By Christina Ameln, CSR | Sustainability Advisor –
For the last five months, my family of four has had the opportunity to explore South East Asia for various professional and personal experiences. We have spent the majority of our time in Vietnam – getting a first-hand view of this incredible country.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (depending on who you ask) is our base. While considered by some as one of the less attractive cities in Vietnam, it has an exciting vibe. You feel it the moment you step off the plane. There are buildings going up on every corner and scooters everywhere you look – the Saigonese have an eagerness to connect and the city has a feverish exhilaration that targets all senses as once. You see the historical influences of China, France, and America merge seamlessly into Vietnamese culture – in interactions, food, architecture, and lifestyle. The city is known as the business hub of Vietnam, while Hanoi is the center for government and international organizations. The first impression is that this is the place to be – things are happening!
Given my background in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), I was curious to understand the CSR landscape in this growing and hectic city. There is a lot of debate in various forms of business, growth, and expansion. My interest is to hear if and how CSR features in those discussions.
In the last year, Vietnam has reiterated its commitment to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda 2030). The Agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 specific targets that provide room for all players – including the private sector – to get involved in improving society. Vietnam’s government has stated that successful implementation of the SDGs will require strong political will and full mobilization of domestic resources; it aims to mainstream the goals into all national programs and strategies. Vietnam´s commitment to work on Agenda 2030 is clear. It reiterates its support at all of its sustainability events.
This commitment has stimulated businesses in Vietnam to take an active role in thinking, doing, and working ‘sustainably.’ Despite this focus, there is a noticeable gap. Many international companies based in Vietnam feature sustainability if they have requirements from their home countries. Vietnamese companies are struggling to catch-up. For many, CSR still means philanthropy or charitable donations to their favorite orphanage, etc. The concept of ‘CSR as added-value’ – where CSR is among crucial business priorities and is part of the corporate strategy – has not fully been understood or embraced.
This was quite clear in the recent launch of the SDGs in Ho Chi Minh City, organized by the UN Global Compact, UNIDO and Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI). The theme ‘Meet to meet the SDGs’ had a very catchy tag line. It suggested that all sectors would be coming together for an innovative launch, with practical examples for companies to insert the SDGs in their CSR strategies. The results, however, were disappointing. The audience was mainly made up of NGOs, international organizations, and students. While the speeches on the SDGs were informative, the discussion on how to implement them and how companies could use them to add value to their daily operations never took off.
However, when talking individually to CSR leaders, they express a wealth of enthusiasm and ideas. The social entrepreneurship scene in Vietnam is going strong, and innovative solutions to society’s social problems are being tried at every level. For example, Fablab Saigon (www.fablabsaigon.org) aims to foster innovation by empowering the innovators (Makers) community and has created a space to bring this innovative spirit together. It is a bustling community in which Vietnamese and expats converge to test, build, and launch solutions. Initially, a technology space, an exciting expansion took place quite rapidly. Its Makers, many of them students, were especially drawn to both the innovative spirit of this space but also looking at integrating CSR by working on such projects or including it into the solutions. Most recently, FabLab Saigon, with its partners, pulled together a 72-hour event where multi-disciplinary teams were formed to specifically design and prototype solutions for children living with disabilities and affected significantly by daily challenges. FabLab Saigon sees more and more of these initiatives coming its way and is working on further developing this space.
In addition to innovators, an increasing number of venture capitalists are looking into sustainable businesses in Vietnam, aiming to combine profit with positive contributions to communities. Their goal is clear: get healthy returns on investment by strengthening ‘CSR as value-added.’ These investors want to contribute to society and make money at the same time. As this gains traction and a few pioneer investors can demonstrate success, more businesses will think along these lines. Vietnam is one of its growing markets in Asia.
Furthermore, community engagement is still dominant in Vietnam even though the usual discussion that you seem to find in all markets takes place – which is the better organization to work with. However, all agree that the best way forward is to work directly with communities. This is why the LIN Center of Community Development (LIN) (www.linvn.org) helps link local communities and other partners with corporate donors so that the local need and the corporate response has the highest impact. LIN has seen too many partnerships go to waste because the match was wrong from the beginning. One of their high impact projects is where they match skilled professionals with nonprofit organizations to help build capacity and knowledge to achieve specific community goals. Its most recent corporate partner was the U.S. FedEx Global Leadership Corps. It’s pro bono consultation team were in Vietnam for three weeks developing practical tools, techniques, and guidelines and imparting knowledge and new ways of working. It reminded all those that worked on this project how much expertise can help nonprofits who often lack resources to sustain, grow, and support their communities. As you see, these examples come to Vietnam, the hope is that more Vietnamese companies take on working with communities in a more long-term and knowledgeable way.
One of the key challenges facing CSR in Vietnam is the lack of home-grown leaders. The most active companies are the international ones or Vietnamese companies that are highly influenced by their international connections with good CSR records on their home turf. These two groups have CSR high on their agendas. But more domestically-focused Vietnamese companies need to embrace ‘CSR as value-added’ more fully and in ways that make sense to them. Many are interested and are reaching out for expertise – but are having a hard time finding it. Those with resources find it abroad, e.g. Singapore, but many feel left behind.
Naturally, the more Vietnam talks about growth and expansion, the more obvious CSR will be in its discussions. ‘CSR as value-added’ is still in an early stage in Vietnam. Hopefully as interest in CSR grows, so will the expertise and knowledge needed to find ideas and solutions appropriate for this energetic, fast-growing economy. There is definitely a will to engage, especially as the SDGs take hold. Now is the time for those who care about CSR – and who are truly convinced about its value-added – to support its growth and integration into the Vietnamese way of doing business. From my ‘look into CSR in Vietnam’, the opportunities are limited only by commitment and imagination and from the leading individuals I have met, they have plenty. I look forward to continuing to follow this space!
- For more information on CSR, Sustainability and Community Engagement consultancy company visit – Ameln & Co AB
First published June 8, 2016 on Linkedin.