Civil Society filling gaps like "small grains of rice"

Aug 6, 2007

It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Viet Nam does not have a civil society. The term is used more and more frequently by Vietnamese scholars, development practitioners, donors and government officials, though without much common understanding of what the term actually means. Pernille Friis, UNDP Programme Officer reports on UNDP support to the development of an active and engaged civil society in Viet Nam.
In a Vietnamese context civil society must be understood by recognising the “fuzzy” boundaries between the state and non-state sectors. In other words, the development of civil society is interconnected with the development of the state itself and the spaces provided by the state for civil society organisations to operate and grow.


These spaces for civil society, once quite limited, are increasing. In the Socio-Economic Development Plan of Viet Nam 2006-2010, the Government encourages the participation of the Vietnamese civil society organisations in public and social services, and in the socio-economic development.

Civil society is made up of an increasing number and diversity of organisations at different levels. Broadly speaking, civil society can be regarded as including the mass-organisations, professional organisations, business organisations, community based organisations and user groups, Vietnamese non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international NGOs, NGO networks, religious groups, and informal groupings and neighbourhood networks. For Vietnamese organisations, it includes many different kinds of associations operating on voluntary principles which are self-funded, non-profit and comply with Viet Nam’s law and Constitution.

The Centre for Public Health and Community Development (CEPHAD) is one such civil society organisation, a Vietnamese NGO. CEPHAD is working in the fields of health, HIV/AIDS, gender, and community development. It is registered under the Viet Nam Psycho-Pedagogical Association (VPPA), a member of the Viet Nam Union for Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA). CEPHAD’s project activities are funded by international NGOs.

Ms Pham Thi Le is a Project Officer with CEPHAD. She explains the Centre’s activities are like small grains of rice to fill the gaps that the Government is unable to. She believes there is a great need for NGOs to contribute to poverty reduction and development at the community level – essentially, to work as the extended arm of the Government.

“NGOs like CEPHAD are working to fill the gaps that the Government cannot fill. What we do is only like small grains of rice,” she said. “Much more is needed to respond to the needs in the communities, but Government and other organisations can cultivate our grains of rice and start to make real progress in meeting those needs.”

Le hopes that space will only grow for NGOs and civil society organisations to take an active part in the implementation of government policies. She also hopes that more will be done in terms of supporting capacity development of civil society organisations to enhance their ability to take a more active part in the socio-economic development process: “In the past limited capacity and resources, poor internal governance structures, an unstable personnel situation and ineffective networking were just some of the challenges faced by NGOs in Viet Nam. But, today much progress is being made with more capacity, improved governance, help from international NGOs and greater recognition by the Government.”

In support of Viet Nam’s own initiatives and efforts in promoting people’s participation and civil society development in Viet Nam, UNDP works to enhance capacities and mechanisms for local associations, organisations and other non-state actors to be actively involved in, oversee and contribute to the reform process. This includes support to the establishment of a more conducive legal environment for NGO development in Viet Nam, capacity building initiatives for non-state actors, research within the field of civil society in the country and promotion of dialogue and consultation between state and non-state actors.


Over the last year UNDP Viet Nam has provided support to civil society development in a number of ways, including:

Technical advice to the drafting of the law on associations (through the Viet Nam Union for Science and Technology Associations, VUSTA) as well as support to dialogue and consultation between the government and the NGO sector in Viet Nam on the draft law.
Support to the implementation of the CIVICUS Civil Society Index (CSI) study, the most comprehensive study on civil society in Viet Nam to date (The Emerging Civil Society: An Initial Assessment of Civil Society in Viet Nam) and a discussion paper on civil society based on the CSI study (Filling the Gap: The emerging Civil Society in Viet Nam)
In collaboration with SNV and the Netherlands Embassy, UNDP supported a multi-stakeholder workshop on “capacity building and strengthening the participation of non-governmental organisations for socio-economic development in Viet Nam,” organised by VUSTA and co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The workshop gathered around 150 participants from the state and non-state sector in Viet Nam, international NGOs, the donor community and international experts.
UNDP is also starting to work in partnership with Vietnamese civil society/umbrella organisations (Viet Nam Lawyers Association and VUSTA, the latter is in pipeline) to strengthen their capacity to support their member organisations and better contribute to the development process in Viet Nam.

Pernille Friis, UNDP Programme Officer

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