A Trip With the Swedish Ambassador

By Staffan Herrström, Swedish Ambassasor to Vietnam

Most probably one of many lovely parts of the country but I must say this mountainous landscape is something special: remarkably beautiful. And the visit was part of the first longer field trip I have made in Vietnam. So it will always have a special place in my heart.

A field trip to Ha Giang will also have a special place in my professional life, primarily for one reason easy to summarise in two words: Chia Se – meaning “Sharing”. A development programme for poverty reduction in three provinces supported by Sweden since 2003, writes Staffan Herrström, Ambassasor to Vietnam.

What’s it all about? Is it about sharing of resources? To some extent yes but even more about having a share in decision making. Taking and sharing responsibility for priorities in your village.

The first priorities had been to provide basic support to the poorest households – lifting them above starvation. Instead of borrowing or renting a buffalo from others they got their own. And that made all the difference for the two families we visited.

But beyond that the village had identified more common priorities. This year latrines. Agreed upon at the village meeting where all or almost all families in the village were represented.

All this was made possible through the fundamental approach of Chia Se: The village meeting decides on a development plan. The village is provided with unearmarked resources through a development fund and transparency is there from beginning to the end. Both the amount of funds available and how they finally are used. Thus, corruption is effectively prevented. Villagers prioritise, decide and monitor.

Hence, sense of empowerment increased especially among women and minority groups. This was not something I could see with my own eyes but it is a verified result of the programme. Grassroot democracy in action.

This approach made a deep impression on me. When decisionmaking is decentralised in this way people living in poverty gain both in terms of democracy and in terms of living standards.

Will this approach be spread, internalised, utilised in other provinces and processes as well? I hope so and I think our Vietnamese partners hope so as well. But it will take some efforts to make it happen.

One reflection along the line of challenges, not unique for this country and province but still needing attention: More men should speak out in support of womens’ rights and girls’ rights. I met one man doing just that. Clearly stating the seriousness of domestic violence, the problem of early marriages, the tendency by some men to marry one wife and then throw her out, picking a new one.

And too many families give priority to boys rather than girls for secondary education, often because the girls should get married and therefore are taken out of school.

Just imagine if it had been the other way around: Families saying that the boys are needed to do manual work at home so they need to leave school while the girls can stay on. There is an urgent need for a change of mindset among many of us men – and an urgent need for more men to speak out along those lines. Like the man I heard address domestic violence, describing it as the crime it definitely is.

Ha Giang is still a poor province but I am convinced it will not stay that way very long. People are taking their destiny in their own hands. The nature represents a huge potential for tourism, not least through the new “geopark”, very soon to become a UNESCO world heritage. And the cultural diversity created by the many different ethnic groups – certainly needing attention for their different needs – will ultimately be an asset rather than anything else.

Vietnam has many more provinces for me to visit. But I certainly want to go back to Ha Giang.



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