In this blog series, we hope to explore the history, cultural traditions, and current practices of Vietnamese-American giving in order to demystify for many a demographic that holds great potential for the philanthropic sectors.
Even as they work to establish themselves in the U.S., many Vietnamese Americans commit to supporting family and charitable projects in Vietnam. In the early phases of the diaspora history, underdeveloped official channels led to the rise of informal giving that persists today. More recently, relaxed legal and tax regulations have also enabled the growth of institutional philanthropy to Vietnam.
Remittances, loosely defined as the sending of money back to one’s home country, are the primary channel of informal charity to Vietnam. The Vietnamese diaspora remits billions to Vietnam each year. In 2010, the global Vietnamese-American diaspora sent back over $7.2 billion to Vietnam, with an estimated $3.8 to $4.3 billion of that coming from the U.S.-based diaspora community alone. The single-year sum of Vietnamese-American remittances far eclipses the U.S.’s official development assistance ten-year total of $413 million in aid, and total remittances can make up close to a tenth of Vietnam’s GDP. Moreover, many believe $7.2 billion to be an underestimate of how much is truly sent back to Vietnam due to the difficult nature of tracking these figures.
It would not be a stretch to say that remittances fulfill a similar role to developmental philanthropy in Vietnam. According to Dang Nguyen Anh, a researcher at the Vietnam Asia Pacific Economic Center, a 10% increase in remittances can bring down a country’s poverty rate by 1.2%. Furthermore, Dang notes, “remittances are often used to improve the living standards of migrants’ families [in Vietnam], and are used for consumer goods, better housing, and education of children, rather than for immediate needs. Remittances are less volatile than other financial inflows and their use can have a number of multiplier effects in the local economy.”
Only recently has the use of institutional philanthropic giving vehicles been accepted as way to give back to Vietnam. In addition to the underdeveloped banking systems, many Vietnamese Americans were—and continue to be—wary of the government in Vietnam, preferring to limit official contact as much as possible. Political reservations were particularly palpable in the first two decades of Vietnamese resettlement in the U.S., and those wanting to engage in philanthropy to Vietnam during this time often found themselves having to navigate two equally fraught political landscapes on both sides of the Pacific.
The overall attitude towards giving toward Vietnam softened in the latter half of 1990s following the normalizations of U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1995 and the humanitarian imperatives of 1997 and 1999. Under then-President Bill Clinton, the U.S. resumed diplomacy with Vietnam and the Vietnamese government, now recognizing the potential of the diaspora community to propel Vietnam forward, moved towards engaging rather than isolating Vietnamese Americans. These relaxed attitudes enabled major humanitarian relief efforts two and four years later, when the 1997 typhoon season and 1999 floods wreaked havoc through south and central Vietnam. In the face of widespread and indiscriminate destruction, Vietnamese Americans mobilized quickly to give to organizations benefiting communities back home.
Since those initial disaster relief efforts, philanthropy to Vietnam has gradually become more open, acceptable, and the use of mainstream and formal charitable giving vehicles and organizations is increasing. The number of Vietnamese American-founded non-profit organizations (NPO) and non-governmental organizations (NGO) serving Vietnam has also risen steadily, and the causes they support are no longer confined to immediate humanitarian relief. Vietnamese American-founded NPOs and NGOs now support a wide range of issues, including people with disabilities, anti-trafficking programs, and healthcare initiatives, among other causes.
About the Author
Anh is the communications and development coordinator at Vietnam Health, Education & Literature Projects (VNHELP), a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of Vietnam’s poor. Prior to her current position, Anh worked with Give2Asia in the business development department to research and develop material for Vietnamese American and corporate philanthropy. She also served as managing for Vietnam Talking Points (part of OneVietnam Network), where she wrote about Asian American identity and culture.
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