Civil Society and ngos in Vietnam: Some Initial Thoughts on Developments and Obstacles

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Bach Tan Sinh, Civil Society and NGOs in Vietnam

Civil Society and NGOs in Vietnam:

Some Initial Thoughts on Developments and Obstacles
(Paper presented at the Meeting with the Delegation of the Swedish Parliamentary Commission on Swedish Policy for Global Development to Vietnam 26/2-3/3/2002,

at Horison Hotel March 2, 2001)

Bach Tan Sinh (Ph.D.)

National Institute for Science and Technology Policy and Strategy Studies, Vietnam.

38 Ngo Quyen Street. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Tel. (84.4) 9344102.Fax. (84.4) 8252873. Email:

1. The Concept of Civil Society and NGOs and their roles
There is no single, static definition of civil society. The term has a long and continually evolving, if not contestable, conceptual history (Wapner 1998)1. For the early formulation following Hegel, civil society was defined as "that arena of social engagement which exists above the individual yet below the state" and " a complex network of economic, social, and cultural practices based on friendship, family, the market, and voluntary affiliation" (Wapner 1998: 510). The concept includes the economy within its domain. The later formulation, most notably those offered by Gramsci and Parsons, introduced a three-part model that differentiates civil society from both the state and the economy (Parsons 1971;Gramsci 1971)2. The concept offered by Gramsci and Parsons is in line with the framework which classified a society into three sectors - government, business and civil society.
Recently, Kaldor proposed five different versions of the concept of civil society including: (1) Societas Civilis; (2) Bourgeois Society (Bürgerliche Gesellschaft); (3) The Neo-liberal version; (4) The Activist version; and (5) The Post-Modern version.(Kaldor 2000)
(1) The Societas Civilis: For Kaldor, civil society is define as "a rule of law and political community, a peaceful order, a zone of 'civility'. Civility is defined not as 'good manners' or 'polite society' but as a state of affairs where violence has been minimised as a way of organising social relations. Most later definitions of civil society are predicated on the assumption of a rule of law and the relative absence of coercion in human affairs. Moreover, it is generally assumed that such a Societas Civilis requires a state, with a public monopoly of legitimate violence" (Kaldor 2000: 4)
(2) Bourgeois Society: Civil Society is defined following Smith, Hegel and Marx as "that arena of ethical life in between the state and the family. It was an historically produced phenomenon linked to the emergence of capitalism. Markets, social classes, civil law, welfare organisations were all part of civil society" (Kaldor 2000: 4)
(3) The Neo-liberal version of Civil Society: The term of civil society was popularised in the aftermath of 1989, neo-liberals and might be "described as ‘laissez faire politics’ a kind of market in politics. According to this definition, civil society consists of associational life - a non-profit voluntary 'third sector' - that not only restrains state power but also actually provides a substitute for many of the functions performed by the state. Thus charities and voluntary associations could carry out functions in the field of welfare which the state can no longer afford to perform" (Kaldor 2000: 4)
(4) The Activist version of Civil Society: It emerged from the opposition in Central Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It is sometimes described as the post-Marxist or utopian version. On this definition, civil society "refers to active citizenship, to growing self-organisation outside formal political circles, and expanded space in which individual citizens can influence the conditions in which they live both directly through self organisation and through pressure on the State" (Kaldor 2000: 4)
(5) The Post-Modern version of Civil Society: Civil society is defined as " an arena of pluralism and contestation, a source of uncivility as well as civility" (Kaldor 2000: 4). Following this definition, NGOs is only one of the many components of the civil society.
Among the five versions above, the last three definitons seem to be relevant to the Context of Vietnam defining NGOs as one of the institutions or components of civil society, which grows out as "self organisation outside the formal political circles" and "expands space in which individual citizens can influence the condition in which they live both directly through self organisation and through pressure on the State" and "provides a substitute for many of the functions performed by the state [....] and the function in the field of welfare which the state can no longer afford to perform" (Kaldor 2000).
The role of NGOs in Civil Society
Concerning the role civil society in general and the NGOs in particular in the political development of Third World Countries, Rifkin in his foreword to the book written by Fisher entitled "NonGovernments : NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World" stated that (Fischer 1998) (p: viii)
Expanding the role of NGOs in socio-economic development requires that we rethink our notion of politics. While politicians traditionally divide society into a polar spectrum running from the marketplace, on the right, to the government, on the left, it is more accurate to think of society as a three-legged stool made up of the market sector, government sector, and civil sector. The first leg creates market capital, the second leg creates public capital, and the third leg creates social capital. In the old scheme of things, finding the proper balance between the market and government dominated political discussion. In the new scheme, finding a balance between the market, government, and civil sectors becomes paramount. Thinking of society as creating three types of capital - market capital, public capital, and social capital - opens up new opportunities for reconceptualizing both the social contract and the meaning of work in the coming era
In this regard, it is more interesting to look at the dynamic interaction between three sectors that shapes the development of the country . Depending on the political and institutional set-up in each Third Work country, the extent to which NGOs can play role in promoting civil society varies with six major ways: (1) development of their communities and promote social change; (2) nurture sustainable development and viable civil societies; (3) promote political rights and civil liberties; (4) focus on bottom-up democratization; (5) influence other voluntary organisations; and (6) promote relationship between the for-profit and independent or non-profit sectors of civil society. (Fisher 1998: 16).
In relation to the government, NGOs as part of the products of the existing political system began to challenge the governance of the system. The failure of the government in the Third World countries to "meet the escalating challenges of sustainable development [...] has opened up unprecedented opportunities for NGOs not just replace government but to protest against them, influence them, and collaborate with them " (Fisher 1998: 30). The strategies of NGOs toward relationship with the government varies from (1) isolate themselves almost completely from the state to (2) engage the state through advocacy, which may or may not be confrontational; and to (3) cooperate with the state through parallel or collaborative field projects. (Fisher 1998:105-106)
2. Civil Society and NGOs in Vietnam
2.1. Developments
With the concept of civil society and NGOs described obove once can say that a civil society has to a certain extent been already established in the past. The difference between the civil society in the past and today lies in the degree of its participation and capacity to influence developments.
The principle "people know, people discuss, people execute and people supervise" which has been repeatedly mentioned in documents and policies of the Vietnam's Communist Party (CP) reflects the wish of the Government to encourage every social organisation and citizen participating in formulating, implementing and monitoring policies. This principle has been realised through the Directive 30/CT issued by the Central Committee of the Vietnam's CP on Grassroots Democracy.
In order to implement the Directive of the Central Committee of the Vietnam's CP, the Government has passed a number of decrees concerning grassroots democracy, e.g. Grassroots Democracy at the Commune (Decree 29/1998/ND-CP issued May 11, 1998), at Grassroots Democracy at agencies (Decree 71/1998/ND-CP dated September 8, 1998) and Grassroots Democracy at state owned enterprises (Decree 07/1999/ND-CP issued February 13, 1999). In those decrees, the Grassroots Democracy Decree at Commune has been considered the legal basis for strengthening the participation of local communities at the local level. The article 4 of the Decree requested local government be responsible for providing information concerning policies, laws, long-term and annual socio-economic development plans of the communes, land-use plans and annual draft budget. Besides the rights to be informed, the Decree also stipulated the rights of citizen to be involved in discussing and deciding the level of their contribution, in establishing local committees monitoring construction projects contributed by citizen, and in assessing activities of People's Committee and People's Council of the communes. The Decree differentiates four levels of participation of citizen: sharing information, providing comments, participating in decision-making and monitoring.
To facilitate the participation of citizen towards devolving decision-making power to local government, the Government recognised the need to strengthening partnerships with other organisations working for the benefits and needs of the people, by continuing to encourage and support the work of mass organisations. The Government also recognized the need to put in place a legal and policy framework for associations and domestic NGOs, for example issuance of the Decree 35/CP in 1992 on Some Measures to Encourage Scientific and Technological Activities, which allows individuals establish their own science and technology organisations, Decree 177/CP in 1999 concerning social and charity funds, and the recent Law on Science and Technology in 2000
The policy and institutional framework mentioned above provides a basis for development of a civil society in Vietnam. There are a number of forms of communities set up voluntarily by people at the grassroots level to manage natural resources and development for a sustainable livelihood. One of these communities is the water-users group established in various locations in Vietnam which is considered the grass-roots NGO. The Thai Long Dam Project in the Cam Phu Commune, Cam Thuy District, Thanh Hoa Province has been supported by the International NGO - the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker Service Vietnam). This project is one of successful examples demonstrating the capacity of grass-roots commity - the Water Users Cooperative in empowering the local farmers in managing their local water resource for their onw benefits, in the context of government policy to transfer the water user right to local communities. This case did not only prove the role of NGO in the development of the communities and in providing a substitute for function in the field of welfare (water supply at the commune level) which the state can no longer afford to perform, but also showed that a close partnership between the local NGO, international NGO and the Government in implementing the project is important factor for the success of the project3.
Other examples related to the role of local resident communities in enforcing business to improve the quality of environment next to their living area are the complaints of local residents against the polluting enterprises. As a results of their complaints, one factory had to install air filter to improve the discharged airs and the other factory had to be relocated. These cases illustrated the possibilites of local communities in challenging the political ligitimacy of the Government and thereby creating social and political pressure on business (O'rourke 2000)
Civil society in Vietnam can also be represented by groups of critical intellectual actors such as journalists, historians, scientists. While the action and resistance responded to the development by local communities concerning their sustainable livelihood and community development has been taken place at the operational level, the 'cultural critique' of the mainstream development has been carried out by these critical intellectual actors at the discourse level. Concerning the environmental impacts of coal mining in Quang Ninh Province in general and in Ha Long Bay in particular, the journalists were the first who brought this concerns and issues in newspaper and TV programs. Apart from journalists, scientists also actively participate in the debates on the way coal mining has operated. In response to the VINACOAL's plan (Vietnam Coal Corporation) to expand the mining area to Yen Tu Mountain- the Centre of Vietnamse Buddhism designated by the Government as the national historical menumen, members of the National Association of Historians and the Centre of Historical Monument Conservation openly criticised in July 1998. In his open letter to the Chairman of the Quang Ninh People Committee, Tran Quoc Vuong, a well known outspoken professor of culture and history at the Hanoi National University, strongly criticised. This open letter was published in the newspaper the Culture and widely distributed. As a result of this debate, the People Committee together with the VINACOAL had to organise a press conference to respond to the critiques (Bach Tan Sinh ).

    1. Obstacles

The first institutional barrier to the participation of local communities and citizen is the lack of information about policies, laws and regulations, socio-economic development strategies and plans of the Vietnam CP and the Government. The recent assessment of UNDP in the National Target Programme (TNP) for Hunger Eradication and Poverty Reduction (HEPR) - Programme 133 in short and - Programme 135 for Socio-economic Development in Communes with Extreme Difficulties, operated towards devolving management authority and promoting the participation of local communities over the last two years 1999-2000 reveals that almost all local communities have not yet been given the authority to participate in the decision-making, management and monitoring process. The role of local communities in identification of programmes' target beneficiaries, planning for implementation and monitoring of results and expenditures has not been realised yet, because decision making mainly takes place at provincial levels, while the programmes lack the flexibility to accommodate local people's inputs. Besides, local people have little information on what they expect in terms of programme activities. The reliance on mass organisation as channels for information sharing and consultation proves problematic (World Bank 2000).

One additional obstacle is a lack of tools that facilitate participation of local communities and citizen. According to the Assessment of UNDP in the Programme 133 and 135, despite of the demand from the programmes to have the participation of local communities in the planning and implementing process, no useful detailed guidelines are put in place to realise this demand. Other challenge is related to gather comments from citizen on draft socio-economic development strategies and plans. Until there is a way to process information that facilitates the full participation of citizen to make comments, the making all documents public becomes symbolic. In all regulations concerning grassroots democracy there is no guidelines on how to involve people to participate, for example the method on Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). This method has been so far successfully used by NGOs in formulating, implementing and monitoring development projects at local level.
Bach Tan Sinh. Institutional Challenges for Sustainable Development in Vietnam: The Case of Coal Mining. in: Beresford and Tran, editors. Reaching for the Dream: Challenges of Sustainability in Vietnamese Economic Development. (Forthcoming)

---. The Partnership between Government and international, local NGO in Managing Water at Commune Level in Vietnam: A Case study of Thai Long Dam Project. GIN Conference " Sustainability at the Millennium: Globalization, Competitiveness, and the Public Trust".; January 21-25, 2001; Bangkok, Thailand.

Fischer, J. Nongovernments: NGOs and the political development of the third world. Kumarian Press; 1998.

Gramsci , A. Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers; 1971.

Kaldor, M. A Note on Concepts - For the Global Civil Society Almanac Brainstorming; 2000 Feb 4-2000 Feb 5; UK.

O'rourke, D. Community Driven Regulation in Vietnam (Ph.D Thesis). Berkeley: UC Berkeley; 2000.

Parsons, T. The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, N: Prentice-Hall; 1971.

Wapner, P. Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics . in: Dryzed, J. and Schlosberg, editors. Debating the Earth: Environmental Politics Reader. Oxford University Press ; 1998.

World Bank, Asian Development Bank and United Nations Development Programme. Vietnam 2010 Entering the 21st Century: Vietnam Development Report 2001 - Partnership for Development (Prepared for Consultative Group Meeting for Vietnam December 14-15, 2000). Hanoi; 2000 Nov.

1 For an appreciation of the historical roots of the term and its usage in various contexts, see Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992; John Keane, "Despotism and Democracy: Origins and Development of the Distinction between Civil Society and the State, 1750-1850" in Keane ed. Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives, London: Verso 1988.

2 Quoted in Wapner 1998: 527. For an extensive argument to exclude the economy from civil society, see Cohen and Arato 1992.

3 For a detailed presentation, see (Bach Tan Sinh 2001 )

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