Reflection Four

Prompt:

In this reflection assignment, continuing the work you did through your literature review in GPP 105, I would like you to think about the history and context of your Practice Experience.  Reflect on the ways in which this history/context comes to bear on you — a university student at an elite institution of higher education — came into this work, in this place, at this time.  How did the problems and issues you were/are working on come to be?  What are the structural forces that have shaped these current realities, and how have these structural forces positioned you as someone who can “help”?  The idea for this reflection is for you to contextualize your Practice Experience within a trajectory that stretches beyond just you as an individual student and worker.

Response:

My approach to my PE and understanding my organization was through an economic perspective. Through my economics classes, I have learned theory about how an economy should function so that it is efficient: competition, free trade, and no government intervention. However, completely efficient economies are not true in practice because of welfare programs, redistribution by the government, tariffs, and taxes.

One of reasons why I wanted to go to Vietnam was because from a theoretical standpoint, it defines itself with contradictory political and economic systems, and I wanted to make sense of that. It is unlike the economies that I have studied in my classes. Vietnam is a communist country, but it practices elections and has decrees that promote grassroots democracy.   It is officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but through the Doi Moi policy, it has institutionalized a “socialist-oriented market society” in 1986. Vietnam has undergone much change in the past few decades because of the Doi Moi policy.

Even though Vietnam’s economy is more liberalized, the state still has a large role in society. State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) comprise of a large proportion of manufacturing and industrial sectors, but not in the agricultural sector. This is important because SOEs have certain advantages, like having better access to resources, which make it harder for SOEs to fail. Private businesses do not have such protections. Such protections have a large but indirect impact on the agricultural sector. If a farmer’s business experiences a market failure, there are not many protections and safety nets, and therefore, recovery from such failure is much harder. This is one of the reasons why rural poverty is highly prevalent in Vietnam.

I came into my organization wanting to understand the macroeconomy of Vietnam. My practice experience gave me the opportunity to see how the Doi Moi policy affected people living in rural communities and the welfare programs the government offers. I understood that because of Doi Moi, Vietnam experienced much economic growth and declines in poverty rates. Generally, people are better off than before the policy. However, welfare, which was once a state responsibility, became more privatized in many sectors. There are some welfare programs in place, but not everyone can qualify for them. Therefore, this leaves many groups of people ineligible or unable to pay for welfare on their own. These groups included farmers, and they continue to face hardships with competing in the market.

Doi Moi has both positive and negative effects, and this is one of the reasons why CECAD came to be: to support farmers compete in the market by highlighting potential resources that they can capitalize on and to promote community participation in policy-making. As a privileged university student, I felt that I could work in this context because I have a background in economics and a competitive market society. I was not sure what I could contribute, but I know that being knowledgeable in the ideals that CECAD is involved with—community assets development, market forces, participation, etc—would hopefully allow me to be useful to them. However, my education was not enough, and I came to understand that there are more factors that contribute to the well being of a certain population. Economic policy is just one of them.

In and of itself, Doi Moi is not a “bad” policy. Vietnam was extremely impoverished before it was implemented due to other structural forces: conservative leadership policies, international isolation, and the mass exodus of Vietnamese people to other countries in the world. Therefore, Doi Moi was implemented to address the problems of hunger and lack of resources, but it introduced a whole new set of structural problems.

This relates to Teju Cole’s article because he argues that we have to address the structural issues, and too often, those are the ones that are ignored. In Africa, he says, “beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order” (245). He encourages people to be engaged with the problems that are not so easy to understand.

But, in the context of Vietnam, I feel like I don’t feel like I know enough about its structure, and there are many factors that contribute to its state of being: politics, economic policy, international relations, tradition, climate change, imperial influence, and China, just to name a few. It does not have the same exact problems that Africa faces, even though larger structural causes may transcend each other. I cannot say that Vietnam has a corrupt government (though it probably does) because the Communist Party continues to be re-elected every term. There are stories about how government officials squander tax dollars on their personal expenses. There is always speculation and propaganda about how the government takes care of its people.

In relation to CECAD, it focuses on economical structural problems and symptoms. It seems to have accepted that this is the state of the economy: it is a market society and farmers need to be able to sell their produce in order to have a livable income. After accepting the macroeconomy as it is, CECAD focuses on micro solutions of local socioeconomic development plans, linking farmers to local sellers, and promoting grassroots democracy, just in Hoa Binh Province. There is belief that narrowly drawn policies that account for regional, traditional, and cultural differences are the most effective to development, but these local policies have to work within the framework of the larger Doi Moi policy.

Additionally, as I think about it more, I think that there is a general sentiment that “help” for Vietnam is going to come from international forces and education. I think that is why I was there. From what I understand, getting a visa to many other countries could be very difficult; it involves many forms, official documents, even interviews. Some people might even have to apply for months in advance. For me, the application for my Vietnam visa was on a Word document that I printed out, a photocopy of my passport, and a picture. I mailed it to the Vietnam embassy and received my visa in the mail in about two weeks.

A Vietnamese couple, living in the mountains of Sa Pa, offer their home (and WiFi) to 12 tourists (including myself) for night, serving dinner and breakfast.
A Vietnamese couple, living in the mountains of Sa Pa, offer their home (and WiFi) to 12 tourists (including myself) for night, serving dinner and breakfast.

The point I am trying to make is Vietnam currently very welcoming to foreigners in general. One of the main reasons is because of tourism. More and more, tourism has become a way that the country receives money. Additionally, it is encouraged for Vietnamese citizens to go get educated in a foreign country: Japan, the United States, and France, in particular. Many CECAD staff members have been educated internationally. I was welcomed to CECAD, and I was in the line of a string of foreign volunteers that come to work for CECAD. I think, that in Vietnam, there is value in an international education and foreigners because the progress that it has made in the past is because of global influence and integration.

This, of course, comes with many other structural problems and power dynamics (specifically for CECAD because it promotes local participation), but we cannot look at Vietnam as an entity within it of itself. Even within itself, there are many aspects to understand that all interact with each other. Although comprehending Vietnam is very complex and no paradigm of perfect, it should not stop progress, which is why despite the structural forces it operates in, CECAD tries to work in that space towards sustainable development.

Over and out.

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