of civil society as a whole. In addition, a comparative analysis of strengths and weaknesses of CSO operations can shed light on the different historical contexts, policy environments, organizational models, and funding possibilities in these two cities. Our sample included Vietnamese NGOs, research institutes, centers, and community-based organizations (CBOs), but did not include mass organizations or umbrella bodies. The research team selected 50 representative CSOs from each city, interviewing leaders of those organizations on multiple aspects of civil society operation and development.

There were some interesting trends in the survey responses. Despite the nascent state of the sector, civil society in Vietnam is surprisingly varied. The organizations we surveyed ranged from those with a barely functioning budget to dominant players administrating a million dollars worth of programming. Despite a sector-wide reluctance to clearly define objectives and narrow areas of operation, trends in the emphases and activities of institutes, centers and CBOs can be drawn. Institutes remain focused largely on research, separate from the practical community- focused activities delivered by the majority of CBOs.

Individual leaders dominate organizations, and their background is key to determining the direction and operation of the organizations. Among the organizations operating at a national level there are divisions between those who are intellectually and financially oriented toward international donors and those, often headed by former officials, who are closer to the state and able to leverage connections and expertise to access state funding. Only a limited number of organizations have so far been successful at bridging the space between the two groups. Below these national oriented organizations, a larger number of small CSOs are establishing themselves in local spaces, responding to local needs and exploring different models of organizations and support.

There are regional differences between Hanoi and HCMC, as a result of both historical trends in associational activity and current attitudes, including from the local authorities. Organizations that we surveyed in HCMC tend to focus more closely on service delivery activities, developing a more diversified funding base and only engaging government at a local level. Hanoi-based CSOs tend to focus more on policy research and advocacy, engaging national government agencies and international donors on a broad range of development issues.

On the whole, CSOs continue to face a challenging environment. Survey responses from both Hanoi and HCMC voiced real apprehension about fundraising, staffing, and organizational governance. While the number of CSOs has grown in the past decade, recent changes to the regulatory framework have made registering, operating, and implementing programs more difficult. At the same time, the economic downturn has put an even tighter squeeze on already precarious financial positions. Organizations remain highly dependent on international grants. Over half receive international funding, with over a third stating that funding cuts would lead to “serious consequences” for their organizations.

Despite these challenges, Vietnamese CSOs are overwhelmingly positive in their outlook and enthusiastic about their organizations and their contributions to addressing development issues. 86 percent said they were optimistic or very optimistic about the future. The survey also identified several trends that potentially foreshadow a more mature, effective, and sustainable sector in the future. For example, while talent retention remains a serious issue, the prospect of a younger, technologically driven generation of leadership returning to domestic CSOs after working in international NGOs bodes well for the future. Similarly, the survey shows that many CSOs are exploring a wide variety of fundraising avenues. While these initiatives are mostly small and ad hoc, many organizations are exploring operational models to access a variety of domestic financial resources. Doing so successfully will be vital for the future health of civil society development in Vietnam. Similarly, while organizational development and planning is often patchy, almost half of the CSO leaders identified it as an area of focus in the coming years.

It is our hope that these findings will contribute to the growing knowledge base on the distinctive characteristics of civil society in Vietnam. Greater knowledge and discussion of these dynamics will both help the CSOs to consider their individual activities in the wider context of civil society development and help those seeking to support the sector to do so more strategically. CSOs in Vietnam provide a great resource of energy and expertise that will be vital to assist the government in tackling the serious development challenges Vietnam faces in the 21st century.

William Taylor is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Vietnam. He can be reached at wtaylor@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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