I was fortunate enough to be taken on a CARE project visit this week, 5 hours drive south of Saigon, into the heart of the Mekong Delta Region to the Province of Sóc Trăng.
CARE have been operating in Vietnam since the end of the Second World War (for the fact seekers amongst you, the very first “CARE packages” were sent from the USA to war torn Le Havre in France, on May 11 1946, which I make to be 65 years ago this week…)
After 14 years out of the country, following its Reunification in 1975, CARE returned to Vietnam and, for the past quarter of a century, has supported interventions designed to improve the lives of thousands of vulnerable and marginalised communities in many of Vietnam’s provinces, Sóc Trăng included.
In weaving our way out of the bustle of Saigon, and on to the only highway accessing the Mekong Provinces, the traffic thins but remains constant, as cars and lorries cruise down the wrong side of the road overtaking motorbikes and scooters which pitch along the edge of the tarmac.
There’s lots to see. Paddy field workers bent double tilling the earth, and wearing traditional upside down wok-shaped wooden hats. Plenty of new factories on display, and small towns with their shops and businesses spread along the sides of the roads in a blatant pitch for passing trade. Our air conditioning is whacked up to fridge like temperatures (I think our driver must have some Scandinavian ancestry) yet outside the sun beats down at over 40 degrees.
My first impression of our ‘3 star’ hotel in Sóc Trăng is one of curiosity. Which features in particular, I reflect to myself, did the inspectors who graded this hotel feel were worthy of even a single star? Despite being given my own room, I end up sharing it with a dead cockroach, and a TV whose patchy reception means that only every other fourth channel is tuned in. Ideal for Korean soap opera fanatics, however not so exciting for anyone wanting BBC news or any of the other English speaking channels.
Anyway. Within the context of my visit, these reflections are of course quite tactless, and in any case I was buoyed in the morning by the fact a.) I had slept and b.) that none of my room-mate’s extended family of crustaceans had decided to pay their respects to him during the night. I diplomatically dodged tucking into the breakfast buffet, instead grabbing a bread roll and some warm tea, and was soon paying my first visit to one of the beneficiaries of ‘PACODE’, a project which CARE have been running here for several years.
By way of an abridged introduction to why CARE works in a seemingly prospering “middle income” country such as Vietnam (a country with economic growth statistics since the 1990s which make it one of the world’s fastest growing ‘emerging market’ economies) it is worth saying two things:
Poverty reduction here has seen much positive progress thanks to some government backing to more inclusive economic policies, amongst other things. Indeed, Vietnam came 113th (out of 169 countries) ranked by the UNDP in their most recent Human Development Index Report – a report which ranks countries against criteria such as life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living.
That said, there exists across Vietnam wide spread inequality and social injustices which are affecting thousands of people each and every day. Climate change, environmental degradation, and prevailing gender inequalities are threats to any shared and longer term prosperity for which the country might strive.
In the Province of Sóc Trăng, the majority of the population is illiterate, and rely on offering their individual services as “hired labour”, turning up each morning at rice farms, on construction sites, wherever the scent of work takes them, in order to have the chance of a day’s employment, and a few dollars reimbursement.
High illiteracy rates in the Province dictate that the majority of rural populations are cut off from accessing a range of different services and information available to them about issues related to health, hygiene and nutrition. Illiteracy alienates people from accessing certain employment opportunities. It often excludes people, too, from being in a position have a voice in community and regional matters. Casting a vote, filling in a registration form.
PACODE (which stands for “Participatory Community Development in An Giang and Soc Trang”) works predominantly with groups of Khmer women, many of whom were born in Vietnam, whilst others migrated from Cambodia during the civil uprisings in the 1970s.
I met two women, Sà Bươl and Chị Sươl, Khmer women born in Sóc Trăng and active members of the PACODE initiatives.
PACODE has a number of simple, but effective, ‘tools’ in its portfolio. Firstly, it trains up a selection of local representatives on topics such as the importance of using boiled water in the home, or on basic hand washing and hygiene matters. In doing so, PACODE has managed to create a cadre of skilled community “facilitators” who, in turn, host community forums (mainly for women) to pass on this knowledge to others.
PACODE also engages decision makers at the local authority level to spread awareness about Khmer populations, and their needs and rights. It has a micro-finance component to it as well, in the form of voluntary savings schemes.
In isolation, each of these initiatives are simple, but their combination provides compelling outcomes.
Sà Bươl and Chị Sươl have similar stories to tell. Born in the early 1970’s, they are from large families, did not receive any education as children, and work hard each and every day seeking ways of subsidizing the income their husband’s bring in from rice and catfish farming, respectively.
In the days before PACODE, Sà Bươl made around 50p a day selling sachets of soap, washing powder, fruit and vegetables from an impromptu stall outside her house. Chị Sươl worked as a hired labourer. 10 hour days, and paid much the same amount.
Both had been forced to borrow money from “middle men” in the village, operating on the black market and charging high interest on the loans they gave out.
After attending the group meetings set up by PACODE, Sà Bươl and Chị Sươl were not only offered a local network of peers with whom to build friendships, but provided with practical ideas of ways to look after their children, and to earn money. They were also able to access loans, and receive advice on investing this into new business enterprises.
“Each day now I can usually sell (the UK equivalent of) £1.30 – £1.60 in my shop, and my husband is also improving his income as we have access to better pricing information for the rice he is selling, and are more confident about bargaining,” explains Sà Bươl.
Chị Sươl has ceased being a hired labourer and now runs a business selling coffee, vegetables, fruit and household items. She has turned the front of her house into a small café and has borrowed funds to build an extra room at the back of her house. The PACODE group meetings she attends meet in her café, and she told me the groups will live on after PACODE finishes.
The strength of a programme such as PACODE is that it does not pretend to solve all the issues faced Khmer women in Sóc Trăng. Instead, it has provided many hundreds of women and their families an opportunity for adjusting and improving their daily lives. For many of these women the community groups, the training, the small loans, have all in some way opened a door to the idea that there are options.
For CARE in the future, Vietnam will remain a country of extreme statistics. There are millions of people living in poverty, in rural and urban settings, men and women, Khmer and Vietnamese.
Creating a space and an opportunity for each of them to realize their full participation in society, and in doing so help them regain their dignity, is a job far, far removed from being redundant.