Global Policy Forum

Civil Society in Vietnam:


By Gita Sabharwal and Than Thi Thien Huong

July 2005


1. This paper presents an overview of civil society in Vietnam. It begins by defining civil society and what it means in the context of this country. It then presents an overview of the current state of play of the different elements of civil society organisations and the overarching legal framework in which they operate. It examines the engagement of donors with civil society. In conclusion, it sets out the need to develop a common shared approach and strategy for engagement with civil society in Vietnam.

Changing Context

2. The broad based political organisation of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) combined with the tradition of a one party state until recently allowed for little space for growth of an independent civil society. The political discourse of the CPV was not supportive of organisational expression of collective identity and interest outside the framework of the Party. Though Vietnam in the past had a rich associational life civil society as understood in mainstream development practice has remained underdeveloped. Mass organisations have been the largest and most dominant of social groupings. They occupied the space that civil society organisations tend to occupy across other countries and political contexts.

3. However, since doi moi the political and economic context is rapidly changing characterised by opening up of the economy and a move towards global integration. This has led to the emergence of social groupings outside the party. Some have argued that since mid 1990s the institutional environment appears to be shifting from a total state domination of development activity to an acceptance of the contribution of other development actors. In other words, Vietnam can be described as characterised by a low but increasing tolerance of autonomous civil activity though civil society remains a politically sensitive issue.

4. There are two broad trends that one notices over the past decade. Firstly there has been the growth of development NGOs essentially different from the organisations that emerged as a product of the retrenchment process during the late 1980s. Secondly, there has been a mushrooming of associations – voluntary, non-profit, non-Governmental, community based, grassroots and cooperative. These associations fulfil a variety of roles ranging from organising activities, to income generation to disseminating knowledge. These new associational forms together with the mass organisations provide material assistance to the poor but do not engage in public debates about policy.

5. The current interplay between government and civil society groupings in terms of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and NGOs, or "institutional environment", appears to be shifting from a total state domination of development activity, to an acceptance of the contribution that other players may bring. The Socio-Economic Development Strategy (2000-2010) and the draft Socio-Economic Development Plan (2006-2010) reflect this changing context and set out a challenging role for CSOs in Vietnam. Broadly, this covers three areas of action:

1. Strengthening the decentralisations process through the Grassroots Democracy Decree i.e. enhancing accountability of governments at the provincial, district and commune level;
2. Enhancing the participation of poor in the development planning, implementation and monitoring i.e. strengthening voice of the poor in policy making and implementation; and
3. Supporting service delivery for poverty elimination with particular focus on HIV/AIDS and social safety nets i.e. improving access to the hard to reach.

6. It is worth noting that this shift has taken place gradually, with CSOs now emerging at the margins of development context. This has been helped by building of relationship of trust between government departments and specific INGOs. As evident from the SEDP there is now recognition from the highest levels that civil society organisations may have a more mainstream role to play in the development of the country and taking action against poverty. However, this role or range of roles has yet to be fully defined by government or by civil society itself. There is much potential for facilitating CSOs movement from the margins to the mainstream of development action and increasing their impact on the policy-making process.

Civil Society Spectrum in Vietnam

7. The term "civil society" is defined as "the broad range of organised groupings which occupy the public space between the state and the individual citizen" . The term civil society is used in development circles in Vietnam. However, its use is recent, and as a conceptual base for understanding interconnections between various civil society actors, there is much work to be done in developing a common, meaningful and locally relevant definition.

8. Civil society in Vietnam can be described as consisting of a range of organisations, which when organised along a spectrum consist of CBOs at one end of the spectrum and research based organisations and INGOs at the other end. There are several other elements that fall between these two ends such as mass organisations, cooperatives, social and charity funds and Local NGOs etc. Its important to note that in the context of Vietnam, the media and the private sector are not being considered as part of civil society at this point in time.

9. At the lower end of the civil society spectrum are the CBOs or organisations of the poor such as water user groups, savings and credit groups, farmers collective etc. Most activities undertaken by the CBOs are financially sustainable and their emergence is closely associated with donor/INGO development interventions.

10. Occupying the middle band of the civil society spectrum are cooperatives, mass organisations, social and charity funds and Local NGOs. It's worth examining each separately, as they play different roles and have potential to develop further. The new Cooperatives are largely emerging through endogenous processes. They provide the opportunity for a new generation of local leaders to seize economic opportunities by organising farmers to produce and market their goods collectively.

11. Mass organisations are redefining their role and position in the rapidly changing development context of Vietnam. Over the past decade they have proved to be effective in reaching services down to the communes. They are an important vehicle for improving access of services specifically across the poorest provinces but are not effective in promoting accountability of local government's. Mass organisations are largely funded by the Party though increasingly they are collaborating with INGOs to implement development programmes.

12. Charities are engaged in reaching services mainly to the urban poor. They are largely supported by domestic donations. In the future charities will continue to play a role in enhancing access to the hard to reach urban poor.

13. NGOs are the latest entrant and are developing their identity while progressively widening their remit, function and outreach. Financial resources, capacity and the legal framework remain a key constraint. In the long run they have an important role to play in enhancing accountability, voice and access.

14. At the higher end of the civil society spectrum INGOs occupy the space that NGOs tend to occupy in other developing countries in South Asia. They are largely engaged in implementing development programmes at the level of the commune/district and piloting innovative development interventions for poverty reduction. More recently there has been a trend amongst some of the more progressive INGOs to operate through LNGOs. This has allowed them to strengthen the LNGO capacity in implementing development programmes while increasing their outreach. Some have successfully engaged in the policy making process of the state while others have been engaging in issue based advocacy. In the long run, as capacities of local NGOs develop they will need to redefine their role vis a vis the emerging development context of Vietnam.

15. Research institutions operate within the framework of the government and ministries. They are not always an "independent voice" that tables' alternative analysis and contributes to evidence based policy making. In the future, they have a critical role to play.

16. The local CSOs in Vietnam tend to be densely concentrated along the Red River and Mekong delta of Vietnam. The few development oriented NGOs have now begun to spread their operations into some of the poorer provinces of the country. Most well off provinces have small savings and credit groups, water user associations, NGOs and INGOs. But their spread begins to thin pretty fast as one moves to the highlands.

17. Data suggests that there are roughly 140,000 CBOs, 3,000 cooperatives under the new law with most of them operating in the areas of agriculture, fisheries, construction, sanitation and health care. There are about 200 charities and 1000 Local NGOs that are registered. However, we need to bear in mind that over the past decade the number of CSOs is rapidly growing and these figures are rough indication of the density of CSOs in Vietnam.

Legal Framework for Civil Society: Fixing the Parts & Missing the Whole

18. The legal framework is constantly evolving to keep pace with the challenging role that the government has set for civil society. Individual decrees relating to different elements of civil society have been issued in the recent past. These decrees/laws provide the basis for the establishment of civil organisations that operate relatively independent of the state. However, these ad hoc regulations do not add up to a comprehensive and clear legal framework for the formation and operation of NGOs/CSOs. This is also an indication that the issue of "independent" civil society organisations remains political sensitive.

19. Broadly, there are five important decree/laws currently in existence, which govern different elements of civil society organisations in Vietnam. The laws and decrees show clarity of purpose for cooperatives, CBOs and charities. The Grassroots Democracy Decree 79 (2003) institutionalises the participation of local communities/CBOs/organisations of the poor in development activities at the level of the commune. This is seen as an important step in the development of civil society in Vietnam. The law on Cooperatives recognises cooperatives as voluntary organisations functioning as independent economic entities. The law on Science and Technology recognises professional associations as independent service organisations with the only option available to most development NGOs. The decree 177 recognises charity and social funds. Lastly, the law on Associations is currently under revision by the NGO Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs. It is hoped that the law, which is in its 10th draft, will define the concept of NGOs along with their role, function and management arrangements. The only option currently available to development NGOs is to be registered under the law on science and technology. This requires them to justify and link their existence and operation to science and technology.

20. The analysis of these decrees confirms that the Government is keen to set out roles and responsibilities for the new forms of associational life that emerge.

Donors Engagement with Civil Society

21. Donors in Vietnam do not have an explicit approach or strategy for engaging with civil society organisations. For most bilateral organisations the small grant scheme provides the organising framework for engagement with civil society organisations. Some multilaterals particularly the UNDP and ADB also have similar schemes. Support under these schemes is not positioned to be strategic in nature. They generally support small ad hoc projects ranging from income generation to training, service delivery, awareness generation programmes to human rights and democracy promotion.

22. There are many donor-funded initiatives to support research capacity in a wide range of policy-related fields. Analysis suggests that support is limited to three or four research organisations, some of the regional universities and ministry based research bodies. Most of this support is for Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and its different institutes such as Institute of Economics, Institute of Sociology and Centre for Analysis and Forecast. Central Institute of Economic Management and the Vietnam National University along with Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Association are some of the other research bodies that are currently being supported.

23. Support to research organisations is largely focussed on building capacity of Vietnamese researchers. The link between research and policy related analysis is not always explicit across these projects. Donors also support new areas of research such as WTO with specific thematic focus such as gender. Most of this support remains ad hoc with little attempt at rationalising engagement and offering comprehensive funding for capacity building.


24. The embryonic stage of civil society in Vietnam and the continued political concerns and sensitivities around its development makes the task of strengthening this sector a challenge. Engagement in this sector will require the donor community and the government to develop a common shared approach and strategy to support civil society to move from the margins into the mainstream of development practice and debate. With Vietnam currently engaged in developing its five-year plan and with its rapid integration into the world economy, the time may just be right for the donor community to start this process in close consultation with the government.

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