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Brief History of Viet Nam Volunteering

Viet Nam – a country in the Southeast of Asia, lying on the seaway from the Indian Ocean to Pacific Ocean, is the interconnecting point of a number of civilizations, and borders with a number of large countries. In addition, Viet Nam is essentially a tropical country with a monsoon climate. Due to the geographical and social conditions, Viet Nam has faced many natural disasters and conflicts for over 4000 historical years.

Step by step, the Vietnamese people have built an enduring and strong-hearted spirit for undergoing challenges and difficulties and a life-style of community, charity, and helpfulness, which is revealed in so many folk-songs and proverbs such as, “love thy neighbour as thy self”, “one for all, all for one”, or “the in-tact help the torn”, etc. It seems that the voluntary spirit exists naturally in every Vietnamese citizen. This is characterized by the Vietnamese readiness to help others whenever they have difficulties.

If the term “volunteer” is understood to be self-sacrificing thoughts or action to help others in need, above all for the community, the nation, for the sake of the motherland and the people, a number of people or groups have undertaken volunteer work since the dawn of the Vietnamese history.

If it is identified as a relatively comprehensive movement that is well-organized and has a good impact on the political, social and economic lives of the whole community, then a volunteer movement was officially formed after the August Revolution. It developed remarkably in the two periods of foreign conflicts and opened a new image since the countries reunification (April 1975), and especially since Viet Nam carried out its “Doi Moi” policy and opened up to international exchange.

Following the success of the August Revolution (1945), there was a nationwide revolutionary movement named “anti-famine, anti-illiteracy, and anti-foreign conflicts”. Most Vietnamese families had a “saving rice jar” which into it they poured a handful of rice taken from their small daily ration in order to help the starving people of Vietnam. Mass education classes commenced in every village. Anyone who was able to read and write could become a teacher. Everyone went to school regardless of their age. Within a few months, millions of people had become literate. The “Golden Week” movement had been accomplished in many places. In response to the movement, a Hanoian capitalist family donated 2,000 taels of gold for the “Fund for Resistance and for the development of the country”

Apart from traditional voluntary activities, during the two resistance wars, there were a number of new forms of volunteer organisations formed. In 1950, the first team of youth volunteers consisting of 215 members was founded at a base in the far North. This was an organization for young volunteers who left their families and lived in units whose main purpose was to serve the army. By the end of 1954 this organization was made up of thousands of volunteers and by April 1975, there were tens of thousands of members. The number of youth volunteers working on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the last five years of the war was approximately 150,000. At present thousands of youth, including descendants of the former youth volunteers, are still working voluntarily nights and days in order to transform the small track into a modern North-South highway.

Since 1975, when the country was unified, and particularly since the “Doi Moi” process from 1986, along with the development of a multi-sector economy and implementation of an open policy, the volunteer movement has developed greatly both in organizational structures and ways of operating. As a result, more people have become interested in participating. The movement has diversified to every aspect of social and economic life and focused on critical issues such as removing bombs and landmines, reclaiming land, developing new economic zones, reforestation, environment protection, poverty alleviation, economic and cultural development for remote mountainous areas, anti-illiteracy, and helping disabled people and orphans.

In Quarter No.4 of Ward 17 in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, social organisations and local government developed an initiative to call on one or two well-off households to help a poor one. For five years, those well-off households have provided interest-free loans worth hundreds of million of Vietnamese dong (VND) to poor families. Some well-off families even let poorer neighbours use their house to run a business and for manufacturing. As a result, all the poor households in this quarter have become better off.

Youth are still the main active force of the volunteer movement. There are many examples, for instance “Kien Chinh Youth Village”. Kien Chinh is a Christian area of Hai Hau district, Nam Dinh province. The local youth union selected a number of competent young volunteers and sent them to training courses on management and farming techniques for aquaculture development. These volunteers then become trainers for other youth union members and their families. After two years, “Kien Chinh Youth Village” established a profitable offshore fishing fleet and two shrimp farming fields.

The volunteer movement to help children in difficult circumstances in recent years has been developed greatly throughout the country. In all 64 provinces and cities, there are facilities for helping to bring up disadvantaged children. In Ha Noi alone, by the end of the year 2000, there were 5547 volunteers including civil servants, businesses, monks and priests, artisans, petty merchants, and students involved in this work. Nearly 35,000 disadvantaged children were given assistance in the same year. There have been many typical examples such as high-ranking senior monk Dam Binh for many years has been raising hundreds of million VND to sponsor 30 children, and provide subsidy to Xa Dan School for Deaf Children. Mr. Vu Tien who lives on Tran Quoc Toan Street has set up “Xa Me Establishment” to gather hundreds of street children to teach them how to sell newspapers, providing them with accommodation as well as vocational training. In Ha Noi today, there are 35 regular education centres, 47 “flexible classes”, and 50 “charity classes” with nearly 1000 street and disable children who are cared for by volunteer teachers. In Ho Chi Minh City, Ms. Huynh Tieu Huong who experienced a hard childhood, and become an outstanding businesswoman by great effort, for many years has been spending time and billions of VND to help disadvantaged children. Thanks to her assistance, hundreds of street children have grown up, found stable jobs and some have been admitted to universities.

A strength of the Viet Nam volunteer movement since 1990 is the active participation of many international volunteer organisations. Apart from their charitable activities, these organisations are also actively involved in community development work, capacity building and poverty alleviation for disadvantaged communities.

Since early 1990, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) has had a representative office in Vietnam. At present, the number of UN Volunteers has tripled compared with that in the early days. The number of national volunteers has also increased considerably, accounting for 50 percent of the total volunteers. UNVs work in many fields and are willing to work in remote areas so as to share the sweet and bitter with local people, and to provide them with experience and knowledge, contributing to the socio-economic development in Vietnam.

Many other international organisations have also sent hundreds of competent and enthusiastic volunteers to Vietnam. The Japanese International Co-operation Agency has sponsored the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV) in Viet Nam since 1994. Up to now, JOCV has been involved in a number of socio-economic development projects. Hundreds of volunteers from many NGOs and from Australia, Canada, Korea, United Kingdom, etc., have worked side by side with Vietnamese volunteers in many areas, such as poverty alleviation, forest protection, water resource protection, foreign language training, and experience exchange in management, business and socio-economic development in Vietnam. From time to time, hundreds of volunteer doctors from the United States, France, Australia, and Canada have come to Viet Nam to share their knowledge in kidney transplanting, heart valve replacement, hare lip palate and other techniques that saved lives and brought the smiles to thousands of patients, most of those were children.

Many international volunteer organisations’ work, not only results in positive outcomes from concrete development programmes that the volunteers work in, but also (and more importantly) improved awareness on volunteering for a multitude of Vietnamese people, including its leadership and management. With the tradition of solidarity and altruism all Vietnamese people understand that in order to move from a lower starting point, everybody needs to do his/her best to play a part of the potential through volunteering help to others in need and contributing to the community and the country’s development.

The International Year of Volunteers (IYV) 2001 has been warmly welcomed by the Government and the people of Viet Nam with deep feelings and realistic activities. The Steering Committee for the IYV 2001 Commemorative Activities was established on March 7th 2001. The Committee elaborated a comprehensive programme that focused on popularization and education of volunteers and voluntary work such as organizing a writing competition, publishing a booklet and a documentary on volunteering, and organizing review workshops on “Volunteer contribution to children in difficult circumstances” in 4 major cities. In order to successfully organise the “Summer Volunteer Campaign 2001” for youth and students, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union set up a campaign steering board that worked regularly, bringing great achievement to the whole campaign. The Union also plans to mobilize 500 students from a number of teacher training schools and 500 young doctors to go for long-term work in mountainous, remote and isolated areas, contributing to the improvement of the social, cultural and economic lives in disadvantaged areas.

Despite some weaknesses, such as heavy formality, loose co-ordination among organisations, weak skills and training, in general, the Viet Nam volunteering sector has improved remarkably. Weaknesses have been gradually identified and overcome. With IYV 2001 creating a momentum, the Government’s interest in volunteer activities and the broad support of civic society of Vietnam, and the active participation and knowledge sharing of the international volunteer community, Vietnam’s volunteer movement has a very promising future.

(By Huu Nam – Volunteers in Viet Nam, 2001)


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