Education and Skills Training Projects and Running Water Project in Vietnam
Locations: Dien Bien Phu Town, Tin Toc Village in Moung Pon District, Village in Thanh Nua District, Vietnam.
Date: 6th December 2006 - 7th December 2006
Having endured the 11 hour bus journey from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Tuesday, we were slightly unhappy to be woken up by unknown people early on Wednesday morning asking for our passports. As it turns out, they were from ActionAid’s partner organisation in the area - TechnoAid - and copies of our passports were necessary for us to be granted permission by the government to see the project areas. At 2pm we headed to a hotel on the north side of town to meet with Ms. Pham Thai Hong Van (we stuck with Ms. Van) from the fundraising department of ActionAid Vietnam. We then headed to the nearby office of TechnoAid to find out about the sites we were going to visit the next day.
TechnoAid are a local NGO consisting of 7 full time staff. These members were previously employed by ActionAid for five years up until 2004. At that point, the ActionAid projects which had been undertaken were nearing an end but the team members had alot of ideas for further projects in 7 provinces in the Dien Bien Phu area. They set themselves up as an independant NGO and currently work with several large NGOs including Care International, Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), Netherlands based international development organisation SNV and of course ActionAid.
During our meeting they expanded upon some of the themes in which they get involved.
Micro-Credit: The Micro-Credit scheme is a method to encourage people to save while giving them small loans by which they can set up or improve an existing business. The NGO effectively acts as a bank with a credit fund. Members of the scheme invest set amounts into the fund each month and the fund is used to extend small loans to individual households. The interest on the loans is very small especially compared with a mainstream bank or as is more available to the scheme members - loan sharks. Bank interest is typically 8%, a loan shark rate will be 20% while the Micro-Credit scheme rate is 1.5%. The interest just covers the rate of inflation costs and the administration costs for the 7000 members so is effectively non-profit. Loans range from 300,000 dong (20$) to 2.5 million dong (200$) with a graded scale whereby smaller loans must be applied for and paid off before larger loans can be granted.
This scheme has proved very successful and useful to the members. Due to their remote locations, there is little access to mainstream banks which are unlikely to grant loans to subsistence farmers anyway. By becoming members of the scheme, the participants can regularly save money and use the loans to expand their business when ready.
Literacy Education: Due to the mountainous regions in which they live, many communities have no access to secondary schools. Primary pupils are educated with no tuition fee (though other fees apply) until the age of 9. After this, they must attend a secondary school. Many children must travel a long distance to the school and therefore end up boarding Monday - Friday. Unfortunately, the schools are not in a position financially to provide any accomodation so pupils have to build their own shelters and bring enough food with them every week. They live in small groups, in poorly constructed shelters and have no supervision. Most carry rice and salt with them to eat, with the wealthier ones having rice and eggs. The monsoon season tends to destroy most of the shelters. Faced with these conditions its not surprising that many children stop education at age 9 and that 70% of the secondary school pupils are male.
The education scheme that we saw in Laos was a copy of this project. Its purpose is to teach reading, writing and numeracy to previously illiterate villagers. Through the education classes, the pupils are taught literacy and numeracy using themes that are relevant to their lives e.g. health issues, agriculture, law, gender issues etc. There are three graded levels, each taking between 5 and 8 months. The education classes are conducted by teachers supplied and trained by ActionAid.
Governance and Local Democracy: Despite the heavy bureaucratic policies of the communist government of Vietnam (as shown by having to present our passport at regional offices before being allowed to visit the villages) there is some local democracy. Members of the People’s Council are democratically elected and they appoint members of the People’s Committee which seems to have the task of day to day running of services such as schools. TechnoAid encourage people to become involved in local politics by reading the information released on planned expeditures in the area and raising any concerns in the committee meetings.
Water Projects: 800 villages in the Dien Bien Phu area do not have clean water which accounts for 80% of the population. The government has introduced a water program in recent years but it only provides water for agriculture, not for domestic use.
Other themes that TechnoAid are involved with include Gender Equality, HIV/AIDS, Food Security and Children’s Rights.
Having been given the run down, we headed off to see the historic sights of Dien Bien Phu which include defunct French military equipment and the still intact bunkers and tunnels which surround the hillside battlefield of A1. This position was the last to fall in the 1954 Vietnam-France war which ended France’s colonial ambitions in Inco-China thereby gaining independence for both Cambodia and Laos aswell. The massive defeat of the French army by Ho Chi Minh’s peasant army despite American support was to prove an omen of things to come in the North Vietnam- South Vietnam/America war which began due to the partition of the country after the French withdrawal and ended with reunification in 1975.
On Thursday 7th, we took a car into Muong Pon District and submitted our passports to the local officials before driving further into the mountains to the project villages. As we wove through the rice paddies cut into the steep hillsides, we noticed that 90% of the people working the fields were women - the previously mentioned education problems were no doubt a major contributing factor. When we arrived at Tin Toc Village, we met local villagers to talk about the running water project that had been implemented in 2000 and any other issues. The village consists of 39 households with 250 people altogether almost all of whom are from the Black Thai (the name comes from their traditional clothing) minority ethnic group. Before the running water project, the only available water was from ponds several kilometers away. The pond water, being stagnant, was frequently polluted by buffalo and cow droppings resulting in many villagers suffering from disease. The running water project installed 3 cisterns in the village which take water from a pipe which runs several kilometers up the mountain. Because of the height of the water source and because it is always running, this guarantees clean water for domestic use. The funding, management and maintenance of the water system is all funded by ActionAid. Moung Pon District has 10 villages, 5 of which have running water projects installed. The other villages are not suitably located for this type of project (i.e. the cost of installing a pipeline is exhoribant due to distance) so must still use pond water.
Aside from the water issues, the mountainous land gives rise to a whole host of other problems. The farm land area is small so there is little surplus crops for sale. The farmland cannot be extended uphill as the resulting deforestation would lead to flooding. The transport problems result in the difficulty of access to education for children which tend to be taken to the fields with their parents due to the lack of any childcare facilities other than elder daughters.
During our visit to the village we had a long conversation with Ms Ni, a 46 year old mother of 8. She told us that she was one of the luckier people in the village because her husband works hard and doesn’t drink. 9 out of the 39 households had alcoholic fathers. Two of her children have married and left the house leaving her with 6 children in school. Each pupil must pay a fee of 86,000 dong each year for the various fees - building upkeep etc. However, despite paying these fees the school is in a delapidated state and the government is claiming lack of funds for not repairing it. There is no transparency as to where the fee money goes or what it is used on. Indeed, when we asked the local school-teacher about this issue she got very angry and left. Draw from that what you will. Ms Ni is involved in the Micro-Credit scheme and used loans to branch into pig farming as an alternative source of income to rice. Her youngest child is 3 years old which is the same age as one of her grandchildren. Apparently this is not very unusual and with the population of Vietnam already reaching 85 million, may force the government to adopt a similar one-child policy as that of China.
Next, we visited an agricultural water project which had been completed in 2000 by ActionAid Vietnam. The project had cost 600 million dong (40,000$) to construct a weir and channels to direct river water to a large area of previously dry paddy fields and benefited 200 households (1200 people).
Afterwards, we entered into Thanh Nua District so had to go to the regional government office again to get permission. In the village we visited an education class that was being conducted. The classes teach literacy and numeracy through the use of relevant themes which inculde HIV, Gender Rights, Agriculture etc. At the time of our visit, the theme was domestic violence. The women didn’t believe us when we told them that there is the odd case of women being violent towards men in the UK. As in the Laos projects, all the students were female and most were attending the classes after spending the day in the fields.
On our return to Dien Bien Phu, we visited the 1954 war memorial, which was also being visited by a number of aged veterans. Despite decades of brutal warfare which affected almost every family in the country, Vietnam is undergoing huge change from a centrally planned agricultural economy to a socialist market economy. Having long signed trade agreements with Europe and America, the country has now been admitted to the World Trade Organisation. It remains to be seen whether the change in economic policy will benefit the minority groups of Vietnam whom inhabit the mountainous and remote areas of the country. In the mean time, these people are keen to help themselves and the work of organisations like TechnoAid provides this opportunity.