The growing NGO lobby

By Michael S. Smith, Thanh Nien News

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Professional lobbyists are gaining ground in Vietnam as shifting laws give stakeholders a larger say in policy making
NGOs in Vietnam are advocating for government policy change as authorities become more open to the role professional lobbyists can play in formulating laws.
Since the 1990s, international Non-Government Organizations’ main work has been helping with Vietnam’s socio-economic development plans. They traditionally provide financial assistance and capacity building in areas such as health, poverty reduction and education by working with local non-profit organizations such as the Vietnam Women’s Union, with lobbying just playing a minor role in their work.
The government, through the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations and the Committee for Foreign Non-Governmental Organization Affairs, has called on them to help in particular areas such as HIV/AIDS and vocational training.
But international integration and the country’s accession to the WTO have paved the way for more lobbying.
“There has been a big change in the process of government policy making in Vietnam,” said Vu Thi Nga, a consultant for the Consultancy on Development (CODE), an NGO that has been helping to bring together government representatives and NGOs at lobby workshops in Hanoi over the last two years.
Nga said there used to be a “top down” system that created a lot of “overlapping” in the Vietnamese legal framework.
But she said that a new law on the promulgation of legal documents passed in June had made the situation better.
The CODE consultant said the new law mandated that law and policy makers must carry out impact assessments of new laws while also proposing solutions to possible risks and consulting public opinion on the new measures.
She said agencies now have to publish draft laws on their website for 60 days.
The grassroots
Nga said CODE was established in March 2007 to carry out development research, advocate for policy, build partners’ advocacy capacity and improve public awareness of the need for lobbying.
She said the non-profit organization was working to help people recognize the need to use professionals to advocate for policy change.
“I think that heightening people’s awareness of lobbying is the thing that must be done immediately in order to build professional lobbying in Vietnam,” she said.
Nguyen Anh Thuan, who consults for PACT Vietnam managing and developing grants from the US government, said that lobbying was more successful than it used to be because members of the government travel a lot more than they used to and they have seen programs working in other countries such as Thailand and Australia.
The consultant with 15 years experience in the HIV/AIDS field, said he had worked with the ministries of Health and Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs to develop policies to help fight the epidemic.
During the building of the Can Tho bridge which started in 2004, he was the first person to alert the Ministry of Health to the HIV/AIDS risk posed when migrant workers are employed on large scale infrastructure construction jobs, he said.
What resulted was a 2006 policy that all big projects with a migrant workforce nationwide must have an HIV prevention program.
He said to advocate policy change, “What we need to have is evidence – for example a risk assessment… need to have an alliance – groups of different NGOs, provincial HIV/AIDS centers – need to have representatives of people affected with HIV and government partners and agencies.”
“You need to have people work with you, do workshops and educate the local media,” he said.
Regarding the HIV issue, the PACT consultant said, “The government has become really open, accepting of the issues” because the manner of advocacy was diplomatic, constructive and well prepared.
He said as a result of his NGO’s lobbying, the Japanese government and the Ministry of Transport allocated US$170,000 for an HIV prevention program in Can Tho for workers and residents and that such programs have spread all over the Greater Mekong Region.
He said that in the context of HIV prevention, he didn’t think the government was shackled by a concern that it was a moral issue, instead he said they just want to see evidence that HIV prevention programs are not going to pose a risk.
He said this is the role of professional advocates for policy change.
According to Nga, there are three main reasons why lobbying operates less effectively in Vietnam than other countries: a lack of professional lobbying organizations to convey information “accurately and effectively” to the government; “distortion of lobbying” in Vietnam by corruption, bribery and wheeling and dealing; and a “too cumbersome” administration system.
“It is difficult for lobbyists to identify who they need to lobby. To improve lobbying activities in Vietnam, the government needs to simplify the administration system and create personal responsibility in machinery of government.”
CODE is currently lobbying for a more sustainable government approach to bauxite mining across the country. The non-profit group organized a workshop with stakeholders in October to find solutions to minimize negative impacts of exploiting bauxite, alumina processing and aluminum refining.
The workshop, organized by CODE, the people’s committee of Dak Nong Province and the Vietnam National Coal – Mineral Industries Group in Gia Nghia Town, Dak Nong Province, discussed in depth the positive and negative impacts of bauxite mining on all aspects of society.
“After collecting the views and research of all stakeholders, we sent the documents to the Prime Minister and other relevant ministries to discuss in the National Assembly meetings. We hope it could make some important changes,” Nga said.

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