How can NGOs influence states? Promoting education reform in Vietnam

December 22, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

From Poverty to Power argues that effective states and active citizens between them hold the key to unlocking development, but are states just too big and remote for NGOs to influence? I had some fascinating discussions on this at a workshop in Viet Nam a couple of weeks ago.

For the last 10 years, Oxfam has been piloting child centred methodologies (CCM) in education in deprived, largely ethnic minority areas in Viet Nam’s North-east and the South. This includes teacher training, community participation and strengthening parent-teachers’ associations. From the start, we wanted the state to eventually take over the project and expand it, if it proved successful. We asked provincial authorities to identify the poorest districts and then involved them in the design. There was some negotiation involved – typically, the authorities wanted more buildings and infrastructure, we wanted to promote CCM and community participation – but we resolved this amicably and the officials became increasingly interested in quality issues as Viet Nam achieved universal primary education.

The project is now showing results. Poor children in disadvantaged areas, especially ethnic minority children and girls, are now better able to get good primary education. This has in turn been an effective influencing tool: CCM training for teachers is now being expanded by the  Lao Cai and Tra Vinh provincial governments and the Ministry of Education and Training is poised to adopt a similar model nationwide. Oxfam’s work meanwhile has shifted. We are now supporting the government to adopt these new methods and spending more time on advocacy, for example in monitoring the government’s promises to spend more on education.

What were some of the lessons?
– identify and work with those who hold decision-making power: heads, not just teachers; officials at the right administrative level
– don’t start with the hardest cases – after initially struggling in the very poorest communities (with the worst schools), we moved to the next tier where the chances of success were greater. These became good examples of success for other schools, allowing us to go back to the poorest communities with better chances of success.

All this raises a broader question: why are there particular times and issues when states are more open to new ideas and admit they need help? Some candidates:
– when new issues emerge and interests are not yet entrenched, it is easier for the state to admit ignorance and be more open to help (e.g. climate change?);
– when existing political or economic interests are not immediately threatened;
– where a broad coalition and/or powerful actors support the new idea, so the political wind is favourable;
– where the state is itself divided over the issue (in development, for example, there are often disagreements between finance ministries and spending ministries like health or agriculture)

When states are resistant, rather than listening, then influencing them of course requires a whole different set of tactics, allies and evidence.


December 22, 2008
Duncan Green