The Social Sector Landscape in Vietnam

We’ve been in Vietnam for about three weeks now. In addition to eating the greatest meals of our lives , trekking the rainforest, cycling the hills, and convincing the locals that we’re not Russian, I’ve been researching the Vietnamese social sector. I’m interested in exploring how economic growth, post-colonial and post-war dynamics, and international trends in social entrepreneurship shape the current landscape here.

To that end, I’ve been conducing a series of interviews with social and business entrepreneurs, impact investors, and community foundations. It’s been a great way to test the waters, and I’m looking forward to doing more.

Though it’s early in my research, the interviews have given me some good anecdotal insight into the social sector. Here are a few lessons that have emerged thus far:

“Social entrepreneur” is a relatively new label. Though people have been working to create positive impact here for decades, the phrase “social entrepreneur” only began to gain traction around 2008. Before that, there were no formal networks of NGO’s or social enterprises. It’s a small, nascent scene, and as it grows, social entrepreneurs are getting better access to resources and support. University students are a driving force behind mainstream adoption.

International funding dynamics are changing. Vietnam is getting richer. By 2025, the economic growth rate is predicted to hit 10%. As Vietnam transforms its image from poverty-stricken to up-and-coming, interest from international philanthropic funders is waning. As they shift focus from Vietnam to “needier” nations, international impact investors are stepping up to fill the vacuum. But investors have a different set of priorities than donors; perhaps because of this, there is a lot of energy being spent converting charities into social enterprises.

The social sector’s relationship with the government is complicated. Few of the people I interviewed were willing to go on record about the government, though it is a default partner in any social initiative. Apparently, the more successful your enterprise (or business, or charity, or whatever), the larger the role the government carves out for itself.

Because the majority of social enterprises are small scale, only a handful of high-performers are getting attention from international impact investors. This is a particular challenge for most social entrepreneurs now that donor funds are harder to come by.

Again, these lessons are anecdotal and not substantiated by in-depth research. I’ll be using them as launch points for exploring the sector, and I’m excited to see where they take me.

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