Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam

Is the door open for civil society?

Over the last decades, the discourse on sustainable development has significantly contributed to the formation as well as the strengthening of the civil society in Vietnam. In the mid-1980s, the Government of Vietnam (GoV) introduced Doi Moi (reforms) which moved the economy from centrally-planned to a more market-based approach. This historical milestone has raised the country to a new level of development and transformed its social and economic structures. Foreign investments, bilateral and international trade have grown rapidly but at the same time created multiple development challenges to the country. Vietnam is witnessing serious forest degradation, environmental pollution and loss of natural resources, and the growing threat of climate change poses increasing challenges on Vietnam to sustain its economic achievements. Climate change is undermining efforts in poverty alleviation, making the fight against it even harder and more expensive. According to DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012, total economic losses due to climate change are estimated to have cost Vietnam 5 per cent of its GDP in net terms in 2010 and are expected to grow to 11 per cent of GDP by 2030 as the country’s vulnerability shifts from severe to acute

Faced with the adverse climate change impacts on its development, the GoV has put climate change response on its economic and political agendas.[i] But the pressing issue of energy and climate change has not only attracted close attention of the government. It has also become a matter of concern for civil society all across Vietnam. A growing number of civic organizations engaged in climate change response and sustainable energy have emerged. Also, an impressive number of climate networks, volunteers groups and online forums have formed, creating a colourful and vibrant civil society in the field of environment, energy and climate change in Vietnam.

Civil society in Vietnam: positive changes in a challenging context

In order to better understand key drivers in civil society development around climate and energy issues, it is important to look at the larger picture of civil society in Vietnam first.[ii] Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Vietnam are dealing with a wide range of development issues such as poverty reduction, education, gender based violence or grass-root democracy. While over the last three decades there have been many ups and downs, space for civil society is obviously expanding. People have more opportunities to participate and express their opinions. In addition to registered organizations, many individual civil campaigns and activities are attracting strong public attention, such as the ”no plastic”, the “stop nuclear power plant”, the “green drink” campaigns and youth groups to protect mangrove forests. Although these initiatives barely end up as formally registered organizations, they have created new space for people to participate in solving the problems of society without government’s permission. For example, civil society recently contributed actively to Vietnam's Constitution and the amendment of the Land Law and advocated for the rights of ethnic minorities and marginalized groups. These developments cause positive changes in the decision making process and give civil society in Vietnam a face.

If we look at the political condition of Vietnam, these changes are very critical. As a country led by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, decision-making is often top-down without much engagement with non-state organizations. When NGOs began to advocate for more voice, recognition and freedom of expression, a sense of suspicion used to prevail among government officials that they would be part of the “colour revolution” – a weapon used by opposition forces attempting to overthrow the government like the Bulldozer Revolution in former Yugoslavia's (2000) and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004). The term “civil society” was thus considered “sensitive” and was often used with caution in formal documents of the state. And also to the Vietnamese public, civil society is still a new vocabulary. Even though the term “NGO” (to chuc phi chinh phu) is not new, for many people, it sounds very much like anarchy (vo chinh phu)[iii] when translated into Vietnamese.  

Given such political and social barriers, what are the key drivers for the positive developments of civil society in Vietnam? First, domestic economic and social conditions have improved. Many people now live and work independently. Their needs to exchange and share information lead to the creation of a civil space outside the state to serve their interests and communities. Second, the burgeoning of modern technology, especially the development of the internet and social networks, enable people to easily connect. Millions can now find like-minded people via Facebook, Twitter or personal blogs. Third, there are a growing number of people interested in social, economic and political issues in Vietnam. The open access to information from different perspectives helps them understand and encourage actions for justice. They are aware of various ways to protect their rights, as well as their responsibility to participate in the governance of the country to solve common problems, including climate change response and sustainable energy.

Regarding the role of the state in civil society development, legal registration procedures for formal organizations are becoming easier. CSOs are increasingly recognized by the government as independent actors in civil society, along with Communist Party-led mass organizations like the Vietnam Women Union and Youth Union. Also, the term “civil society” has been accepted and is now used more commonly among government officials and policy makers. Yet, despite these positive developments, the absence of a Law on Associations remains one of the major obstacles to the development of civil society in Vietnam. The law has been discussed for many years but there is no clear sign yet of its formalization. 75 per cent of organizations surveyed in a study by the Asia Foundation (2008) believe that enacting such a law would improve the position of CSOs in Vietnam since it would create a clear legal framework for CSOs to work independently, transparently and be recognized by the public. It would also enable CSOs to operate better, with higher quality and on an equal footing with the state and the market.

From outside, international donors, INGOs and partner countries have been very supportive of the development of CSOs in the Vietnam, creating channels for CSOs to participate in policy dialogues, consultation workshops, and informal talks with state agencies. They also mobilize funding and provide technical support to the GoV in implementing international conventions and promoting international standards for the development of civil society in Vietnam.

Mapping civil society: main actors and types of engagement

Unlike human rights or anti-corruption, climate change is not perceived as a “sensitive” subject. Climate change policy therefore offers more favourable conditions for interventions which civil society has successfully used to establish itself as an important actor in this field. As Andrew Wells-Dang shows in his synthesis report “Civil Society and climate change in Vietnam: Actors, Roles and Responsibilities”, CSOs have also managed to develop a variety of forms of engagement in response to climate change, including mitigation, adaptation, capacity building and awareness raising, monitoring, policy advocacy, research/consultancy and representation.

One prominent civil society actor in climate change is Vietnamese non-governmental organisations (VNGOs). The level of engagement varies from organization to organization: For those which have a strong history of working on development issues, climate change is for the main part an integrated component of existing projects. Other CSOs consider climate change response an organizational strategic priority. A quick survey on NGOs’ engagement in climate change response carried out by the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD) in late 2012 showed that 15 out of 45 participating organizations have their own climate change strategies. However, a majority of VNGOs focus on adaptation, mitigation and capacity building at community level; only a few of them are directly involved in policy advocacy and representation to ensure that the voices of local people reach decision makers. The most active organizations are SRD, Centre for Sustainable Development in Mountainous Areas (CSDM), GreenID, Centre for Rural Community Research and Development (CCRD), and Centre for Water Resources Conservation and Development (WARECOD), each of them dealing with specific issues related to climate change and energy. For example, GreenID is an active advocate for renewable energy by developing local energy plans with communities at provincial level and replicating the model to a larger scale. In terms of finance, VNGOs rarely receive any financial support from the government. Their main funding sources remain INGOs and international donors.

Mass organizations have a special position in Vietnam’s civil society. Operationally, they are controlled and funded by the state. However, their branches at local level belong to many civil society networks. CSOs mainly work through mass organizations of women, farmers, workers, and youth to introduce various adaptation, mitigation and energy initiatives to local communities. Their role in policy advocacy is significant as they represent the voices of people most impacted by climate change on the ground.

Other civil society actors which have significantly contributed to the creation of a vibrant civil society around climate change and energy policy issues are climate networks. The VNGO Climate change Working Group (CCWG) is the first and most important network so far. CCWG was established in early 2008 with a core group and open membership to INGOs, VNGOs, development agencies and other professionals. CCWG aims to contribute to reducing the vulnerability of poor people in Vietnam to the impacts of climate change through environmentally and economically sustainable and socially just responses. It functions under the auspices of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Associations[iv] and NGO Resource Centre (NGORC). Although NGORC serves as an umbrella for INGOs only, their working group scheme also allows the participation of VNGOs. Five out of 15 CCWG core members are VNGOs, including SRD, MCD, CCRD, GreenID and Live&Learn, and SRD is holding a Co-chair position of the working group. Policy advocacy is a strong focus of the CCWG. It seeks to provide a platform for NGOs to develop common advocacy agendas on climate change and build relationships with decision-makers. Its scope of work ranges from coordination and dialogues related to climate change responses to participation in policy processes at both national and sub-national levels.

Although CCWG has tried to involve VNGOs in the network, its outreach to civic organizations across the country is still limited. Because projects and models implemented by VNGOs are often scattered and small-scale, there is a need to connect them into networks. Soon after the formation of CCWG, therefore, the network of Vietnamese NGOs and Climate Change (VNGO&CC) was established. It unifies Vietnamese NGOs and operates to build up their capacity and cooperate with the government to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in Vietnam. Currently, around 300 organizations and individuals are registered as members of the network. VNGO&CC places a strong emphasis on advocacy, giving feedback to the development and implementation of climate change policies through capacity building, communications and training activities at both institutional and grassroots level.

Looking ahead: success stories, challenges, and open doors

While decisions relating to climate change are largely made by the government, CCWG and VNGO&CC work closely together to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are able to reach and influence decision-makers and are not excluded from policy making processes.

The most significant achievement of civil society in policy engagement is the signing of the MoU between the two NGO networks and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s (MONRE) Department of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Climate Change. This agreement enables the three parties to cooperatively coordinate and share information about climate change policy, experiences and good practices at community level. It also encourages the participation of CSOs in developing and implementing climate change policies and programmes. The MoU is solid evidence that the GoV has recognized the contribution of civil society and is willing to cooperate. Under the framework of this MoU, five multi-stakeholder dialogues have been organized to discuss various issues related to climate change, i.e. climate finance, the development and implementation of provincial action plans, and the role of community in mangrove forest management. However, critical assessment of this partnership shows that its quality is not really as expected. In most cases, joint-activities depend largely on the pro-activeness and financial contribution of NGO members. And follow-up actions after the dialogues are often slow and unclear, contributing only modestly to the advocacy objectives of the network.

While CCWG and VNGO&CC mainly influence policies via ministries, the Vietnam River Network (VNR) – a well-known environment protection group – has chosen a different way of policy engagement: working through the media. For example, VRN members have appealed to remove the controversial Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A hydropower projects which are located in the Cat Tien National Park and according to various scientific assessments will have negative impacts on both society and environment. To generate attention, VRN organized field trips for journalists; invited them to participate in events, conferences, and seminars; circulated research publications; started blogging and wrote articles. At some critical periods, they achieved high density media coverage reflecting the views of the scientist community on the two hydroelectric plants. Headlines such as Biodiversity law not respected or Environmental report “ignores” many problems were found in the most popular newspapers. With all the pressure from media, CSOs and scientists, the GoV decided to shut down the two projects.

Obviously, the two examples above cannot fully represent civil society engagement in the area of energy and climate policy. However, they show a positive picture, with civil society on the right track to increase its influence: They are better at representing the voices of vulnerable people and seeking advocacy alliance and have become more responsive to government actions. Their ideas also have more weight in national and sub-national climate discourses now. Though many challenges still exist, civil society realizes the door to participate is wide open. As the National Climate Change Strategy stipulates, “responding to climate change is a system-wide responsibility, led by the Government with the active engagement of the business sector, and the maximum involvement of and monitoring by civil-social organisations, trade unions and communities; it relies on internal resources, while taking advantage of international cooperation mechanisms”. What civil society needs to do though is work more strategically to formalize and improve the quality of its involvement. By doing so, climate change and energy CSOs will contribute a lot to the sustainability of Vietnam, creating changes towards good governance in which civil society has an essential role in decision-making processes.


[i] In December 2008, the Prime Minister approved the National Target Program to Respond to Climate Change (NTP-RCC), with priorities from 2012-2015 focusing on three key areas: Assessing climate change impact, developing climate change and seas level rise scenarios; Developing and implementing the action plans to respond to climate change; Strengthening capacity, communication, monitoring and evaluation of the program implementation. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) is the focal point in managing the NTPRCC. In December 2011, the GoV launched the National Climate Change Strategy (NCCS) which further stresses the critical importance of responding to climate change, taking adaptation as the top priority. In agricultural sector, climate change is also amongst highest precedence. In January 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) launched the decision 66/QĐ-BNN-KHCN on the Action Plan for implementation of the NTP-RCC in agricultural from 2012 to 2020. This action plan includes both adaptation as well as greenhouse gas emission reduction goal which targets 20% cut in each of 10-year periods. Economically, in late 2012, the GoV approved the National Strategy on Green Growth. This strategy sets out a roadmap for a green-restructuring of the growth model to support continued improvements to the competitiveness of the economy and living standards while coping with climate change and taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It contains specific targets related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions intensity of the economy, reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP, and reducing energy sector emissions. A detailed action plan has been officially approved by the Prime Minister. While embracing a transition towards a low-carbon economy, Vietnam is already implementing a number of programs and policies on energy such as the National Energy Efficiency Programme (2006) and National Energy development Strategy (2007).

[ii] While there are diverse interpretations, the term “civil society” in this article means a range of Vietnamese non-governmental organizations (VNGOs), community based organizations (CBOs), interested groups, informal networks and virtual online forums.

[iii] See Caryle A. Thayer: Vietnam and the Challenge of Political Civil Society, in: Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1–27.

[iv]  The Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations (VUFO) is the standing agency of the Committee for Foreign NGO Affairs (COMINGO). VUFO is a nation-wide socio-political organisation whose main function is to establish and promote friendly and co-operative people-to-people relations between Vietnam and other countries. It controls the People’s Aid Coordinating Committee (PACCOM) that regulates and monitors all international non-government organizations (INGOs) working in Vietnam.


Ms. Ha Thi Quynh Nga is currently working as Partnership and Advocacy Specialist for CARE International in Vietnam. She was formerly Coordinator of the Vietnam NGO Climate Change Working Group (CCWG) and Disaster Management Working Group (DMWG). She managed the Southern Voices Capacity Building Programme at CARE Vietnam, which aims at increasing local networks’ capacity and advocating climate policies that benefit poor and vulnerable people. Prior to joining CARE in September 2012, Nga was the Youth Programme Coordinator at Live & Learn Vietnam, where she successfully outreached thousands of youth from 70 youth-led organizations and clubs in 22 cities and provinces across Vietnam.


Dieser Artikel ist Teil einer Reihe zum Thema Nachhaltigkeit und Demokratie, die von FES Sustainability und SGI News veröffentlicht wird. Im Rahmen der Artikelserie werden wir der Frage nachgehen, welche Faktoren den Erfolg oder Misserfolg von Nachhaltigkeitspolitik beeinflussen. Dazu setzen sich jeweils zwei Autoren mit einer gemeinsamen Fragestellung auseinander und präsentieren Ihre Ergebnisse parallel auf FES Sustainability und SGI news.

In Teil 4 der Reihe untersuchen Ha Thi Quynh Nga und Susanne Brucksch, welche Bedeutung zivilgesellschaftliche Gruppen im Bereich der Umwelt- und Energiepolitik in Vietnam und Japan haben.

Lesen Sie Susanne Brucksch's Artikel Japan's Civil Society and its Fight against Nuclear Energy hier.

Zu Teil 1 der Serie: Erfolgsfaktoren einer gelingenden Nachhaltigkeitspolitik
Zu Teil 2 der Serie: Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia
Zu Teil 4 der Serie: Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam
Zu Teil 5 der Serie: The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru