Diaspora giving to Vietnam: interview with Ivan Small



The following interview of Ivan Small by Christine Tran was first published in Asian American Giving in April 2008.  It was also translated into Vietnamese and published in Voices of America.

As of 2005, there are some three million Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam, with approximately half of those living in the United States. Vietnamese-Americans, many of whom are still culturally and emotionally connected to their country of heritage, are increasingly giving back to their families and communities in the form of formal and informal remittances.

The United Nations International Fund for Agriculture & Development put the total estimated amount of remittances to Vietnam at US$6.8 billion in 2007 – over 11.2% of the country’s GDP. Vietnamese-Americans comprise a considerable proportion of those making remittances to Vietnam. Le Xuan Khoa, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University who has written several papers about the Vietnamese-American community and engagement with Vietnam, believes that proportion to be 2/3 of total remittances made to Vietnam.

The significant impact of diasporic giving has received increased attention from various stakeholders, including: diasporic community leaders, multilateral aid agencies, NGOs, policymakers, and government bodies. The UNDP and Ford Foundation are two stakeholders that recognize remittance flows as a powerful development tool. This year, the Ford Foundation will support a discussion on diasporic giving to Asia, including Vietnam, through the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium’s (APPC) fourth biannual conference. The conference, titled “Diaspora Giving: An Agent of Change in Asia-Pacific Communities?” will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam in May 2008. The conference will examine “the potential of diaspora giving as a change agent in their communities of origin” and promises to bring together 120 stakeholders to share best practices, discuss challenges, and formulate recommendations.

Ivan Small, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University’s Anthropology department, is researching the social and economic impacts of Vietnamese-American remittances to Vietnam. In a separate but related project, Ivan has also been working with two co-authors – Professor Truong Thi Kim Chuyen of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities HCMC, and Diep Vuong of the Pacific Links Foundation, a Vietnamese-American NGO – on a research paper studying collective philanthropic remittances. They will be presenting their findings at the APPC conference in May.

Here, Ivan shares why he became interested in the subject of remittances to Vietnam and offers highlights from his research.

1.  Christine: How did you become interested in Vietnamese-American remittances to Vietnam?

Ivan: I first noticed remittances when I was hanging out in a friend’s house in Ho Chi Minh City about 8 years ago. While I was there, some remittances were delivered in a small envelope by a motorcycle driver. When the family opened the envelope, there was a crisp 100 dollar bill, but also a letter and some photographs of the overseas family who had sent the money. Everyone started talking about the person in the photograph, who lived in California – how they remembered them and how they imagined their life abroad to be. I realized that remittance economies were not only about money but also about memories, imaginings, identity… – [I] wanted to tap further into the rich stories catalyzed by remittance exchanges.

2.  Christine: What research has been done on Vietnamese-American remittances to Vietnam?

Ivan: What has been done mostly focuses on the economic development potential of remittances. This is in line with other global policy research trends that seek to harness the grassroots development potential of monies sent home by migrants. There has been significant research done in places with large migrant populations such as Mexico, India, and the Philippines. In Vietnam, remittances are harder to track because of a widespread preference for informal (non-banking) transfer mechanisms, which account for at least half of the monies sent back.

Much of the policy research seeks to “bank” remittances by encouraging formal transfer mechanisms. At the moment, however, informal channels offer faster, cheaper, and more anonymous services than banks or formal money transfer operations such as Western Union, and are widely trusted in the community for their reliability. Less research has been done on collective or social forms of remittances – such as charitable giving and knowledge transfer.


3.  Christine: What is the focus of the APPC paper on diaspora philanthropy and what do you hope it will accomplish?

Ivan: The APPC paper seeks to examine collective giving patterns for charitable purposes.  APPC is comparing diaspora philanthropy patterns across a number of Asian countries, and examines whether such patterns are becoming increasingly “strategic” over time – i.e. geared towards long term economic and social development as opposed to immediate relief.

Diep Vuong, one of the Vietnam’s paper’s co-authors, is connected with a consortium of diaspora NGOs called the Vietnamese-American NGO Network.  Among its members are a number of organizations that reflect this trend towards more strategic diaspora philanthropy, so we focused our interviews and observations among this group. We hope that the paper will contribute some understanding and appreciation of emerging patterns of diaspora engagement with Vietnam’s economic development.

Hopefully the Vietnamese government can follow through with this research to more systematically recognize and encourage diaspora philanthropy patterns from diaspora Vietnamese in other countries. Until recently, the work of Vietnamese diaspora NGOs in Vietnam was largely below the radar, and only recently have foundations and governments started to recognize the enormous potential and long term sustainability of their work.

4. Christine: What have you found to be most significant about the impact of Vietnamese-American remittances on Vietnamese families and communities?

Vietnamese receive and use remittances in a variety of ways, but in general their spending priorities for remittances point to broader societal concerns. This includes increasing educational costs, lack of economic opportunities, lack of decent health care for the elderly, and lack of credit access for small business loans etc. In terms of collective remittances, because the majority of Vietnamese left as refugees, they generally have a different relationship to the state than migrants from other countries.  Promoting a strong and independent civil society sector in Vietnam will be important in enhancing the impact of Vietnamese-American collective giving.

5. Christine: What have you found to be some of the reasons why Vietnamese-Americans give to Vietnam? What trends in Vietnamese-American giving have you identified?

Ivan: Vietnamese-Americans give back to immediate family first and foremost, reflecting strong familial obligations. Often these family members helped them to go abroad.  During the70’s and 80’s when Vietnam’s economy was not doing well, remittances were an important source of subsistence income. In later decades, remittances often become a symbolic means of maintaining family relations, even if no longer economically needed. Although official remittance flows are reported to have increased significantly in recent years, this is in part due to better tracking mechanisms, and also an increase in export labor.

Most Vietnamese that I have spoken to say that remittances have remained the same or become less frequent over time. At the same time, visits by Vietnamese-Americans to Vietnam are increasing. There is a trend among some, including the second generation, to move towards collective rather than individual remittance giving. Vietnamese-American charitable giving for apolitical humanitarian causes in Vietnam is now quite widespread and supported. The increase in organized charitable and strategic philanthropy noted in our paper reflects this pattern.

Christine: Thank you for sharing with us your research, Ivan.  We hope you will report back to us about your presentation and some of the discussions it generated.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Guip