Newly built roads, village meeting halls, dams and water systems. These are justsome of the material results generated by a community development project that Coalition for Environment and Development (CED), a Finnish NGO partially funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Finland (MoFA), has been running in conjunction with Vietnam Women’s Union (WU) in various poor, rural villages in Northern Vietnam.
Lao Hao commune, in Yeng Dung districs, Bac Gian province is one of the ten communes that have been part of the community development project entitled ‘Village self-reliance and development in Viet Nam’. The fundamental aim is to help villagers to help themselves. Although only 80km from Ha Noi, Lao Ho is like another world with gentle green quilts of never ending rural rice fields, clean air and animals, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of Hanoian motorbikes that terrorise the Capitol’s streets. Hence it is not surprising that people in this area rely mainly on agriculture for their livelihoods.
New roads are urgently needed in the commune and surrounding areas
Since the beginning of the project in Lao Ho in 2006, the villagers have seen gradual improvements in their lives. The physical materialisitaion of the programme can be seen in the newly built roads, both in the village and the commune around. Before the start of the project the village was essentially isolated from the outside world, particularly during the rainy season when the roads either turned into puddles of mud and water or disappeared altogether.
However, with the superior new road network, funded and built mostly by the villagers themselves, the outside world has now reached Lao Ho in a new way; traders from Ha Noi are able to arrive to the village to purchase agricultural products to sell at markets in Ha Noi and surrounding towns. In addition, the villagers themselves can also travel to local markets to sell their goods. This has without a doubt led to an overall increase in the standard of living of the local people.
Mrs Tam from CED and a representative from the Finnish Embassy meet with the Lao Ho Village Board
This being said, the material benefits of the project are only a positive side effect. The actual objective is to give people in poor villages the tools to organise themselves and increase their opportunity to participate in the commune’s decision making. To achieve this, CED together with WU facilitates the establishment of a framework that allows the villagers to raise their voices, make their own decisions and practice democracy. The programme works through traditional village meetings, which then choose the village a Development Board of 5-7 people. The first task of the Board is then to draft a detailed village development plan which the CED inspects and approves. To implement the plans, CED gives the commune a small donation, usually ¼ of the required funds, The remainder of the funding, along with the actual work, is contributed by the villagers themselves.
The project has been a success, in Lao Ho and elsewhere. Mrs. Tam, CED project coordinator, says that in the beginning the authorities did not have much faith in the programme. Traditionally, people at a grassroots level have not had much decision making power regarding themselves as the highly hierarchical administrative system favors a top-down model of power; decisions are made at a national or district level.In this context the idea of local democracy seems odd for both local authorities and the villagers themselves. Nonetheless,the will to make decisions exists, however, no structures or other means for local participation do. This is where CED, together with Vietnam Women’s Union steps in to help.
Inspecting the road built with the funding from CED
“There are real changes in the actions of the people in these villages,” Mrs Tam from CED says. And certainly, the positive empowering effects of the power are already visible; the villagers seem more aware of their own possibilities to influence their surroundings. In fact, the village board in Lao ho is in the process of discussing about the next project they want to start in the field of environmental protection. “A perfect example of the positive empowering effects of the program” says to Mrs Tam, “ they started with roads and have now come to realise that there is more to do in the village, and they have the power to change the things that need to be changed”.
Lao Ho has a scarce road network in the middle of rice fields.