From the inception of our NGO, Mekong Plus has aimed to establish a central principle, a condition for any support: that there be active participation from the local population to support our actions.
After all, Vietnam does have resources, if not the youth of its population.
We then contacted local authorities to present our point of view and our ambitions to work together.
To my surprise, the principle was adopted! From our very first project in Bình Thuận, the idea was praised and well-received by the official authorities, who agreed to contribute 50% of the funding!
Engaging Local Authorities: A Bad Idea?
Unfortunately, seeking funding from local authorities turned out to be a bad idea.
When Vietnamese local authorities contribute to the funding of an activity, it immediately becomes necessary to comply with official rules, bureaucracy, and official cost scales.
In practice, these constraints often result in increased costs, especially in the case of building a classroom.
We realized that despite the financial support from local authorities, we could have ultimately completed the program at a lower cost by financing the entire project ourselves!
And what about the protocol! After completing the construction of the small classroom, we had to wait for 2 months until an official delegation from various departments was available for the inauguration.
The official visit seemed out of this world, with a convoy of brand new 4×4 vehicles traversing this modest village of the Raglay ethnic minority, one of the poorest in Vietnam.
Once the inspection was complete, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the delegation headed to the best restaurant in town, a bit early for my taste for dinner, but it was mainly about the beer, accompanied by a somewhat inappropriate celebration.
The Need for a New Approach to Organize Our Development Projects
Armed with this very instructive first experience on the realities of projects in the field, we quickly revised our approach.
Rather than sharing the budget equally (50/50), we opted for a distribution of responsibilities between local authorities and our NGO.
This formula allows us to preserve certain advantages, especially not to offend the sensitivity of local authorities who are always involved in our actions.
Take the example of the construction of bridges in the Mekong Delta: we provide the cement, while the villagers, with the support of the authorities, take care of the rest.
Or, regarding support for schools, we take care of teacher training, but not the construction of buildings or salaries and equipment.
Of course, like any new system, this one also has its limitations.
Naturally, Mekong Plus aims to help the most vulnerable villagers, but in practice, it’s not always possible.
When a village requests assistance for building a bridge and a road, we ask for the commitment and contribution of the residents in return, which unfortunately is not always achievable.
Indeed, the immense poverty of some entire villages makes it simply impossible to collect the necessary funds. As for support in manpower, we also face the harsh reality: the poor inhabitants often suffer from poor health conditions that prevent them from contributing the essential labor.
Fortunately, we have at least managed to find a system to fairly determine the contribution of each household involved, based on the width of the land along the road to be built. Thus, those with large plots contribute more than those with a small parcel.
One by one, we try to provide concrete answers to the challenges our organization faces in implementing its projects.
Cases of the Most Deprived
Mekong Plus’s approach is therefore based on close collaboration with local residents, involving them financially in the process.
And in many situations, it works!
Thus, we have succeeded in realizing the construction of more than 440 bridges and roads, infrastructures that now benefit from excellent maintenance, carefully provided by the residents and involved locals.
But this success contrasts with the reality of many isolated villages that, despite needing help, are unable to contribute financially due to their extreme poverty.
How to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged villages?
The complexity of our operation, encompassing over 500 villages in the Mekong Delta, makes it difficult to introduce exceptions, both for philosophical and practical reasons.
It’s a painful reality, but in the absence of real possibilities for shared efforts, we have to postpone our collaborations and aid to these communities.
This situation not only concerns the infrastructure of communities but also affects our housing assistance projects. The construction of a small 40-square-meter concrete house costs at least $3,000, and our organization contributes only $400, with the rest to be provided by neighbors, relatives, or even the parish.
To benefit from our support, each household must have a property
title, even for a modest plot. Absolutely necessary rules to structure our action, but they often collide with harsh realities: the poorest live in huts nestled between the road and the river branch, on plots of land granted by neighbors, and, of course, have no official documents.
The poorest often have to wait two to three years to gather all the necessary contributions. Until then, they must accept living under a leaky thatched roof. The children of a household in Dúc Linh report: “When it rains, we sleep sitting in a corner.”.
So, whenever possible, Mekong Plus tries to “prime the pump” by helping these households generate income through an economic activity funded by our micro-credit system. This is the best way for them to achieve a start of financial independence and later make community-wide projects possible.
By training new “entrepreneurs” in the villages and providing them with the financial means to realize their projects, Mekong Plus ultimately relies on economic growth and improved aid opportunities.
Ensuring Access to Education Above All
Faced with difficulties in our infrastructure or housing aid programs, we do not give up: there must be a way to help these communities endangered by extreme poverty!
So, as always, the best way is to talk directly to those involved. And at our next meeting in the field, the question was debated: “We can’t do everything, what are the priorities?“
Very quickly, unanimously, and despite the long list of pressing needs, an answer emerged: “All children must be able to go to school“.
Because despite popular beliefs among the general public, our donors, or volunteers, Vietnam, a communist country, does not provide education for free, but has a national scale fee schedule, which is detailed as follows for students in rural areas – excluding ethnic minorities (where we operate, note that urban areas have a surcharge):
- For kindergarten and primary school students:
- VNĐ50,000-220,000 per month per student (2 to 9 USD)
- For middle school students:
- VNĐ50,000-270,000 per month per student. (2 to 11 USD)
- For high school students:
- VNĐ70,000-330,000 per month per student. (3 to 13.5 USD)
These figures should be put into perspective with the minimum wage in the poorest rural areas, set at 3,445,000 VND in 2024 (approximately 140 USD). Moreover, this minimum wage is not affordable for many Vietnamese, as many still live on 1 or 2 dollars a day.
Thus, for a household with a single income and two children, the enrollment costs alone represent up to 20% of the budget at the high school level. And for Vietnamese living on 2 dollars a day, it’s even worse.
As a result, school dropout rates in Vietnam are very high in poor families, contributing to perpetuating the cycle of poverty. And what about girls or women abandoned or beaten by their spouse, too bitter to bear such a burden.
Once again, Mekong Plus keeps faith in its operating philosophy to propose a solution for everyone and thus breathe life into the most challenging cases.
Thus, at the suggestion of the villagers, every year in September, Mekong Plus organizes a “Solidarity Run”, involving thousands of locals, who, at the finish line, willingly make a personal donation to grow a fund dedicated to education.
This initiative is one of our greatest successes!
Every year, nearly 200,000 participants run 2-3 km, raising funds that have reached up to 64,000 USD. Thus, at a rate of just under 10,000 VND per person (about 30 cents USD), with everyone’s participation, we support the funding effort for the education of the most vulnerable, approximately 3% of scholarship recipients who can continue their education!
Such is the sometimes complex but always stimulating reality of Mekong Plus’ commitment to disadvantaged communities in Vietnam.
In the face of challenges, our organization strives to continuously readjust its strategy, favoring close collaboration with local residents.
By all means, our goal is to promote the development of increasingly autonomous and healthy communities.
Join us now in this fight!