The Compromise

Until last week, dealing with Vietnamese bureaucracy almost made me believe that in Vietnam, nothing is possible. In the process of meeting with different headmasters from the middle schools that we want to partner, I was told, over and over again, that the proposal for the Creative Kid Project would not get accepted in any circumstances without the approval of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), which belongs to the Party. Since public schools are under the direct control of the district-level MOET, most headmasters are hesitant to take yes for an answer to this (mostly) US-funded project. In their words, “we need to make sure that any politically misleading content is not circulated among the innocent students”. For three weeks, I’ve tried to make various phone calls and schedule various meetings with five different public schools, just to get some wishy-washy “We’ll look at it” from most administrators I’ve talked to.

Yep, as I have mentioned in my last entry, that was the first lesson I learned while working in Vietnam: Bureaucracy rules!

“Why can’t we just get rid of partnering with the schools? I mean, the project is about creative kids, right? So how about just let them go through an organic application process? It’s summer time, the headmasters should have little control on the whereabouts of their students In which case, we will get a variety of students from different schools.” Hoa, one of the team members, suggested, during the meeting after one of our most fruitless weeks.

“But that would defeat one of the main purposes of the project. Yes, it is about the kids, but if the schools were not on board with us, their proposal to “build your dream school” would have little realistic effect. I understand the part about trying to “provide” them with skills and toolkits and such for their life, but I’m much more interested in the part where they actually try to deal with the administrators.” Evan said right back.

If you ever talked to Evan Schwartz, you would not be surprised at these words. The Brown Conversation group which he helped started with some other Brown students has now reached a considerable amount of interest from both students and administrators. The group’s intention is to spark conversations among Brunonians about their Brown experience and act upon it. Evan is the last person who would be convinced by the idea of leaving the schools out of the equation.

“How about private schools?” — Suong, another team member, suggested. “I’ve worked with Thuc Nghiem (English: Experimental) middle school for my Fun Recycle project before. They were really open to this kind of initiatives.”

It is not that the idea of collaborating with private school instead of public school never occurred to me. One week before that meeting, in our interview with Mrs To Kim Lien, a woman who used to work in the Asia Foundation, she had expressed a similar concern over the prospect that any public schools in Vietnam would be willing to host our project. She told us to go for private schools instead.

The only problem I’ve got if we were to partner with private schools is that these schools by definition already enjoy the rare benefits of partial independence from the Ministry. Their students, therefore, are naturally given more chance to voice their own concern over schools’ curriculum. In which case, participating in the project for these students would not benefit them that much more than it would for students from public schools.

But, at this point, I have little choice. Better something than nothing. If getting the project rolling means that I have to partly compromise on the type of schools to partner with, I would. Futhermore, this is just a pilot project, our first step. We want the project to hopefully attract enough attention from different schools with traditionally-rigid structure so that they would be more open to students’ proposal and even school restructuring. Perhaps the words of the administrators that we tried to convinced were not entirely untrue. The purpose of the Creative Kid Project is not misleading, but it is definitely political.

I’m glad that we did not waver. As I mentioned earlier, until last week, I was almost sure that nothing is possible in Vietnam, because of the rigid (but expected) political and bureaucratic structure.

Well, until I figured the second lesson, after spending 3 full days on the main website and Facebook page for the project. The lesson is:

Vietnam 102: It’s the media, stupid!!!

… which I would explain in my next entry.

Originally published at on June 28, 2012.

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