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Social enterprise in Vietnam

19 November 2018

The article at a glance

Vietnam is a country with great potential for social enterprise. Belinda Bell, Director of Cambridge Social Ventures at Cambridge Judge Business School, …

Vietnam is a country with great potential for social enterprise. Belinda Bell, Director of Cambridge Social Ventures at Cambridge Judge Business School, discusses how such promise might be fulfilled.

Evening view of Old Town in Hoi An city, Vietnam. Hoi An is situated on the east coast of Vietnam. Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its historical buildings.
Dr Belinda Bell
Dr Belinda Bell

Belinda Bell, Director of Cambridge Social Ventures at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge, recently lectured on social enterprise and social innovation at a number of Vietnamese universities. She also met with government and university officials to discuss providing business incubation support to social entrepreneurs, and visited a number of social enterprises around the country.

In this blog post, Belinda discusses how Vietnam is a country with great promise for social enterprise, and how culturally specific issues may work to allow more social enterprises to flourish there.

Vietnam is a single-party communist state. However, since the 1980s the country has enacted a policy known as đổimới, which is essentially a number of economic reforms aimed at creating a socialist-oriented market economy. The opening up of the economy has resulted in rapid economic growth and it is now ranked as a middle-income country. As seen through a tourist-eye view this is evidenced by the vast number of scooters on the streets (and associated air quality issues).

Dổi mới potentially provides an unusual if not unique context for the development of a vibrant social enterprise economy. The intention of the policy was to create an economy that strengthened socialism. However,in its enactment there has been little evidence of this and inequality –particularly between rural and urban citizens – is stark. There is political and cultural recognition that rapacious capitalism has not and will not provide a sustainable and just economy.

Social enterprise posits itself as a form of enterprise in which equality is part of the design. Many social enterprises work directly to contribute to fairer societies and all social enterprises are implicitly part of this endeavour. Within the Vietnamese context the opportunities for social enterprise are potentially significant.

And yet social enterprise remains fairly nascent in the country. My take on this, after a short visit, is that there is a need for role models and examples of what social enterprise is to be very explicitly promoted. The worldwide dominance of mainstream capitalist rhetoric means that until people see what social enterprises are like “in the flesh” they often find it hard to believe that words such as “social” and “enterprise” can exist together – let alone a social enterprise-based economy.

One of the interesting things a visitor to Vietnam may notice is that, presumably as a result of the American War (or the Vietnam War as it is referred to in the West), the Vietnamese people are considerably less likely to show undue deference to the West than some other Asian cultures. For this reason I believe that local social enterprise case studies and role models are particularly essential in this context.

Happily, there are great examples of social enterprise in Vietnam. For instance Koto is a longstanding organisation which provides training and job opportunities in the catering industry; Protec Helmets keeps people safe by manufacturing scooter helmets and puts all its profits into community activities; Dao’s Care and the ZoProject are both supporting rural excluded communities to retain their cultural history through herb growing and paper making, respectively; Imagtor is an image-editing service which mainly employs people with disabilities.

We see in these examples that product and service businesses exist in different locations across the country and with different social outcomes. Additionally, there area round 7,500 co-operatives in Vietnam. Whilst these are not currently conceptualised as being part of the social economy, they actually demonstrate a long history of enterprise for the common good.

In recent helpful moves to create legal recognition for social enterprises in Vietnam, co-operatives were not explicitly included. Revisiting this and drawing co-ops into the broader social economy movement and conversation could increase its scale and voice considerably. Co-ops are also a well-understood structure in Vietnam and help to paint a picture of what a move to embed a social economy looks like in practice.

Many universities in Vietnam are enthusiastic about training young people in this area, although there is a shortage of faculty with actual social entrepreneurial experience. Several UK universities are partnering with Vietnamese universities, and for our part at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation we are already planning a return trip in early 2019 to see how we can add our expertise and voice to try to influence and sustain an interest in building the social enterprise sector and a socialist-oriented market economy.