From individual responsibility to group strength

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 12:15

Having not visited Vietnam for over twenty years, the first thing that struck me was how much things have changed. Ho Chi Minh is a modern metropolis and our trip south started on a modern new highway - a far cry from my memories of 1993!

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of joining the ActionAid Vietnam team (including Thao - Country Director, Hien - the Head of Fundraising, and Programme colleagues) on a visit to a Local Rights Programme (LRP) in the Vinh Long province in the Mekong Delta, west of Ho Chi Minh City.

After three and a half hour going past lush rice fields, our first stop was to visit ActionAid's partner in the province. The Supporting Programme for Development (SPD) of Vung Liem District is a long term partner of ActionAid and in our meeting, SPD's programme coordinator, Mr. Ngo Van Tuong, outlined some of the recent achievements of their ActionAid supported programme. Through the programme, SPD and ActionAid have:

  • Supported 480 local people (including 250 women) with access to alternative off-farm livelihoods.
  • Supported a successful programme of training around mushroom cultivation (see the great story on this just below).
  • Trained 9 groups of women and youth to be able to engage effectively in dialogue with local officials on good governance and public service.
  • Organised local communities to conduct Participatory Vulnerability Analysis as the basis for advocacy on community based resilience plans.
  • Supported more than 500 women with gender-based violence and gender discrimination training.

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We visited a local family who have benefited from ActionAid's work in the area. Nguyen Van Viet and his wife, Nua, live with their 10 year old daughter in a modest home in the area. Viet and Nua have a small plot of land and the rice they plant on it is usually not enough to last for four months of the year. Neither of them have an alternative full time job. Between the crops, Viet does manage to get some work as a hired labourer but earns only about £2 per day for this work.

Viet is a member of the Farmers' Union and there he learnt to cultivate mushrooms from rice husks. Possible for only three months per year, his mushroom work used to yield about $200 per month. But in 2013, Viet had the chance to join ActionAid’s alternative livelihoods group. There he learnt about new ways of working and new options for his family’s livelihood. He participated in training organised by SDP to improve the efficiency of mushroom cultivation. Impressively, he is now able to generate $800 in those three harvest months - an amazing difference that is having a fundamental impact on life quality and security for him, Nua and their daughter.

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And it gets better. Viet is now using the knowledge he acquired to train his neighbours and friends - a fantastic example of a community based approach to sustainable livelihoods work. He has helped four other poor families like his own to generate additional income through the recycling of agricultural by-products.

In the past, Viet and some others in the village sold the mushrooms as individual producers. Now, with ActionAid's support, they have also been organized into a group, so that they can negotiate better with intermediaries on price. During our discussion, he was happily talking about the day when his group will be able to sell the mushrooms throughout the year to supermarkets in Hochiminh City!

Viet is so proud of his wife and daughter and he smiled warmly as he described his gratitude to ActionAid for empowering him to make these changes in his life. The family’s hospitality and grace were humbling and I was moved by a great story of change to the lives of these three people. The challenge now is to scale this great mushroom cultivation work to enable more families to benefit.

They offered us friendly goodbyes with bashful smiles and three mangos from their tree in the garden. In English, Viet’s daughter invited me to come back and visit. Her good English was proof that this successful livelihoods work actually brings more benefits than just additional income to a poor family.

Our final stop was to join the monthly meeting of a local women's group supported by SDP. Group members are women in the village, who are daily wage workers, house keepers and landless women. The group includes five members who are the poorest in the village with income of less than VND 450,000 (£13) per month. The group members confidently talked about their families, their children, their daily work, their interests and their concerns.

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They explained how they gain insight, support and encouragement from each other. Each month, the group meets to discuss issues of concern: domestic violence, HIV, gender equality and livelihoods. A lot of these women used to face domestic violence from their husbands or in-laws. But with the awareness they gained from the ActionAid and SPD training, and with the support from other group members, the violence has decreased. And all of them are now fully confident to assert their rights with their husbands and in-laws; on issues of reproductive health, control over their own bodies, their time and resources.

Before, I had to hide the fact that I participated in the group meetings but now my husband encourages me to go and he shares the workload with me. He has started asking for my opinion when deciding on things. My family also has an additional income from borrowing the revolving fund of the group to raise pigs. I would like ActionAid to give us more training, especially on household economy management, with a lot of stories and pictures to make it easy to understand, as you did before on other topics.

- Ms. Be Nam, a group member, shared with us.  

It was really great to see how these women have moved from individual vulnerability to group strength – a true testament to the power in people to make change in their own lives.