Giles Lever, UK Ambassador to Vietnam

Giles Lever

British Ambassador to Vietnam

Part of FCDO Human Rights

17th September 2015 Hanoi, Vietnam

Civil Society in Vietnam

Tuesday was International Day of Democracy, and the global theme chosen by the UN was “Making Space for Civil Society”. We took this literally, and made some space at my house in Hanoi for civil society representatives and activists to come and talk about the changing landscape for civil society in Vietnam, the opportunities and challenges.

civil society

My colleague Rob Fenn in London wrote a great blog last year on “What is Civil Society?”   This set out why, for the British government, working with civil society overseas as well as at home is important: not just in the context of human rights and values, but also shared prosperity and development. Countries flourish when they make space for individuals and communities to organise and engage on the things that matter to them.

This is shaping up to be an important year for civil society in Vietnam. This spring in Hanoi, many different groups and individuals, ranging from architects to housewives, took to the streets and the internet in a common cause: to protest against plans to cut down 7,000 of the trees that give the city its charm. It felt like a groundbreaking moment for civil society in Vietnam, as Hanoians spontaneously identified a shared interest in protecting part of the fabric of their life, and organised to make their voices heard.

Now another big moment for Vietnamese civil society is in view. It’s reported that Vietnam’s draft Law on Associations will go to the National Assembly for its first reading this autumn. As Rob said in his blog, it can be tricky to define civil society. The fact that the draft Law has been in preparation for almost years, suggests that Vietnam’s policy-makers haven’t found it easy either.

Mass organisations like the Women’s Union and Youth Union have been an important part of the social landscape in Vietnam for a long time. But the emergence of small, autonomous community-based organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups has only really happened in the last 25 years. In that time, many have already had a tremendous impact in areas ranging from LGBT rights, to economic policy-making, to development in isolated rural communities.

My lunch guests agreed that the current patchwork of regulations governing the sector in Vietnam is confusing, and needs clarifying and updating. But they all hoped, too, that the Law on Associations would focus on encouraging civil society to expand and thrive, rather than on tightening state control and supervision.

My guests had some messages for donors too: to recognise that building civil society is a long-term process, and that our preference for one-year projects with a heavy emphasis on short-term outcomes and lots of bureaucratic reporting requirements is not always the best way of delivering support. In turn, they were quite surprised to hear that even relatively small Embassy projects can receive a high level of public scrutiny back in the UK – which means we always need to be as clear as possible about how our funding is being used to make a difference.

One answer to the question of “what is civil society?” is that you know it when you see it. And I certainly saw it on Tuesday, as our guests traded passionate, articulate opinions about civil society’s contribution to Vietnam’s development, and the best way to engage with the authorities. I came away feeling inspired by the energy and commitment in the room. Let’s hope that the best is yet to come for civil society in Vietnam.

1 comment on “Civil Society in Vietnam

  1. I believe your lunch guests didn’t have to to register with any State agencies to be there with you. So is the EU Delegation to Vietnam directing all of its funds to only registered civil society organizations? Hopefully someone somewhere from the EU will give it a think.

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About Giles Lever

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a…

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a country and a region I know well.

My very first job in the FCO, in 1991, was in the Southeast Asia Department, and that was followed by a posting to Vietnam from 1993-97 – an exciting time, as the “doi moi” process of economic reform and opening up gathered pace.

East Asia has been a bit of a theme in my career, as I also worked at the British Embassy in Tokyo from 2002-2006 (preceded by two years learning Japanese). But I’ve also been fortunate enough to work on a lot of other interesting regions and issues, including on the Middle East and North Africa, international development, and arms control/security. Immediately before coming back to Hanoi, I was Deputy High Commissioner in Abuja, Nigeria.

Outside of work, when I have time, I like running, reading, exploring, and trying to stay in touch from afar with the fortunes of Bolton Wanderers FC. Many of my Vietnamese friends love Premier League football, and are invariably disappointed to hear that the team I support is not in the Premiership!

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