It’s Complicated: Australia’s Liberal Democratic Aid in Communist Viet Nam

By Melissa Reid
Dot painting of paths intersecting and doves of peace

The above image is taken from the Heartlands Refugee Art Prize exhibition. Click here to see more.

This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

By Melissa Reid.

The chaos was intoxicating. Against a backdrop of handfuls of women serving beers on the footpath and others peddling fresh fruits on bicycles, motorcycles scooted by with families piled on to a single vehicle and young couples walked by fashioning the latest clothing trends next to young children hawking chewing gum in the darkness of night. With the unrelenting sound of motorbike horns abounding, the sights of inequality and the commitment to rise above poverty were all around me. It became clear that this would be the setting for my first Australian aid experience. This is Ha Noi, Viet Nam.

There are many different ways to experience and participate in Australian aid efforts. These vary from employment with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) or AusAID, government funded volunteering and working with charities or non-government organisations and Australian Government partner organisations. Citizens can also sign petitions, lobby and advocate to members of parliament for improved approaches to the development, design, direction and execution of Australian aid.

In Australia’s liberal democracy, citizens have increased opportunity to participate directly or indirectly in Australia’s active operations in the world. Foreign aid is humanitarian and it is strategic. Australia conducts much of its foreign aid work in Southeast Asia, assisting regional stability and strengthening regional cooperation. The 21st century is the Asian century and Australia’s aid efforts are necessarily strategic in the region given the increasing global and regional concerns about China’s rise.

This is a personal interpretation of Australia’s aid program in Viet Nam.

On-the-ground aid work was not what I expected, but it was also not unsurprising. The complexities of the lived aid experience are difficult to explain. Many Australians travel to Viet Nam for tourism purposes, which expose holidaymakers to the overt differences between home and abroad. These vary from traffic rules, food safety regulations, language and cultural differences and often, at a base level, how different states support their citizens through education, access to health care, housing and welfare. As an aid worker or ex-patriot, a person is more exposed to the extent to which countries differ, and for Australia and Viet Nam, the similarities are few and far between; the countries subscribe to opposing political frameworks that penetrate to the core of their respective national identities.

History of nations

Despite their differences, Australia and Viet Nam possess a deep and respectful friendship and boast a strong working relationship to improve the lives of Vietnamese citizens through increasing the standard of living, addressing environmental issues, including climate change (Viet Nam is one of five countries most susceptible to rising sea levels), working to secure stability in the region as well as sharing a commitment to address issues within bureaucratic and government structures. The friendship between the countries is supported by government-to-government interactions and formal agreements with Australia being the “sixth-largest bilateral donor to Viet Nam”. This friendship is further strengthened by Australian tourism to Viet Nam, Australians living and working in Viet Nam as well as Vietnamese tourism to Australia and the 220,000 strong Vietnamese community who call Australia home.

Viet Nam’s history is coloured with war and invasion. The Chinese have invaded Vietnam 17 times, the French ruled the country from the end of the 19th until mid-way through the 20th century and the Japanese held power during periods of World War II. Australia was part of this story during the Viet Nam-US war (1965 – 1973) when Australia and the United States of America disregarded the sovereignty of the Viet nation and supported South Viet Nam in the fight against communism. In 1973, victory was awarded to Viet Nam where the country finally assumed control over its territory and held sovereignty over its state. A single party state emerged, ruled by the Communist Party of Viet Nam. Four decades on, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Viet Nam. Whilst the warring history between the two countries is not forgotten, a mutual respect was founded and a friendship formed acknowledging Viet Nam’s rights to rule independently. This independence is securely lodged in the very heart of the strong Viet soul.

Aid, with strings attached

AusAID is providing $159.1 million in funding to Viet Nam through its aid program in the 2013/14 financial year but Australian aid in Viet Nam is not purely financial. Australia conducts its foreign aid work in a manner that adheres to Australian values and international law. Difficulties arise when fundamental Australian principles, such as a commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech, are not founding principles of the receipt state of Australian aid, or they are principles that are aspirational (especially when their “pursuit” appeases donor states) whilst also possessing the potential to destabilise the regime and the country as it presently exists. This creates a disconnect concerning how to approach working in another culture where this reality is prevalent. Creativity is key to working in this environment. Relationships are paramount to constructive partnerships cogniscent of each other’s differences but with an awareness of the need to develop innovative approaches to achieving shared objectives.

…lower middle-income countries like Viet Nam are at a pivotal point where populations are emerging from poverty-stricken conditions but remain deserving of aid.

Much of Australia’s work in Viet Nam is managed through AusAID and the Australian Embassy in Ha Noi although the Australian Federal Police, Australian states and territories and other federal government departments contribute funds and expertise to Australia’s work in-country. Australia also provides grants to international and local non-government organisations such as through Australia’s Direct Aid Program, which allows the Australian Embassy to direct small grants to local organisations for specific projects. A large portion of Australian aid initiatives are conducted in partnership with government at the higher level, supporting government-to-government cooperation, employing a largely top-down approach. Australian aid though is not purely conventional as it does have a focus on relationship building at a more grass-roots level and a focus area for Australia’s aid relationship with Viet Nam is education and capacity building.

Sharing knowledge

Australian aid incorporates the Australian Government’s volunteering arm. This provides Australians with opportunities to work within Vietnamese organisations and government departments for set periods of time based in Viet Nam. The Australian Government also conducts the Endeavour Scholarship program. This program supports eligible and successful Vietnamese recipients to engage in further education in Australia, largely Masters degrees and PhDs. The benefits of both the volunteering and scholarship components of Australian aid cannot be underestimated. The cultural understanding and respect developed between citizens of both nations and the forging of relationships and friendships across the region supports constructive acknowledgement of differences and lays the foundation of ongoing cooperation.

The Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD), the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) and Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) programs (Australian Government volunteer programs) enable the Australian Government to conduct part of their aid efforts through placing skilled Australians inside foreign governments and organisations. These programs focus on capacity building, which spans from working to up-skill staff through two-way knowledge transfers and supports local organisations to improve their operational capacity. It is clear that the way Australian organisations and government operate is not simply transferrable to a developing country context. Relationship development and management is paramount as an outsider entering in to a foreign office in a foreign country. A positive outcome from these programs is the exposure to different views of the world and different ways of addressing issues in an environment that is foreign in almost every regard.

The Endeavour Scholarships further these relationships through providing opportunities for Viet nationals to access Australia’s quality education system in a society that vastly differs from their homeland. Education is a very important aspect of sustainable development. Supporting mature aged international students to study in Australia increases opportunities for two-way cultural exchanges and experiences of different social, cultural and political landscapes, which can only assist to strengthen the Viet state.

As countries located in the same region, Australians in Viet Nam and Vietnamese in Australia benefit Australian citizens, Viet citizens, enrich both nations and increase bilateral cooperation in the region.

Stepping out of poverty

In 1986, Viet Nam was one of the poorest countries in the world prior to the economic reforms, Doi Moi. In 1993, Vietnam recorded a 58 per cent poverty rate. In 2010, Viet Nam was granted lower-middle income status and the country is developing successfully through already achieving five out of its original ten Millennium Development Goals. Moving up from lower income status is an indication international and Vietnamese efforts to address poverty and increase citizens’ access to basic rights has been successful although 33 million people still live on less than two dollars per day. Achieving lower-middle income country status however has its downside as “Viet Nam faces significant challenges in maintaining its successful economic trajectory and being able to continue to deliver rising living standards and greater benefits and freedoms to its people”.

Working to pursue the interests of a local NGO means these interests must be aligned with those of the government and displays of weakness or failure on behalf of the NGO is significantly detrimental to an organisation’s livelihood.

Firstly, the world continues to experience financial crises with states slashing their aid funding. This has real impacts on recipient countries and subsequently on the livelihoods for their populations. Secondly, with reduced budgets for foreign aid, states are more likely to focus on poorer countries as the need is more pronounced. These countries deserve aid to address overt suffering and carving up the foreign aid budget is by no means an easy feat. However, lower middle-income countries like Viet Nam are at a pivotal point where populations are emerging from poverty-stricken conditions but remain deserving of aid. This aid is necessary to support sustainable development through improving governance, accountability and transparency. Without this support, countries may stagnate developmentally or teeter between lower income status and lower-middle income status resulting in instability and a stunting of growth. This second-level of aid embeds good practice, pursues good governance and incorporates trade, which supports states to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on foreign countries. Second-level aid transfers responsibility from the donor country to the recipient country and focuses on localised empowerment. This is necessary for sustainability and this aid is necessary in Viet Nam.

The politics and complexities of aid

Since the 1986 economic reforms, Viet Nam has slowly been opening up its markets and mentality to international influence whilst maintaining its strong political ideology. This is evident through the control, which the government exerts over the NGO sector (developed in 2008). Whilst technically independent, all NGOs fall under the government controlled NGO umbrella body (the Vietnamese Union of Science and Technology) where the government maintains overall control over the direction of local NGOs, meaning any independence is marginal. Working to pursue the interests of a local NGO means these interests must be aligned with those of the government and displays of weakness or failure on behalf of the NGO are significantly detrimental to an organisation’s livelihood. This can result in organisations promoting successes and brushing over failures. This hinders opportunities for improving developmental approaches by learning from what has not worked and also results in skewed data and evidence in order to appease donors and the government.

…challenges are presented when working in an environment where the words “democracy” and “human rights” are not to be uttered as advised by local friends and colleagues.

Aid work is on occasion illustrated as “sexy” but it is messy, particularly in this second-phase of aid. Undertaking aid work often involves working to marry everything you know with a culture that you don’t in order to wade through the murky waters to influence improvements in a purely non-imperialistic manner. To work in Viet Nam, you have to work with Viet Nam. As a proud communist country, Viet Nam is both open and resistant to change. This can be seen in the breadth of human rights violations that have been in the media for the past 12 months covering infringements upon Viet citizens’ freedom of speech and freedom of expression whilst the government is increasingly moving to support United Nations Conventions. This is but one example of the push-and-pull nature of a state being open to change but also resisting such change in order to maintain complete control over the population and its territory.

As citizens growing up in Australia, enjoying the expansive rights and freedoms which are taken for granted, challenges are presented when working in an environment where the words “democracy” and “human rights” are not to be uttered as advised by local friends and colleagues. Being surrounded in a country where this is the status-quo, an appreciation for the breadth of rights afforded in Australia becomes prominent. When rights frameworks are cast aside, the complexities of working in a developing country come to the fore as the tools a worker is equipped with are of limited use and innovation and creativity becomes a necessity.

The friendship between Australia and Viet Nam is strong and it is getting stronger through government-to-government relations and person-to-person interactions. Viet Nam’s strength exists in the country’s heart and in the heart of its citizens. To work in Viet Nam, countries must work with Viet Nam in a manner that is palatable to both countries’ agendas in accordance with respect and good faith. Navigating this is messy; but it is intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding. Australia and Viet Nam are both vibrant countries and possess deep and endlessly fascinating modern and historical  characteristics; one of the greatest benefits of their friendship is the cultural exchange which enriches both countries and citizens alike.

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  • Bruce Watson

    Lots of food for thought here.
    Despite global economic difficulties, it is extraordinary how little the Australian government, and those of other wealthy countries, are prepared to put nto supporting those in countries that are so much worse off than we are. It is not due to any lack of generosity of spirit in the population (look at all the donations after disasters), but through government’s obsession with balancing budgets without being willing to increase revenue, and thereby constantly restricting the expenditure side of their budgets. There will always be questions of rationing, but if the pie is bigger, the problems for ‘second’level’ aid recipients is smaller.