Christmas is coming and there’s no stopping it. Even here in Saigon the Vietnamese have started to embrace what has become an indulgent festival of consumption, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
And, at this time every year, people like me pen blogs like this one, instigated to push a perspective your way. People like me who (you’ll soon enough not be surprised to read) have just spent half my week up in rural Vietnam, meeting local communities.
So, what’s the perspective I’m peddling ? Well, no doubt by the end of this post I will have worked it out…
I can tell you what it’s not:-
It’s not the one critiquing why so many people choose to consume a gross amount of food at Christmas. This custom reverberates across all faiths at some point each year, no matter which calender you follow. (Furthermore, if you wanted to make the case for gross consumption, then why pick Christmas as your entry point? Everyday the world throws away about one third of the food it purchases. Everyday you could ask why so many billions of people have access to very little food, whilst so many more billions have quite the opposite.)
Let’s not trouble ourselves either with pursuing a line about why it is we spoil our children at Christmas time with presents they don’t need. Of course, on the face of it, this is strictly bizarre as a concept. It’s nice to give gifts, however, our penchant for the scale of giving for our kids can be off the charts. My four year old has learnt how to navigate cartoons on youtube and, for this, I feel rotten, when her creativity is piqued tenfold by instead making up a game with her sister using a pen and paper.
So, yes, we can make our own choices about how we use Christmas to impart to our children concepts around giving, and receiving, and try to enable them to attach a sense of value to this. I must and will take a leaf out of this book myself.
No, this week, I’m left wondering about injustice.
Poverty here in Vietnam is hidden away. Tourists flock to the urban centres, to the fancy sights of Ha Long Bay, some up to the remote north to buy handbags sewn together by hill-tribe communities. Other visitors venture further afield, on rented motorbikes, or they meander down the Mekong. However, the injustice of poverty here is not obvious on the surface and, as a visitor, you’d be forgiven for not spotting it immediately.
A “lower-middle” income classified country, DFID will exit Vietnam next year, and other government donors are following. Vietnam is moving fast and traditional aid funding is evaporating, re-directed in bulk towards low income graded countries and fragile states (countries undergoing conflict).
There is a perceived magical dust in the air when you talk to investors about Vietnam, themselves drunk on the commercial notion of breaking into a new market and capitalising on reaching a nascent middle class all rushing to taste flat white coffees and flamed grilled burgers, with fries on the side.
But what I saw this week, subsistence farmers living in squalor, surviving on corn sales and, if fortunate, the $30 a month livelihood offered up by owning ten chickens and five pigs, this, this is not a narrative you will read in your airline magazine on your way over.
My organisation, CARE International, works on these injustices, and we focus on women, and their emancipation. For this is what is at stake. It always has been, as long as we’ve been celebrating faith based festivals such as Christmas, it is the inclusion, respect and the empowerment of women in society which we have woefully failed to acknowledge and, more importantly, to act upon.
Through CARE UK’s Lend With Care initiative, a micro-lending platform, written about here in previous furrowed-brow monologues of mine, we have been able to reach 28,000 “borrowers” in 11 countries, with small loans to make improvements to their lives.
For some borrowers here in Vietnam, this means an affordable loan to buy fertilizer, for others it might mean the next rung up the ladder, and an opportunity to buy livestock. In other cases, accessing new technologies such as bio gas.
Having a bio gas system in your household means you can convert livestock waste into both gas and liquid fertilizer, which helps reduce electricity use (and therefore saves money) as well as improving the air quality in your garden, and therefore the health of your family.
It helps also provide a sense of standing in a community and can inspire others to do the same.
This week I met ten borrowers, all benefiting from Lend With Care loans like these.
The last lady on our round trip showed us her newly acquired concrete bathroom facility, something for which she was very proud, yet her house still stood precariously on stilts surrounded by what had become, by that point in our visit, a reminder of some of the other obstacles she and her family face: open stove fires, (in her case) no power, and her children’s wardrobe hung out in full, to dry on a thatched roof.
That each lender requested access to further loans was, then, of no surprise.
The CARE scheme offers loans via local micro-finance institutions (MFIs), at lower interest rates than other loan options available.
The MFI we partner with, named MACDI, care deeply about their “customers” to the extent that on our visit we stopped several times at previous borrowers’ households, where there had been tragedies – a son killed on a construction site at work, a wife whose husband had irreversible cancer, and an eighty year old woman, crippled with arthritis but still caring for her mentally disabled daughter – in order for the MACDI staff to pass on gifts and words of solidarity and compassion.
Vietnam is not alone, of course, in housing this bewildering and unjust dynamic of inequality, and in particular how it disproportionately affects women and girls. It exists in every society in the world.
Politicians have made commitments again this year, via the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to resolve things. Many large companies in the private sector continue to pledge their resources and to play a role. NGOs such as CARE carve out the areas in which we feel our expertise can catalyse change. And, with the concept of micro-lending growing, and other crowd funding initiatives becoming more popular and accessible, anyone these days can put themselves into the mix in a much more meaningful way.
As a lender to Lend With Care, you get to choose your borrower from an online profile, and watch as the loan made is re-paid back to you in full, ready for you to then, should you wish, recycle it to someone else.
However, for all the added involvement of more people to the International Development movement, if the SDGs mantra of “leaving no one behind” is really to be taken seriously, then Vietnam (as with many other countries in Asia and Africa who are economically accelerating forwards) risks hiding away many millions of marginalised communities like the ones I met this week. Out of sight and out of mind.
So, for sure, in the lead up to that large Christmas dinner and the sea of presents nestled under your tree, certainly consider issues of consumption on various levels. Maybe there are ways you can change your consumption habits?
But also, whether through lending money or through other inputs, spend some time imagining yourself in the shoes of one of the borrowers mentioned above.
What would you say back to yourself if the tables were turned?
What aspirations and inspirations for 2016 would you want to promote to yourself, were you instead living in a community in rural Vietnam?