Making a difference in remote Vietnam

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A Frenchman is providing clean water, health care in poor rural areas

Alain Dussarps (middle) receives a certificate of merit as the first foreigner to win a Vietnam National Volunteer Award in Hanoi on December 4

"Mr. Clean Water from the West."

The sobriquet given by many people from the Sedang ethnic group in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai sits well on Alain Dussarps. He says it is "one happiness" he has gained after implementing a clean water project for the group.

Dussarps is the chairman of the Paris-based Association for Technical and Cultural Co-operation (ACOTEC) that has carried out more than 300 projects to improve livelihoods and living conditions in rural and mountainous areas of nearly 50 provinces and cities since 1989, most of them in Vietnam and several others in Cuba and Mali.

The projects saw him become the first foreigner to receive the Vietnam National Volunteer Award, one granted in conjunction with the United Nations Volunteers Program. Five individuals and as many organizations were honored at the 45th edition of the wards at a ceremony held earlier this month.

Dussarps's projects have cost more than US$2.43 million and he has spent a lot of his own savings as well as money taken from his wife, friends, children and others in France.

He said he does not give anyone money, and he does not like doing that either. He wants to give disadvantaged communities a better environment for them to make a living.

His projects are about clean water systems, support for food and typhoon responses, health services, charity schools and classes, vocational training, agriculture assistance, and homes and education scholarships for Agent Orange victims.

The aim, he said, is to raise the population's literacy through poverty alleviation. Each project requires time spent on researching local conditions so that the best support can be identified. 

A recent project gave cows and goats to a group of people in the northern highlands province of Cao Bang.

Dussarps said his money could only buy a few cows and goats but there were too many poor families.

He started with dividing the community into groups of families and giving each a pair of cattle. The young ones were distributed among the group members that helped deliver them. A year into the project, several dozen households have been able to start a breeding farm.

Dussarps returns to visit the communities regularly, interviewing them himself to assess the results of his projects. He has used his pension fund savings to make 44 trips so far.

The Frenchman said he had been impressed by Vietnam since he was a young man, when he had no idea what the country looked like.

He heard on the radio about Vietnam's victory against France in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, ending colonialism in the country.

"My country was the loser. But all I felt was admiration for the Vietnamese people, so I always wished to visit the country some time," he said.

The first visit was a brief one, when Dussarps, then working for a French electricity and gas company, came to help install a power system for the Pasteur Institute in Ho Chi Minh City in 1986.

Between 1989 and 1992, he returned to Pasteur Institute to help build laboratories for producing tuberculosis vaccine and clinical medical research. He also helped build facilities for eye surgeries and other treatment at Ho Chi Minh City Ophthalmology Institute.

Since he retired, he has spent most of his time and all his money on devoting to the "less lucky" people in Vietnam.

ACOTEC was established in 1996 by him and other members of his former company.

Whenever he faced difficulties in his own life, thinking about the poor people in Vietnam gave him strength, Dussarps said.

Upon receiving the award in Hanoi, he said that despite the fact that he cannot speak or understand the Vietnamese language, his heart is open to the difficulties of many Vietnamese people.

"The volunteer projects in Vietnam will continue for as long as I have the strength to travel regularly to Vietnam," said Dussarps, who is 65 years old.

But even after him, a group of people that he has brought together will be as passionate about Vietnam and keep the mission going, he said.

Dussarps said there have been occasional hiccups in fund-raising efforts as many people in his hometown, Paris, still harbor hard feelings for Vietnam.

In such situations, he would talk to them about all his experiences in Vietnam and show them pictures he has taken himself and has displayed around France.

He keeps thousands of photos of Vietnamese scenes and daily life. His personal collection also includes the costumes of 33 Vietnamese ethnic groups, most of them souvenirs from people he has helped.

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