Despite being a Vietnam–Cambodia-based non-profit organisation committed to a diverse portfolio of activities ranging from improving infrastructure, smart agricultural practices, to creating sustainable employment for underprivileged women, Mekong Plus’ founding director Bernard Kervyn believes that the single most effective tool to eliminate poverty in the region is education.
About 20 years ago when Mekong Plus began seeing success in Vietnam’s coastal Bình Thuận province, Bernard and team sat down with village leaders to brainstorm new solutions and discuss the group’s top priorities.
“We asked the locals what we should continue and what else we should do,” Bernard explained.
The unanimous response turned out to be straightforward and simple—locals wanted children to be able to go to school.
Quoting a memorable comment from a headmaster of a local primary school, “You can improve schools [but] what is the point if the children cannot go?” Bernard added.
Mekong Plus volunteers soon discovered that many hurdles existed for a child from a low-income family in Vietnam to complete twelve years of education. Even from the beginning of the learning journey, compulsory kindergarten lasts for three years and costs almost VND7,000,000 (300USD) annually.
“As a result, many families resort to sending their children for only the last year of kindergarten,” Bernard elaborated.
Without graduating from kindergarten, children are not allowed to attend primary school in Vietnam. As a result of missing the first two years of education due to financial struggles, many children in poorer regions also experience learning difficulties when they enter primary school.
In the early-2000s, Mekong Plus launched its scholarship programme that covers VND500,000 (US$21) for primary and secondary education, and VND1,000,000 (US$43) for high school education annually, representing about 20% of the costs to send a child to school in Vietnam.
These values may seem insignificant to eyes in the developed world, but the programme is a resounding success—an almost non-existent drop-out rate for the 3800 students it supports annually. Keeping the scholarship amount humble also meant that more students can benefit from the programme. As of 2021, approximately 2% of schoolchildren from participating communes receive assistance from the Mekong Plus scholarship programme.
Mekong Plus also believes that every child should have an opportunity to receive assistance even if they do not yet excel in class.
“We even asked the children to choose a classmate that deserves [the scholarship]!” Bernard explained, emphasising that the point of the scholarship goes beyond classroom ability—access to education should be a right for every child.
Despite the region seeing immense economical development in recent years, acute poverty affects more than 5% of Vietnam’s population and Bernard believes that helping the poorest families ensures that students do not drop out of school because of family hardships.
To garner support from the local community, Mekong Plus began questioning how it could place a sense of ownership of the project into the hands of locals.
To achieve that, an annual solidarity run has since been held since 2001 where at least 125,000 individuals from all beneficiary communes run a short 2-kilometre marathon every year before contributing any sum of money they deem fit to the programme. From students, teachers, and parents, to even local officials and policemen, the solidarity run sees locals from all walks of life running for a single shared vision.
In 2019, the event saw locals contribute more than US$40,000. This sum was multiplied threefold with the help of Mekong Plus and its other funders—all of which goes directly into the scholarship fund to benefit even more children in the following year.
“In the beginning, we only provided the scholarship to communes that have at least a thousand participants, [but] we don’t need to enforce that anymore!” Bernard said.
Beyond fundraising and building camaraderie, the visuals of the run motivate beneficiary children to stay in school—something that Mekong Plus believes is only achievable through the combined effort of the community at large.
This September 2022, the annual Mekong Plus Solidarity Run is scheduled to resume after a 2-year pandemic break.
For the very first time since its inauguration, Mekong Plus is welcoming tourists and expatriates to participate in the run and contribute to the scholarship fund while experiencing life in the Mekong Delta on bamboo bicycles made by Mekong Plus’ sister social enterprise Mekong Quilts.
Follow Mekong Plus on Facebook for the latest updates on how you can participate.
Beyond scholarships, Mekong Plus offers interest-free microcredit to underprivileged locals to help kickstart small businesses and small-scale agriculture and livestock farming. From making cakes to farming paddy eels and straw mushrooms, Mekong Plus believes that financial stability and freedom is the swiftest way to lift locals out of the poverty cycle in rural areas.
Visit Mekong Plus’ website for a glimpse of the various beneficiaries that you can opt to sponsor today.
With a budget of less than US$100 per household, Mekong Plus assisted several vegetable-producing families in the rural Long Mỹ district of Vietnam’s Hậu Giang province with the construction of covered vegetable farms with protect crops from heavy rainfall and pests. The benefits go beyond the elimination of pesticides—the ability for farmers to produce pricier off-season vegetables thanks to the technique has helped increase income.
How you can help Mekong Plus
Ultimately, devising long-term solutions that help reduce farming overheads and eliminate practices that cause irreversible damage to arable land is a core tenet at Mekong Plus.
“Between villages, the word is spreading!” Bernard exclaimed optimistically.
Visit Mekong Plus’ website today to find out more about how you can contribute through donations, purpose-driven bicycle tours in the Mekong Delta, and beneficiary-specific sponsorships that help Mekong Plus’ further its commitment to eliminating poverty in the region through sustainable projects focusing on agriculture, education and rural infrastructure.