“Trust the people, let the people do it” was the core message emphasized by members of The Pioneers for the Voice of Ethnic Minorities Group at the event, From People’s Hearts. The event was an organized conference about the mid-term review of the National Target Program on Sustainable Poverty Reduction 2016 – 2020. The members of The Pioneers conducted surveys, collected data, prepared and organized the conference.
The From People’s Heart’s conference was not simply an academic policy assessment, but rather served as an open space for people to speak from their hearts, sharing their life stories, thoughts, and experiences under the national poverty reduction program. The Pioneers aimed to build personal connections between policymakers and local people, facilitating an honest discussion of the current situation in regards to poverty reduction policies.
Session 1: Local Construction Works
We have had open policies, but how about open spaces for people’s participation?
Addressing the conference at the opening discussion, We have had open policies, but how about open spaces for people’s participation?, Mr. Ma A Pho, Mrs. Ly Thi Hong Kieu, and Ms. Truong Thi Thuy (The Pioneers members from Lang Son, Thanh Hoa, Soc Trang provinces) shared the stories of local people and the need for space to monitor and debate policies.
Ms. Truong Thi Thuy – on assessing roadwork projects in Ba Thuoc district in Thanh Hoa – shared that after conducting surveys, the results showed there were contradictory opinions. Up until now, they actually has not known which program supports roadworks. She wondered “At the time, as a local why don’t I know and pay attention to locally supported programs?”
Moreover, design and construction processes don’t seek or involved people’s opinions or participation in monitoring. As a consequence, during the flood season, an inter-hamlet road that passes through many springs had disastrous effects on people’s lives and crops. “Why don’t local people know anything [about what’s going on], even when the roads highly influence their life?” Ms. Thuy said. For example, she noted that when a local person posed a question concerning the current situation to contractors, he was told, “It’s not your business!”
Another example was ditch work in Sa Pa commune in Lao Cai province. According to Mr. Ma A Pho, local people were neither included in discussions, nor equipped with monitoring skills. Consequently, after the ditch was constructed, it did not fit with the surrounding area, and the building materials did not meet quality standards. “Some works are good, but local people are worried that they will quickly degrade, which is a waste. Since local people were not included in the roadworks from the beginning, they neither pay attention to the current situation nor know where to file complaints.”
Mrs. Kieu from Soc Trang expressed a different worry. “In 2006, my two children were going to school. My family could not afford school books and had to pay by installments. While they were attending school, my family was excluded from the list of poor households and was cut from insurance for several years,” said Mr. Kieu, sharing her family’s story. Poor households in her locality are recipients of support policies such as house building. Curiously, after receiving aid, some families were removed from the list of poor households. Thus, many families were suddenly “no longer poor,” much to their surprise.
Although such policies have been supposedly “open,” spaces for evaluating and criticizing policies remain to be found, posing huge questions about the future for localities. Mrs. Kieu wishes to have more access to higher authorities and make sure public meetings are really open so that people can speak up. “Local people know full well the topography, streams, and springs. They know how to build the roads accordingly,” Ms. Thuy added.
Mr. Pho’s followed, expressing his wish for them to “believe in the local people, trust them” – a sentiment shared by many people in attendance.
Session 2: Better Support Programs
What waste might be avoided with better methods?
At the second session of the discussion, The Pioneer members talked about the wastefulness of how poverty reduction policies were implemented and identified some solutions to the situation.
In Chi Lang district, Lang Son province, the poverty reduction program supposedly provided many households with acacia seedlings. However, the families who had registered for acacia mangium trees received acacia hybrid ones instead. According to local people speaking from experience, acacia hybrid trees are vulnerable to termites and not profitable. However, the families still accepted the acacia hybrid ones because they thought, “I’ll just take what the project gives,” or, “if I don’t take it, I will not receive aid in the future.” The fact that support projects such as these do not actually meet people’s needs and lead to wastefulness isn’t unique to Lang Son.
Mr. Phan Anh Thai, from Thai Nguyen, shared his story about when his family received fertilizer aid several years ago. “My field is two pole units wide but I was given only three quintals of fertilizer, all of which was basal fertilizers. It has been three-to-four years, but I still haven’t used up. I think this is real wastefulness for both my family and the government,” he said. Not only Mr. Phan Anh Thai, but many other households in the hamlet felt uncomfortable because they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions.”
Mr. Ma Van Hung – a member of The Pioneer in Lang Son – explained that he believed the wastefulness comes from the fact that support projects do not meet people’s needs. “I, myself, think that each household should be supported according to their own needs. In this way, we can avoid wastefulness for the people. All of us need to find ways to avoid wastefulness. It’s us who pay taxes, not the government. It’s the people’s money and the people’s loss, not the government’s,” he said.
Ms. Luong Thi Ngoc – a member of The Pioneers from Thai Nguyen – shared the same view. She felt that policies should consider people’s voice and that policymakers need to contact people to find out their real needs. “The policies are appropriate but people have no choice. We take home the aid even though we cannot use it; we still accept because we fear we will be disadvantaged if we do not,” she said.
It is apparent that deep inside people’s hearts, they want to keep some independence when working to bring their families out of poverty. Mr. Kray Suc – a member of The Pioneers from Quang Tri highlighted the fact that in order for the projects to be effective, they must rely on community strength.
“Policies must reflect people’s needs, and policymakers must put their trust in people, let people decide,” Mr. Hung said. According to him, these projects want to provide people with “fishing rods,” but not all families are good at fishing. Each household has their own strength, adding, “People should be encouraged to be independent instead of having others decide for them.”
Session 3: Discussion With Experts
“I have thought about many questions. Why did such a well-invested, government policy turn out to be this wasteful? Since when have we had to bitterly say ‘we do not want to get out of poverty’? Since when have we had to live under so much pressure? Since when have we regarded the rich as those of the higher class capable of teaching the poor?” shared Associate Professor Dr. Pham Quynh Phuong (Institute of Cultural Studies – Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences) after listening to people’s stories.
According to Dr. Pham, the drawbacks of the poverty reduction programs stem from the power relations between the State and the people. Since the State has always been considered a ‘father,” the people feel that they do not have the right to demand anything.
This relation leads to prejudicial thoughts such as: “the people do not know anything” or “they are the officers, while we are just the people.” This power balance does not only make the people dependent but also deepens the social prejudices about poor people, ethnic minorities, or vulnerable groups in general. Additionally, the classification of poor households breaks the unity of the community because families compete to gain the aid for “poor households.”
Dr. Hoang Cam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies, commented that these drawbacks might result from interest groups, but mainly it’s caused by the idea: “Because I am better and smarter than them, I can decide what I give to them.” Dr. Hoang Cam spoke of research he conducted in Tay Nguyen, sharing that: “Donors thought Co Ho people needed fertilizers, but many of them sold the fertilizers after receiving it. In fact, they are poor because they do not have enough land, not because they do not know how to do business.” That kind of “giving” only strengthens the prejudice that the poor do not know how to do business.
Moreover, families who refuse aid will be considered careless about eradicating poverty, and therefore receive little mercy from others.
Dr. Hoang Cam believes that the participation of the people, together with rich indigenous knowledge, will help poverty reduction programs better support people.
Dr. Phuong then recommended that poverty reduction projects or programs should find ways to consolidate the strength of people and their community: “I believe in the inner strength of communities because they have lived through ups and downs in history, which enhances their inner strength. Thus, we need to empower, not weaken, that inner strength,” stressed Dr. Phuong.
The sharing of the stories provided observations, experience, and increased the sympathetic understanding of those who did not initially understand. The decision to choose either personal or group work was the main message of The Pioneers who independently organized the program, confidently presented people’s stories, and responded to questions from guests. Their pride as members of The Pioneers was obvious.
Ms. Nguyen Thi Bich Tam, who has accompanied The Pioneers since the group’s beginning 10 years ago, could not help being emotional while watching them confidently stand on the stage. “They are very different now,” she said in an attempt to explain the momentousness of the event.
The image of The Pioneers is just one example of what people can do if they are trusted, supported all given opportunities to build skills. This is the vision of all iSEE, Irish Aid, CARE International, and CECEM’s work. These organizations believe in the communities themselves, and thus help them build their skills so that they can be their own communities’ advocates.
The Pioneers’ journey towards becoming an effective voice for ethnic minorities is still ongoing. They will go even further and mature more, as long as we trust them and move forward together with them to spread their values in society