Terre des hommes bows out of Vietnam

The living conditions of children in Vietnam have improved Reuters

Vietnam – flattened by bombs in the 1960s war - has come so far that children’s charity Terre des hommes will end its mission there in 2011, writes Margrit Schlosser.

This content was published on December 21, 2010 - 15:01
Margrit Schlosser in Hanoi, - column

The Swiss NGO’s delegate in Hanoi has known Vietnam for 30 years.

In 1981 when I first travelled Vietnam from north to south, the country was literally devastated. “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” was the stated intention of General Curtis E. LeMay, chief of staff of the US Air Force from 1961-65.

The infamous B-52 bombers had done the hard work. Almost all the important bridges along the national road from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City had been destroyed or badly damaged; whole cities, including Vinh, the capital of the northern province of Nghe An, had been wiped out.

The B-52 bombers, whose mission it was to bomb Hanoi  and Haiphong, had dropped their surplus bombs on Vinh as they returned to their base in what was then South Vietnam. In 1981, six years after the end of the so-called Vietnam War, only the Catholic Church and the ruins of a former department store of reinforced concrete were left standing in the centre of Vinh.

Opening up

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, I returned to Vietnam and worked for two years for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This was an exciting time! Vietnam’s “perestroika” had been heralded in 1986 in the agricultural production sector. The country started to open up to the West. A street market offering all sorts of goods started to emerge.

The US-imposed embargo was flouted more and more, until it was finally lifted by President Clinton in February 1994. And so it was that in the early 1990s many foreign charities came to Vietnam to help in the country’s (re-) construction. Among these “early” arrivals, was the Terre des hommes International Foundation, a children’s charity with its headquarters in Lausanne, for which I have been working as a delegate in the field since 2003.

Top performers

Terre des hommes began its work in Vietnam with a study into the situation of street children in Ho Chi Minh City before launching, along with local partner organisations, innovative projects to protect and care for these children. Instead of clearing them off the streets into large, closed educational establishments, it set up smaller children’s homes and shelters and began street work.

At the same time, workers received training or further training in social work and dealing with children. In the past ten years the range of services has been extended to enable adolescent children and young people to live independently and shape their own lives and to aid their integration in the local community and society.

Shared accommodation and advice centres have been set up, professional training made available, and the young people taught the skills they need to survive independently.  They have also received legal recognition, for example in the form of an identity card, without which no man or woman in Vietnam officially exists.

In line with other foreign development organisations, which have been active in Vietnam since the early 1990s, Terre des hommes has decided to pull out of the country in March 2011, partly to be able to step up its activity in Myanmar. But the generally positive development of Vietnam itself was another reason for this decision.

A recent report from the British Overseas Development Institute (ODI) places Vietnam next to Ghana among the “top performers” in terms of the UN Millennium Development Goals. (MDG).

Sustainability and support

There are various reasons for this “top performance” rating. One is without doubt the existence of a relatively strong state whose representatives work out socioeconomic policies and action programmes through dialogue with the various development partners****.  In doing so, they attempt to ensure that at least some of the profit made goes to help those who do not benefit, or benefit least from economic development. Many of the social concepts originally introduced by external development organisations have been integrated in official state social policy, for example the switch from institutional care to community-based care, or the shared living concept for youths without family support or for the disabled and aged.

This development is underpinned by the requirement that the foreign development agencies active in Vietnam work with local partner organisations, state institutions and non-governmental organisations. In sharing knowledge, techniques and working methods, as well as through training and further training, these local structures are strengthened so that in time they will be in a position to take responsibility themselves for the planning and execution of projects. Then the goal of development work will be reached: sustainability.

A Vietnamese government official told foreign NGOs: “At present we are still reliant on the support of our foreign friends. However by 2020 at the latest we would like to be able to do without their help. Then we will belong to that group of countries that provides aid to others.”


A Vietnamese government official told foreign NGOs: “At present we are still reliant on the support of our foreign friends. However by 2020 at the latest we would like to be able to do without their help. Then we will belong to that group of countries that provides aid to others.”

* Capital of the former Democratic Republic of North Vietnam and today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

** The biggest and most important harbour in the north of Vietnam.

*** “Vietnam made unprecedented progress in improving the lives of the poor. It featured in the top ten of several indicators, including halving the proportion of underweight children, and reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day from nearly two-thirds to one-fifth in just 14 years.”


**** These include the UN organisations, the multi- and bilateral development organisations (including the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation of the foreign ministry, and non-governmental organisations).

Guest authors – Swiss living abroad

Many Swiss authors have been drawn to live elsewhere in the wide world. Their writings give us a better understanding of unfamiliar places. has invited a number of authors, some well known and some not so well known, to share their observations of their adopted countries.

The opinions expressed by guest author contributors are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the editorial line of

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Margrit Schlosser

Margrit Schlosser has been Terre des hommes delegate in Ho Chi Minh City since 2003.

She leads a team of seven people.

Her connection with Vietnam goes back nearly 30 years.

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