VSO is an international development charity that works through volunteers

Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world

HDI ranking: ranked 108 out of 174 countries
The UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) measures a countryís achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income.

Background to the VSO programme

In the mid-1980s, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world. The introduction of restructuring policies in the late 1980s, as the Communist party opened the doors to the western world, led to a dramatic improvement, with Vietnam hailed as the new Asian tiger. By 1999, real incomes per capita doubled, inflation dropped and economic growth hit 10%, resulting in a dramatic increase in the standard of living of Vietnamese people.

However, not all have felt the benefits. The economy was affected by the Asian economic crisis in 1998 and by natural disasters, most recently by flooding in central and southern Vietnam in September 2000, which was reported to be the worst for 40 years. Meanwhile, support services for vulnerable households (and social provision in general) has decreased, especially in health and education. Economic inequality has also increased, since most investors focus only on Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The government has placed great emphasis on encouraging further investment, but some of the associated reforms, such as the opening of state-owned enterprises to free competition (a pre-requisite for membership of the World Trade Organization) raise the spectre of mass unemployment. Economic reform is continuing although by 2000, growth had slowed down to 4% and western investment interest waned. Sections of the Communist party seem reluctant to commit fully to a free economy and investors are discouraged by red tape and corruption. What was expected to become a tiger remains a kitten.

However, the bilateral trade agreement signed with the US has opened American and other markets to Vietnamese producers, and this has raised expectations in some quarters of renewed and increased economic growth. Whether this optimism is justified remains to be seen, as protectionist policies in the past have not made Vietnmese producers competitive.

The government, whilst encouraging overseas investment and development assistance, is wary of negative outside influences. All activities of international non-government organisations (NGOs) are subject to close scrutiny and bureaucratic controls can slow down procedures. All local organisations are in some way related to government departments, but the government is considering legislation to allow the formation of independent local NGOs. Meanwhile, government services suffer from a chronic funding shortage at all levels.

Most Vietnamese remain poor: while the average annual income in Ho Chi Minh City is US$1000, half the population lives on less than $100 per year. Ninety per cent of poor people live in rural areas, especially in the north-central coast region, the Northern Uplands and the Mekong Delta. Those without education, from ethnic minority backgrounds and social migrants (including children) are the poorest. Women are generally worse off than men.

The VSO programme

The government views English as the main language of development and as the means of access to information from the outside world. English-language teacher training is the backbone of VSOís programme in Vietnam, aiming to benefit disadvantaged groups in the poorest provinces. The programme has diversified into related sectors.

Nearly all ELT volunteers work as teacher trainers in under-resourced junior teachersí colleges, which train teachers for the poorest provinces. The volunteers are at the forefront of introducing communicative methodology through a pilot in-service English Language Teacher Training project. This involves workshops, demonstration lessons, classroom observation and follow-up in junior secondary schools throughout the province. In order to improve the quality and accessibility of education to disadvantaged groups, volunteers also provide primary teachers with pre-school and in-service training, in co-operation with three other international NGOs.

VSO is in the process of diversifing its education programme to target children excluded from the state education system. In 2000, VSO started a programme of sharing learning and experience with the major players in the primary education sector. VSO is also researching the potential for volunteers to work in in special needs centres, providing in-service training to staff and vocational training and occupational therapy for disabled children. There are plans to place volunteers with organisations providing education and vocational training to street children.

After education, VSOís second strategic aim is to help disadvantaged people earn a livelihood by making sustainable and appropriate use of natural resources and generating off-farm household income. VSO places volunteers in national parks, in areas like eco-tourism, environmental education and English-language training for staff, so that services to tourists can be developed to provide a new source of income.

VSO Vietnam supports the formation and growth of local NGOs, in line with the extent allowed by the law, who can work with and for disadvantaged groups. VSO aims to build the capacity of these organisations to deliver services and in particular help them to prioritise the needs of disadvantaged women.


Programme sector or theme

Number of volunteers


ELT/English teacher training/primary education



ELT in national parks and natural resources



Environmental education



Vocational training



Total programme


The volunteer's perspective

"Itís not just the colour of my skin that makes me a foreigner. Itís the tall, sleek, expensive-looking facade of the instituteís guesthouse, fenced off from the street by a big iron gate through which pass only foreigners. Next door, a row of shacks has been rebuilt to house an old woman who sells cigarettes, the motorbike-taxi driver, his bike-washing wife and their bicycle-pumping kids. These people are, in fact, what links me with Vietnam. Within the white walls of the guesthouse, we are cut off from the country in which we live. Popping out for cigarettes, on the other hand, I sit on a wooden stool and banter with the old woman over a cup of green tea. The mechanicís four-year-old daughter climbs on my back. Then her mother warns me to bring in my washing Ė thereís going to be a storm. A life in the community is not as easy to lead as in Ha Long where I used to work. In the provinces, it is possible to pretend you are Vietnamese. In the capital, it is impossible to forget you are a foreigner. "

The partner's perspective

"VSO has helped us very much, given that our college is facing certain difficulties. VSO has pursued its aim: volunteers working overseas for a better world. "