A New Role for an Old Tale: Vietnam as a Donor to Laos
Keywords: Vietnam-Laos aid
Summary: This piece explores the "special relationship" between Vietnam and Laos with regard to the development of Laos' education policy.
Besides the non-socialist international donors, the "special relationship" between Vietnam and Laos has ensured that Vietnam has had an important influence on how the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) has developed its education policy and the policy for ethnic minority education. The assistance to education began during the 1930s, during the time of the Indo-Chinese Communist Party. The Vietnamese government helped the Pathet Lao (or the Lao People's Revolutionary Party [LPRP]) to establish the first Teacher Training College in Xam Neua during the 1940s. After 1975 there were a number of cooperative and exchange programs to send civil servants, experts, and children of Lao leaders and veterans to study in primary, secondary, and technical schools in Vietnam. This was a form of exchange within the "brotherhood of Indochinese" countries, which had fought against the French, United States, and the Royal Lao Government (RLG) (in the case of Laos). It was confirmed during an interview in 2004 that Vietnam was changing its role from that of being a revolutionary advisor to Laos to that of being a donor. According to the same source, Vietnam was focusing on assisting in, mostly, education and personnel development. From 2000 to 2005 the Vietnamese government agreed to invest 35 per cent of the total funding of 4 million US dollars given by the Vietnamese government to the Lao government in the education sector. In May 2009, the Vietnamese government granted 67.5 million US dollars for 2006-2010 periods. Again, the education sector is reported to be a priority.
There are many ways to explain why the Vietnamese government changed its international-relations term from "revolutionary brother" to "donor" - one being a fear of losing the dominant role that Vietnam once had, during the first decade of the LPRP. Yves Bourdet (2002) observed this change and commented that it was an international "fungibility". This fungibility, according to Bourdet, refers to "the possibility given a recipient country to shift resources out of the sector (or project) that receives aid to other sectors (or projects)" (2002: 113, footnote 5). Bourdet argues that the Vietnamese manipulate international aid and funding as if it were domestic surplus resources, and that the government can freely allocate these surplus resources to any projects anywhere, including Laos. He adds that this is only done to expand the Vietnamese influence in Laos (Ibid). Certainly, this influence is not only in some educational development projects (e.g., the development of boarding schooling for ethnic minorities). Vietnam thus maintains its key role as an advisor to Laos in the more modern form of international development advisor and donor.
Laos is not technologically or economically advanced and can hardly afford mass production of printed materials to distribute to its "educated" population - leaving aside the fact that more than half of the population can neither read nor write Lao. The government has been relying on various external assistance (i.e. from Vietnam, AusAid, ADB, World Bank, UN agencies, etc.) both in the past and in recent years. In a way, it interestingly makes Laos a case of how national political agenda (i.e., Lao education for all children to be "Lao" and/or patriots) can be supported and speeded up not only by domestic nationalists but also by external assistance equipped with both knowledge and financial resources. Placing Vietnam as a donor, the Lao national political agency seems even stronger. Once again, thanks to Vietnam's previous role of being a red brother, it is now placed as the most favourable international donor as well as the national advisor.
Regardless of how highly it is placed among international donors in Laos, Vietnamese aid to Laos is viewed by international donors as being driven by political objectives. Yet, ironically, international donors do also share idealistic discourses (e.g., the education for all, equality, and poverty reduction schemes). Interestingly, the Vietnamese and other international donors do so in opposing contexts: that of the capitalist world versus that of "Marxist-Leninist" socialism. As an apprentice, Laos will continue to rely on the Vietnamese advice and assistance. At the same time, Vietnam is also modifying its advisor role to Laos, from the former red brotherhood to the modernized international donor.
Bourdet, Yves. (2000). The economics of transition in Laos : from socialism to ASEAN integration. Cheltenham, UK ; Northampton, MA : Edward Elgar
Evans, Grant. (1999). "Apprentice Ethnographers: Vietnam and the Study of Lao Minorities", in: Evans, G (Ed.) Laos: Culture and Society, Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, pp: 161-190.
Pholsena, Vattana. (2006). Post-War Laos: the Politics of Culture, History and Identity. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore.
VOV News. "Vietnam's National Assembly delegation on a working visit to Laos", 15 May 2009.