During the 25-year, post-Doi Moi (or economic renewal) period in Viet Nam, government support for the Vietnam Red Cross has been a vital part of the National Society’s ability to assist vulnerable people and respond to disasters.
This support takes the form of staff salaries, offices and vehicles, among other things, and with it comes a certain amount of control. Operationally, the Vietnam Red Cross Society is autonomous, choosing its own activities, work locations and beneficiaries. But government authorities nominate leaders and National Society staff, a practice that raises concerns for any National Society seeking to be an independent auxiliary to the government.
The question of independence does not stop there, however. As the country opened to the outside world in recent decades, the Vietnam Red Cross expanded its international cooperation. Movement partners arrived in large numbers bringing new ideas, expertise and resources.
This support from international donors and the national government was welcome and needed. But this dual support often came with contradictory tasks, rules and expectations. For their part, Movement partners have often found it difficult to understand the closeness of the National Society to government. In their mission reports, delegates have described it as an “organization locked into a system” or “a Gulliver, a giant tied down by bureaucracy”. Most also acknowledged the National Society’s efficient service delivery.
So the question became, should this giant be untethered and if so, how? The first attempts from the outside came during the process of drafting national legislation and new internal systems of governance.
The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.
The ICRC and IFRC Joint Statutes Commission (JSC) sought to separate governance and management “to avoid conflict of interest and ensure a well-functioning National Society” — a noble goal. The National Society complied in 2007 but reverted quickly to its earlier model of the ‘executive president,’ in which governance and operations are closely intertwined.
Based on interviews conducted for my 2012 IFRC study, The art of balancing: A study of Vietnam Red Cross Society and its partnerships, I believe the JSC had pushed for a model of governance that did not correspond to the National Society’s cultural and historic management environment. The mechanical application of an outside model looked good on paper but created practical management issues through the Vietnam Red Cross network.
The drafting of Viet Nam’s Red Cross law followed a similar course. The first proposed law was legitimately criticized by the JSC as giving too much decision-making authority to government. However, the text proposed by the JSC, based on IFRC’s Model law on the recognition of National Societies, did not suit the complex national reality. JSC members were disappointed with the final law, passed in 2008 by Viet Nam’s National Assembly; perhaps the cause of genuine autonomy would have benefitted from a more nuanced, longer-term, organization-building approach.
Meanwhile, the inflow of external funds also put new pressures on National Society staff, turning them to some degree into ‘service providers’ for international programmes. Some in the Vietnam Red Cross Society believe the focus on implementation of donor projects comes at the cost of the National Society’s own development.
What the Vietnam Red Cross Society’s case highlights is that challenges to independence are manifold. The Movement’s tendency to impose global concepts and tools based on standardized models, without defining their local relevance, can inadvertently shrink local autonomy. Uncoordinated actions by partners, along with funds earmarked only for programme implementation, may also lead to capacity stretching and compromised local autonomy.
National Societies can achieve amazing things and save many lives with support from various partners. Ultimately, it’s up to them to define their true course. As National Societies determine their own paths, Movement partners can best support and sustain their independence by developing longer-term, coordinated strategies based on a deep and nuanced understanding of the National Societies’ political, economic and cultural realities.
By Bayarmaa Luntan
Bayarmaa Luntan is senior adviser to the IFRC’s secretary general.