It took a 10 hour bus trip, 13 hours of flight time, and a 12 hour train ride on the reunification express, but I finally arrived at my destination in the picturesque town of Dong Hoi Vietnam about a week ago. Besides the typical adjustments a foreigner usually has to make in a new land, I’ve had plenty of time to get to know the staff of my host organization and learn about their expanding role in the community, plans for the future, and how I can best serve them during my short time here.
While the staff at AEPD have done all they could to fill me in on all their current projects, there’s no substitute for seeing it up close with your own eyes. So this past Tuesday, I was taken out for my first trip to the field to see the impact that AEPD has on the community, meeting with 3 individuals who’ve been supported by AEPD. Accompanied by Mr. Luan, one of the 7 outreach workers for the organization and Mrs. Nga, the monitoring and evaluation specialist who will undoubtedly be acting as my translator for the majority of my trip, we traveled to the Quang Thuan commune about an hour away from Dong Hoi. There is a beautiful gate at the entrance of the commune, with an inscription that roughly translates to “Nothing is more realizable than freedom and independence”. The slogan no doubt is in reference to Vietnam’s complex history that has endured occupations by the Chinese, French, and Americans, but after meeting several of AEPD’s beneficiaries, this could easily serve as the motto for the organization.
The first gentleman I met was Nguyen Ha. Mr. Ha is a disabled veteran of the third Indochina war when he fought for his country in Cambodia. Ironically, it was after the war when his injury happened. A bomb landed close to his hut in central Vietnam and he lost the bottom half of his right leg, and now makes due with a prosthetic limb. When he is wearing trousers, you probably wouldn’t even realize he’s disabled. He moves swiftly around his farmland, and in general seems perfectly mobile. Ha received support from the government for his injuries, but with rapidly rising prices it was not a sustainable income. He owns slightly less than 4 acres of farm land that he uses to cultivate rice, working around 8 hours a day. AEPD in 2010 provided Mr. Ha with 6 million VND to purchase a cow. It may not seem like much, but it makes his labor much more productive and he’s seen his income rise from 1 million VND per month to 1.5 million. Also, the cow’s value has nearly doubled since it was purchased as a calf. He plans to eventually sell the animal for a small profit and invest the returns in his business and buy new livestock.
A short drive from Mr. Ha’s home we met with another AEPD client, Le Thi Be. Unlike Mr. Ha, Ms. Be is not survivor of UXO or landmines. She contracted an extremely high fever when she was 3 years old that caused her right leg to become paralyzed, which she described as having a “heavy leg”. AEPD’s role has expanded greatly since it became an independent organization last year, serving not only landmine survivors, but all persons with disabilities in the Quang Binh and neighboring provinces. Be operates a tailoring shop inside her home in the Quang Thuan commune, and is a single mother to her 3 year old daughter Taang. AEPD helped Ms. Be purchase a sewing machine, workstation, and display case for her shop. While her income is still very low, it has risen by 40% since she received support from AEPD, and she expects it to steadily increase throughout the year.
For our last stop, we visited Mr. Nguyen Van Thanh. Thanh used to work as a farmer and served as a high ranking commune officer until he was victimized by a landmine while he was working in his rice field, losing both his hands and one of his legs. He was 36 years old at the time and his life took a drastic turn in the blink of an eye. He went from earning a comfortable living, able to support his mother and disabled father, to receiving just 560,000 VND per month from the social services unit of the government, which wasn’t enough to support 3 people. Luckily, AEPD was able to reach Mr. Thanh and supported him with free training and a 10 million VND grant which he used to purchase chickens and netting to build a coop. Poultry farming has significantly raised his standard of living, nearly tripling his monthly income.
I’ve never been a fan of explaining currency figures in terms of US dollars, as it distorts true purchasing power and takes some issues out of context, but that’s just the economist in me talking. It can however be a powerful tool to provide some frame of reference for those in the western world. The exchange rate for VND to USD is approximately 20,000/1, and for VND to EUR 29,000/1. If you consider Ms. Be’s monthly income in terms of USD, it’s about $25 per month. Before she received assistance however, her monthly income was around $15. Mr. Ha’s labor currently nets about $75 a month, an increase of $25 monthly. If these amounts seem like a meager wage, that’s because they are.
Whenever I hear these kinds of figures, I usually ask myself how it’s even possible to survive on such low incomes. The answer is complicated, and I’ll probably never truly comprehend the struggles it entails. Prices are of course low enough in the commune where they are able to buy essential items and they often will get help through neighbors or friends when times get really tough. I think it’s important to consider how much more difficult life would have been if AEPD hadn’t reached out to them. In some cases, their incomes increased by over 50%. I find it remarkable how a simple sewing machine or a cow could have such an impact on their livelihoods. For the disabled in Quan Binh provence, AEPD is more than an NGO. It’s an avenue to a better life, not though charity, but through their own faculties and determination. This short trip was invaluable for me. It’s one thing to read about what the AEPD does in a brochure or on a website. Meeting their beneficiaries face to face has provided some much needed context.
Posted By Ryan McGovern (Vietnam)
Posted Jun 16th, 2011