The pig was the size of a small hippopotamus. She shared the shed with about 15 others, though they all seemed miniature in comparison. The big sow had an enclosure all to herself; her squealing piglets occupied an adjacent pen.
I lingered in the shed, both to marvel at the giant pig and to take refuge from the blazing sun, but only for a minute. My host, a local farmer, was explaining how to run a home fueled by pig dung, and she was on the move.
Several years ago, the farmer received a $10 (VND 200,000) subsidy for installing a household biogas system from Thiện Chí, a Vietnamese NGO that helps people lift themselves out of extreme rural poverty. Today, the Thiện Chí team was chaperoning me around the remote district of Đức Linh, introducing me to beneficiaries of various agricultural development programs.
Nguyen, my guide for the day, translated as the farmer walked me through the biogas generation process. The pig dung is pushed into a trench just outside the shed and into an underground “digester tank,” where fermentation yields two byproducts. The first is bio-slurry, a natural fertilizer. The second is biogas.
The biogas is captured and piped into the household via a system of tubes and plastic bags. In the kitchen, a metal pipe connects the supply line to the stovetop. Cooking with biogas is no different than cooking with a fuel tank, except that biogas is free and renewable.
Biogas not only reduces the need to chop down trees for fuel, it also burns cleaner than wood and coal. The average household needs only two sows to fulfill its daily fuel requirement. With all of her pigs, my host always has a surplus of gas, so she fuels her neighbors’ homes for free.
I was impressed. A few years ago, this family chose to invest in the biogas tank, which cost more than a hundred dollars. This was a substantial outlay for a household with almost no disposable income.
After five months in Ho Chi Minh City, I had bought into the popular belief that the Vietnamese think only of the immediate future. And yet here was an uneducated farmer making a long-term investment in her family’s financial stability.
I had just learned that pig feces are fueling the energy revolution, and now my cultural biases were being upended. It wasn’t even 9 AM.
The rest of the day was equally enlightening. Here are some of the lessons around aid, poverty, and empowerment that emerged as we traveled the district, visiting beneficiaries:
Patience, Not Punishment
There’s a lot of pressure on NGOs to act more like businesses. And while nobody can argue the benefits of increased accountability and efficiency, a hardcore private sector mentality doesn’t always translate to good aid.
Many of the farmers I met receive microloans from Thiện Chí. The program is designed to help families steadily increase their income over time. Microloans are interest-free for the first three years, after which Thiện Chí charges 0.5 percent. Once they’ve boosted their annual earnings by $30 (VND 600,000), a recipient family graduates from the program and stops receiving loans.
I asked my guide what happens when a recipient defaults on a payment. “Nothing. Everybody always pays back.” Everyone? Always? How is that possible?
It turns out that Thiện Chí is a very lenient lender. In an ideal world, a borrower would pay back his loan in full on the day it was due. However, that doesn’t always happen – which isn’t surprising, considering most beneficiaries earn less than $.60 a day. But if Thiện Chí were to kick people out of the program for late payments, would-be recipients would go to the loan sharks.
Thiện Chí is an NGO, not a private bank. Getting paid on time is less important than breaking the cycle of generational debt. When someone can’t pay back a loan, Thiện Chí works with the beneficiary to create a customized repayment schedule.
If you’re concerned that lenient credit fosters dependency instead of self-reliance, consider that, every month, around 30 Thiện Chí beneficiaries “graduate” out of extreme poverty.
I met one farmer who was on the verge of graduating from the microcredit program. I asked how it felt to know that she wouldn’t be receiving loans anymore. “Good,” she said. “It gets me closer to my dream of being debt-free.”
Treat beneficiaries as force multipliers
One of the farms I visited was swarming with baby chicks. The farmer had split the cost of an egg incubator with Thiện Chí, and his livestock supply had skyrocketed.
The subsidy was contingent upon an agreement. Thiện Chí would put up half of the money for the incubator only if the farmer agreed to sell his chicks to other poor families at a discount.
Much like the farmer who supplies her neighbors with free biogas, Thiện Chí considers the owner of the incubator to be both a beneficiary and an ally.
The term “pay it forward” doesn’t quite convey the strategic benefit of this decentralized approach. When more people in poverty have better access to basic resources, there are fewer barriers to financial stability in the region. This boosts the likelihood of success of Thiện Chí’s other interventions.
Calling on beneficiaries to play an active role in the solution doesn’t just expand programmatic impact; it blurs the line between providers and recipients of aid. By leveraging beneficiaries as agents of change, Thiện Chí makes good on its promise to “support, rather than merely provide.”
Leverage existing institutional networks
The Vietnam Women’s Union has 13 million members. As a mass organization underneath the umbrella of the Communist Party, the Union has advocated for women’s rights on both the community and national levels since 1930.
You can find a chapter of the Women’s Union in just about any village of Viet Nam, no matter how remote. Same for the Farmer’s, Student’s, and Veteran’s Unions – together, these quasi-governmental organizations connect the entire country.
For many social entrepreneurs, there’s a temptation to do everything from scratch. If the system is broken, we must circumvent it to move forward. We need new solutions, new approaches, and new ways of thinking to achieve systemic change.
Thiện Chí harbors no such fetishes about novelty — a network of 13 million is too powerful a resource to neglect. By establishing a partnership with the Women’s Union, Thiện Chí has achieved scale that would otherwise be impossible. Social workers from the Union are a constant presence in beneficiary villages, guiding families through Thiện Chí’s various assistance programs. The partnership enables both organizations to better fulfill their missions.
It’s evidence of advice I’ve heard before, usually from seasoned social entrepreneurs operating at massive scale (such as Ratnaboli Ray of Anjali). Sometimes, the best way to change the system is to partner with it.
The need for diverse models and integrated programs
Mekong Quilts enables local women to set up quilting groups across Viet Nam and Cambodia. Each group produces handmade crafts, which Mekong Quilts buys and then resells in its upscale retail outlets.
Thanks to a partnership with Mekong Quilts, Thiện Chí beneficiaries are able to start quilting groups of their own. According to the organization, these groups have created employment for 170 women in the province.
This social enterprise model seems to be working well; as long as there’s sufficient customer demand, the group I met pulls in an extra $150 (VND 3 million) a month. So why don’t Mekong Plus and Thiện Chí drop all other programs and focus exclusively on job creation?
Unfortunately, basic employment alone is not enough to end extreme poverty. The issue is too complex to tackle from just one angle.
An example: I met one family who, for the past eight years, has lived without a door on their home. The parents work in farming and construction; they receive microloans for purchasing fertilizer. But much of what they earn goes toward care for their child with mental illness. So in spite of all their hard work, the family hasn’t been able to save enough to purchase a door.
A lack of income is both a symptom and root cause of extreme poverty. Even if the doorless family’s income shot up, it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee financial stability. Too many other factors threaten their ability to save money – the cost of supporting a mentally ill child, a lack of access to banking services, and a lack of educational opportunity, for starters.
So together, Mekong Plus and Thiện Chí take a holistic, integrated approach to addressing the many challenges that poverty presents. In addition to creating jobs, the organizations provide financial services, agricultural assistance, healthcare programs, and education. They also split the cost of developing basic infrastructure with local communities.
The diversity of these programs reflects the complex nature of poverty. Progress demands solutions that are fluid, responsive, and driven by the needs of the beneficiaries.
I’m grateful to the Thiện Chí team – especially to my translator, Nguyen – for the opportunity to see the impact of their programs firsthand. Thank you to all the beneficiary families who brought me into their homes. And thank you Bernard Kervyn and Mekong Plus for the connection.