Influencing the design of government intervention strategies

Applying research into political reform in Vietnam to government intervention strategies in the UK and international donor behaviour.

Martin Gainsborough, Professor of Development Politics in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, is only one of a handful of specialists on Vietnamese politics and is using his cross-cultural experience to develop research that could influence the design of intervention strategies to tackle issues in local Bristol communities.

Since 1986, Vietnam has been undergoing economic reform with the goal of creating a socialist-oriented market economy. The ruling Communist Party has overseen this reform, known as Doi Moi, working with the international donor aid community since 1993 to instil major changes within its governance systems.

Viewed from the outside, this reform has been led by Vietnam’s political elite, who have made a series of substantive policy changes that propelled the country on to a new path. However, Gainsborough, having researched Vietnam for over 20 years – he has lived and worked there and speaks the language – suggests that the dominant view, through which Vietnam’s reform has typically been understood, may be a little distorted.

His research demonstrates that the orthodox view of reform in Vietnam places too much emphasis on change, policy and on the elite initiative, which results in only a partial account of reform: “The orthodox account downplays areas of continuity in both economics and politics during reform years and it doesn’t account for the spontaneous ‘bottom-up’ initiatives that were only subsequently formalised by the elite.”

Influencing how the international donor community deliver aid

Gainsborough’s research has influenced thinking within the donor community and provided the rationale for changes in the design of government interventions. As an example, AusAID wanted to move towards greater use of Vietnamese government systems to deliver governance reform projects, as opposed to the donor community overseeing it all. However, they wanted to know what the risks were and how best to mitigate those risks.

“My research gave insight into how the political system operated, issues to do with corruption and how we might understand it. AusAID found that useful in their own thinking, but also as evidence to draw up a case to take back to Canberra to say ‘this is what we want do and this is why we think it will work’.” -Prof Martin Gainsborough

Gainsborough’s experiences abroad also provided clarity to him personally and led him to explore a calling to the priesthood: he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 2010. He is now responsible for an inner city parish in Barton Hill, Bristol, which is an area of high poverty and deprivation.

Lessons for work with local communities

Being embedded within the community has allowed him the opportunity to observe some parallels between the international aid community and local welfare organisations and schemes. Gainsborough plans to develop these ideas and collect more empirical data to address the questions they raise.

“Barton Hill started to take shape in the 1830s, around industrialisation and urbanisation. It was an extremely poor community then and it remains one of the poorest communities in Bristol now. So, how do we make sense of all the intervention that has happened in the name of tackling poverty if so little has changed? Does it not lead us to think that for all the talk of alleviating poverty there may be ways in which the very system itself works against this happening? There are considerable interests, including people’s livelihoods, which are bound up with these systems. If they resolved the issues entirely, these organisations would no longer need to exist.”

Gainsborough can also apply his cross-cultural experiences to his work in Bristol. He recognises the importance of holding back judgement in order to understand the cultural context of the situation: “Our perceptions of what is ethical and what is not can be very different between cultures. An example would be a political system where you owe your position to a person higher up within that system, possibly to whom you have paid money. In that context, it could be that the ethically correct thing for you to do is extract resources by virtue of your holding that public office and then subsequently pass some of those resources on to the person who got you the job. In this context, it would be regarded as unethical if you didn’t follow that convention. This is a different understanding of what is ethical than we might have in the UK.”

Gainsborough has witnessed cultural differences within his Bristol community, arguing that events within the community, although morally acceptable, wouldn’t be conventional practice in other contexts. However, he recognises that these are incredibly complex issues that can be politically controversial and sensitive.

Although his work in Bristol is still in the very early stages, the hope is that Gainsborough's research could influence the design and approaches of intervention strategies as much here as it has overseas.

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