Hanoi From the outset I’ll be clear that we met some fine non-profits or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Vietnam during our visit there. RENEW and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial led by Chuch Searcy virtually brought tears to some of the Organizers’ Forum delegation as he told of the challenges of clearing ordinance and the injuries everywhere. We met dedicated young people with Habitat International in Hanoi and the NGO Resource Center in Hanoi and LIN in Ho Chi Minh City trying to pull big and small pieces together. We met people with projects among children and in an array of planning and disaster preparation areas. We met operations set up as NGOs to support workers living in dormitories who had migrated into the Special Economic Zones and the new industries. When we met with PACCOM, the governmental liaison to NGOs, they could not have been more clear how much they support “the sector.”
Nonetheless, the picture for NGOs is not a pretty one in many respects, and at the least it is crystal clear that there is virtually no such thing as “free and independent” activity in this sector. Furthermore, it is also clear that much of the government’s enthusiasm for NGOs is its desperate quest for donor dollars and continued need to shed subsidized service segments.
There seem to be a menu of laws and regulations affecting NGOs, many of which change constantly from what we learned at the NGO Resource Center, but no matter what is happening with the laws, it is clear that for any foreign NGO to operate they have to have a license from the government. They would also need another license for each project they would undertake. Yet a thrid license would be required from the government in order to locate a staff or headquarters operation in country. The government is pretty much a silent or overt partner in much of this as well down to the level of naming a co-manager, though a silent one, at the NGO Resource Center. The government would select where Habitat worked and provide the land. Projects would be approved and then canceled for reasons unknown as governmental interests or priorities shifted.
Many of the locally based NGO’s and many of the local staff for all of the NGOs were former government bureaucrats in similar fields. This was a track from lower to higher pay. People couldn’t have been more frank about it. For the government it also meant that they were dealing with proven commodities and folks who knew how things were supposed to work and wouldn’t shake the boat. All the NGOs we met were clear that they were not advocates and could not be advocates.
We didn’t hear about crackdowns, as we had in Russia. The Vietnamese had short circuited the process from the beginning, rather than intervening on the back end. We did hear about a problem in 2008 when a piece of property previously owned by the Catholic Church in Hanoi was being given to a favored entrepreneur, and there were protests of several hundred people, police, and injuries when the Church supporters demanded the property back. The new modifications to the associations and NGO laws are going to now have a special section restricting churches to only operate in narrower margins around their faith and members, and expressly not be allowed to be advocates. It was clear to Ignacio Carillo from Gameliel that there would be no “faith-based” community organizing here.
The impact even among great operations with large and extensive projects and government support is chilling, as all of them seem to move constantly on the “yellow caution flag” in dealing with the authorities, knowing that a wrong step puts them out of business. Atlantic Philanthropies is perhaps the biggest single operator in-country with more than $25 million in annual grants. It’s political impact and weight are huge! At the Vietnam Women’s Union we were asked pointed questions about our relationship because they had just received a first grant from AP and were trying to expand the relationship. PACCOM, the NGO coordinator mentioned in our meeting that they had recently moved to the location where we were at the invitation of Atlantic Philanthropies who owned the modern Friendship House building, and they were delighted at the upgrade in their space and footprint. Yet, when first reaching out to arrange for this visit as helpful and friendly as AP was, its directors were clear they did not want to risk their relationships with the government by offering a formal invitation, and when they tried to off load the risk on one of their favored grantees, who also balked, they pulled the strings to have PACCOM itself provide the invitation. There’s no doubt we benefited from what the government saw as a good relationship between us and our delegation and Atlantic Philanthropies, but there is also no doubt that despite the huge and outsized contributions AP is making in Vietnam and the deep footprint their programs have here, they are walking on tiptoes around the government as well.
An NGO sector that eschews advocacy and self-censors its work and expression defines chilling speech and action. Certainly their work is all important and the people benefit, but many of our delegation were left unsettled as we tried to imagine how any of these NGO’s could be truly effective except as simple service providers.
Mike Eso from BCGEU asked often whether this privatization of services from the government to the private and NGO sector had political and ideological consequences. Routinely the question was avoided or bypassed or simply not understood. This was all government reallocating and cost shifting in the most blunt and pragmatic terms for immediate needs with little thought about the impact on policy or politics for the future. The government is in a position to operate within that rationale to deliver to its base, and the reduction of poverty in Vietnam from 75% to 12% over the last 20 years is an economic miracle frequently cited to change the subject or settle the question. These long term compromises for the NGO sector may be harder over time, especially when even the biggest dogs are cowering in the corner unwilling or afraid to bark even when they hear things in the dark.