|Volume 11, Issue 1||Interchange||April 2001|
In the late 1980s, Australia's aid program to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was reinstated, having been suspended during Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. However, in September 1985, several years before the Australian Government had reestablished its official development assistance program, Australian Volunteers International had placed an English teacher in Hanoi on a 10month assignment via the Swedish Government Aid Agency, SIDA. Following visits from senior staff, including the Chief Executive Officer, Bill Armstrong, in early 1988, Australian Volunteers International, undertook a feasibility study to explore the potential for skilled English language teachers to provide assistance to a range of educational institutions throughout the country. This led to the establishment of a program of Summer Vacation Workshops which, over a five year period, provided inservice training for over 1,000 Vietnamese English language teachers from a wide range of locations around the country, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hue and Da Lat. A key institutional partner in conducting these programs was the Hanoi Foreign Language Teacher Training College.
At around the same time, in partnership with the Forest Science Institute of Vietnam and with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Australian Volunteers International also assigned Australian Volunteers to work on a fouryear forestry project in Dong Nai and Binh Phuoc (formerly known as Song Be) provinces, aimed at regenerating areas completely destroyed by the war.
In the late `80s it wasn't easy for a foreigner living in Vietnam. There were very few Australians in residence and it was difficult for a foreigner to be accepted into Vietnamese society. Furthermore, accommodation and resources were severely limited. Despite these problems, field reports from the time indicate much optimism in the potential of volunteers from Australia to contribute to the development of Vietnam. By 1992, in its first four years of operation, Australian Volunteers International had assigned over 40 skilled personnel working in education, health and forestry projects throughout Vietnam.
The following year the situation in Vietnam changed significantly. Australia had reestablished its official development assistance program; there was talk of the United States lifting its trade embargo; and a lot of `new money' began entering the country. By then, the contribution being made by Australian Volunteers International was highly regarded by the Vietnamese people at a range of levels, including government, institutional and within village communities. In partnership with the United Nations Volunteer program, work expanded to include such positions as development economists, sea dike engineers and environmental awareness officers.
During the years 1993-94, as well as continuing to expand it programs into different sectoral and geographic areas, Australian Volunteers International gave special attention to increasing the number of positions available to younger Australian graduates working as native English language teachers in secondary schools.
Commencing in 1996, additional placements were made in several projects being implemented by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Other activities included the provision of English language training to 176 senior Vietnamese Government officials via an AusAID funded project. Among the more atypical positions filled by Australian Volunteers in the mid 1990s was a sports coach assigned to work with the Ho Chi Minh City Basketball Federation.
Budgetary constraints came into play in 1997; ushering in a policy of containment rather than expansion. Nonetheless, a further 19 Australian Volunteers were placed during the 199798 financial year; several assigned to provincial locations. Meanwhile, the wealth gap between urban and rural areas in Vietnam has continued to increase. During the 10 year period from 1988 to 1998 Australian Volunteers International spent around $5.8 million on its programs in Vietnam. Over this period, some 160 skilled Australian Volunteers have worked in a wide variety of different occupations, living in urban, provincial and sometimes very remote communities.
Regardless of their location, Australian Volunteers International programs must always be evolving rather than static. What has worked for the past 10 years may not necessarily work for the next decade and beyond. So, in evaluating what has been done in Vietnam, it has been important to find out what the Vietnamese themselves thought of AVI programs and what they want from the organization in the future.
Just as Vietnam is currently undergoing enormous change and renewal, it's becoming quite clear that AVI programs also need to adapt in order to assist this most industrious of nations. Having established some very meaningful, longterm partnerships via past activities, planning is being done to build on the relationships formed in order to expand the volunteer programs. Also needed is to cement the links made with other international development organizations, such as AusAID, UNDP and other UN agencies, with a view to participating in more combined programs in the future.
Among other things, the Vietnamese reported that they would like to increase AVI presence in agricultural and environmental programs. Realizing that core programs in Vietnam have centred around English language teaching, again the Vietnamese said that they want more native English speakers to provide training at both a secondary and tertiary level and to provide more teachers of English for specific purposes. This means placing a greater emphasis and effort on recruiting appropriately skilled volunteers back in Australia.
The Vietnam evaluation trip has shown that Australian Volunteers International needs to build on its success of the past 10 years to make the next decade even more fruitful. There is no doubt that Vietnam will continue to be a priority area for Australian Volunteers International.
Contact AVI at email@example.com.
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