Vietnam has been transformed economically and socially, lifting millions out of poverty and raising living standards during the past two decades. New and more complicated development challenges has arisen from this rapid growth, including rising income inequality and environmental degradation. The government is struggling to provide all citizens with adequate standards and ease of access to public services such as health, education, and clean water. In response to the country’s needs, more and more Vietnamese civil society organizations (CSOs) are emerging.
Defining civil society
As we discussed in class, civil society is “the arena outside of the family, the state and the market” (Norlund 2007) where people come together to engage in issues that affect their lives and the development of their communities (Taylor et al 2012). It supports activities and values promoting the well-being of the citizens through different approaches, such as philanthropy, charity and other means. Main characteristics of a civil society include non-state and non-market, voluntary, self-managed, self-financed and not profit-driven (Norlund 2007).
The status quo
The nature of civil society in Vietnam is still a controversial topic. Up to now, there are no independent CSOs in Vietnam (Taylor et al 2012). However, there are organisations claiming non-governmental organisation (NGO) or non-profit organisation (NPO) status, many of which are associated with the government, including research institutes and professional associations (Mercer 2002). Their budget mostly comes from the state. Sometimes, they are bureaucratic. Other times they are independent with policy research and advocating programs. The way these organisations function can blur the definition of a CSO.
Civil society in Vietnam, its impacts and the cyber space
The emergence of civil society has been greatly supported by the advent of the Internet in Vietnam in 1997 (Bui 2013). With the increased access to different sources of information, the Internet has provided more rooms for some aspects of civil society to thrive. Over the past two decades, there has been a proliferation of environmental concerns voiced by citizens, resulting in dynamic environmentalism in Vietnam. Environmental problems are no longer discussed in small communities but has reached the national level. Let’s take the environmental scandal of Vedan in September 2008 for example. Vedan, a Taiwanese monosodium glutamate (MSG) maker, was accused of discharging a massive amount of untreated wastewater through hidden pipes into Thi Vai river for years. The river and the livelihood of thousands of citizens along it were seriously affected (Bui 2011). The scandal received overwhelming public discourse and media coverage for many months due to its unprecedented scale. Thanks to the intense collective actions from civil society, disadvantaged citizens living along Thi Vai River did have a beneficial outcome.
As you can see, the discourse around environmental governance promoted by civil society in Vietnam really has the power to challenge the practices and decision-making structure of the government (Bui 2013). In fact, civil society even has the potential of becoming more intense to gather stronger forces of change as more critical problems emerge.
Bui, TH 2013, ‘The development of civil society and dynamics of governance in Vietnam’s one party rule’, Global Change, Peace & Security: formerly Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 77-93.
Bui, TH 2011, Civil Society and Environmental Policy in Vietnam: A New Source of Governance?, paper presented at the Vietnam Update Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, November.
Mercer, C 2002, ‘NGOs, civil society and democratization: a critical review of the literature’, Progress in Development Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 5–22.
Norlund, I 2007, ‘Civil Society in Vietnam. Social Organisations and Approaches to New Concepts’, ASIEN, vol. 105, pp. 68-90.
Taylor, W, Nguyen, TH, Pham, QT & Huynh, TNT 2012, Civil Society in Vietnam: A Comparative Study of Civil Society Organizations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, The Asia Foundation, Hanoi.