Challenges of NGOs and NPOs in Vietnam when undertaking activities promoting UN Sustainable Development

According to Mr. Tuan Anh, a staff at UNICEF Vietnam, most events promoting sustainable development in Vietnam generally focus on the immediate results rather than the impacts on society. Mr. Thanh, a program coordinator at an NGO, also revealed that to achieve those results, social organizations are undertaking unsustainable activities. What are the challenges that NGOs and NPOs in Vietnam are facing in accomplishing SDGs? What are the explanations for those existing obstacles? What do leaders think about the future of sustainable development in Vietnam?

1. The definition of sustainable development and the process of promoting it in Vietnam

The most quoted definition of Sustainable Development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” published by Our Common Future (Brundtland Report).

The concept of developing a sustainable world has been relatively new in Vietnam, but it proved to be growing in popularity in recent decades. Along with impressive economic growth, Vietnam has paid certain attention to the sustainability of developing activities, with mounting contribution made by Vietnamese government, enterprises and individuals. For example, Vietnam has taken part in international organizations and agreements to show commitment to sustainable development such as United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Also, an increasing number of campaigns promoting sustainable development have also been launched by various non-governmental and non-profit organizations with the active participation of Vietnamese citizens. An illustration for this is the collecting garbage campaign along beaches in Vietnam, attracting more than 1000 students joining hands to mitigate adverse effects of climate change.

However, statistics may have set false images of the sustainable development process in Vietnam. Generally, much progress is thought to be made by simply looking at the promising results of those activities. In fact, the majority of those campaigns are currently held by youth organizations; therefore, many difficulties and obstacles exist in achieving such an ambitious goal. Consequently, by providing different perspectives of representatives from intergovernmental organizations such as UNICEF to social organizations including VSS and CSDS, the article aims to shed the light on the remaining challenges they encounter in conducting those sustainable development related activities. The article also illuminates on the reasons for those obstacles and then mentions some opinions of several staff regarding the future of sustainable development in Vietnam.

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2. Challenges of social organizations 

As for social organizations, who actualize Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a wide range of activities, campaigns and programs, they reported encountering many challenges. Given that each organization focuses specifically on several SDGs, difficulties vary significantly from one to another.

(Interview with Ms. Thuong – Nouvelles Team)

According to Ms. Thuong, a project assistant at Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS), beside visible effects, there are prevailing difficulties in maintaining the sustainability of projects, or more specifically, in protecting the environment. For example, during the promotion process prior to many events hosted by CSDS, organizers have to use printed banners, backdrops and other publications which negatively affect the environment. Additionally, using disposable plastic products such as cups, nylon bags or straws during the events is still the organizers’ worry.

(Interview with Mr. Thanh – Nouvelles Team)

Besides, Mr. Thanh, a staff at an NGO requesting anonymity, also shared his viewpoint on this topic by taking Earth Hour in Vietnam as an example. He did not support it at first because organizers print a lot of shirts, banners, slogans and formex signs. He knows the origin of those products and their life cycle and finds the way they use them quite contradictory to the message they convey. Despite several positive minor changes, they have not changed their organizing motif for the past few years which is using banners, slogans, shirts, and gathering  a large number of people at one place at the same time. He perceived it as an unsustainable way and a difficulty they are having.

(Interview with Mr. Duc – Nouvelles Team)

Regarding the obstacles of Vietnam Sustainable Space (VSS), Mr. Duc, director of the organization, revealed that the number of people joining their weekly events is not stable. The number will change based on the content of the event as well as how well the marketing and communication works. This is also the concern of Ms. Trang, a staff at VSS when she mentioned her team’s difficulties in designing the event content to get more people involved. Ms. Trang also shared a bigger challenge of attracting people’s attention towards these issues and achieving the organization’s major goal which is inspiring people about sustainable living styles.

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3. Reasons for above-mentioned challenges

Explaining the reasons for those challenges in undertaking SDGs-related events, several staff from some organizations, namely Mr. Tuan Anh (an officer from UNICEF), Mr. Thanh (a staff at an NGO requesting anonymity), Mr. Long (former organizing committee president of a youth organization requesting anonymity), Mr. Duc (the director of VSS), and Ms. Thuong (a program assistant at CSDS) shared some of their viewpoints.

(Interview with Mr. Bao Long – Nouvelles Team)

From Mr. Tuan Anh’s perspective, there are four major reasons.

The first reason is the limited public awareness about the topic. The majority have not yet understood what is sustainable development, and the people who have a thorough understanding are those working in this field. This viewpoint is also shared by Mr. Long and Ms. Thuong. Mr. Long views that the term “sustainable development” itself is quite broad and relatively new to participants. Some events generally convey the message of what is sustainable development, and given that it is an all-embracing term, attracting public attention is a prevailing difficulty. People tend to consider it as a topic beyond their understanding and they have not yet thought that sustainable development is a far-reaching goal. Meanwhile, Ms. Thuong admits that most young people in Vietnam have not possessed a firm knowledge of what is sustainable development.

The second reason is that Vietnam is a developing country having many priorities beside sustainable development that need the state budget to be solved. Those include developing the economy and tackling social issues. Therefore, it creates the financial hindrance for most activities which are relying on that budget. This is also the concern of Ms. Thuong when she organizes events and activities for her organization. She shares that one of the biggest obstacles in reducing plastic products is the expense of environmentally friendly products. For example, an event using reusable glass cups or water bottles costs much higher than that using disposable products. Therefore, to assure the sustainability of those activities is a challenge when financial resources are limited.

The third reason is that the law and policy system in Vietnam have not yet been supportive for programs to be well organized. “Several activities are even considered “sensitive” and needs to be supervised”, said Mr. Tuan Anh. From the same standpoint, Mr. Thanh mentions a fact that there has not been any legal recognition for the existence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Whenever he goes, he can only introduce himself as a staff in a social organization or a non-profit organization (NPO) because those are familiar terms. Regarding the term “NGO”, despite having existed for nearly 30 years, it has not been known by many. When he introduces it, people often perceive as volunteering and charitable activities, and nowhere in their minds exists the notion about organizations working on community development. Furthermore, because of this situation, when his organization approaches targeted communities, they find it difficult to convince local residents to believe in the programs they are conducting.

The fourth reason is the requirements for activities and programs to present their results upon finishing. Consequently, the organizing committee often focus on instantly visible outcomes rather than the long-term impacts on society. This is also the explanation for Mr. Long’s opinion about holding SDGs-related events being a trend rather than specific actions to achieve sustainable development. People just know something about the term, but making people take actions still remains a long-term process.

Besides, Mr. Duc believes that the mismatch between the organisation’s mission and the public’s need is the key reason for the unstable number of participants in events and activities. Sustainable development is the aim of organizations, but it might not be the purpose of the majority. If people find the event suitable for their needs, then they will participate in. After all, it is a need-based question. 

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4. Assessment on the current situation and future anticipation 

Evaluating the current situation of sustainable development in Vietnam, Mr. Thanh shows a positive attitude towards the development process. Sustainable development is introduced and employed by Vietnamese government, not by any foreign organizations, non-governmental sector or any related parties. Vietnamese government has also taken steps in assessing the current socio-economic situation as well as publishing a suitable VSDG framework. He also finds it promising when more young people are being aware of sustainable development goals.

According to Mr. Long, in the future, there will be many organizations working on sustainable development, but their change in society will be slow because a few people have fully understood such a broad concept. However, he thinks the influence will be more pervasive because the social and cultural life in Vietnam is becoming more civilized with higher awareness of individuals, especially young people. Sustainable lifestyle will be a way for people to express that they do care about social issues and they do contribute to the society.

Nouvelles Team

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