Rural development in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

A Sir John Higgs Award and rural development in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

In 1999 I was extremely fortunate to receive a Sir John Higgs Award from the Arkleton Trust, and this allowed me to visit Can Tho University in the south of Vietnam. More than a decade later I have a doctorate in political ecology from London university, based on fieldwork I have done here, and I am back in the Mekong Delta as advisor to the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources at An Giang University. The award made an enormous difference to my life and possibly also it has brought benefits to some people in the Delta. In 1998 I enrolled in the first Master’s programme on Sustainable Agricultural Systems at the Royal Agricultural College (RAC), Cirencester. I had been a teacher in Scotland since the early 1970s. I taught biology, then I was an assistant head of a secondary school and finally worked for six years in higher education and as a civil servant in Edinburgh and London on how the structure of teacher education might be changed. In 1998, encouraged by my late wife, I enrolled in the RAC’s new programme. Born in Scotland, I had grown up in Uganda and Kenya, and the ‘non-UK world’ probably runs in my blood, so my family were probably not surprised when, encouraged by staff at the RAC, I said I wanted to visit Asia, either Vietnam or the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to study rice growing and particularly its intolerance of salt. Even back then, the issue of how rice would survive the inundation of salt water as the climate changed was firmly on the agenda, and deltas such as the Mekong are prime targets for that attack.

With my Sir John Higgs Award of £750 I bought a cheap plane ticket to Ho Chi Minh City on Aeroflot and the following day I travelled for four hours on a Russian-built hydrofoil to Can Tho City, in the heart of the delta, where I spent two weeks at the Mekong Delta Farming Systems Research and Development Center. My focus was the sustainability and future of rice growing in the coastal area of the delta. When I arrived in August 1999 the monsoon rains were well underway and I remember wading ankle deep through muddy waters along the main roads, just to get from the university guesthouse to the research station. There I talked to anyone I could, I wanted to learn as much as I could about Vietnam, rice, salinity and the delta. I also managed to visit a farmer in Soc Trang province at the coast. When we arrived at his farm by boat, we stepped out of the boat and onto the bank surrounding his land, but when we left three hours later we climbed down a ladder into the boat because the tide had fallen by more than a metre. This was farming at sea! The land was protected by dikes, and the farmer could only plant his rice after sufficient rain had fallen to wash out the salinity and acidity from his soil. Early one morning, I had a meeting with Dr Vo-Tong Xuan, one of Vietnam’s foremost rice scientists and the director of the centre and Vice-Rector of the university. Xuan patiently explained some of the problems of rice growing in the delta. Little did I know at the time, but this meeting was seminal to what happened over the next 13 years.

With the Masters degree out of the way I wrote to Xuan and asked if I could come back and do ‘research’ in the delta. I was vague about what I wanted to do, but I wanted it to be about people as well as agriculture. I am a social scientist, not a technical specialist, and I am better in the ill-defined and messy areas where people and technology are interacting than in breeding the perfect rice for salt tolerance, but my background in teaching and biology are very helpful. Xuan invited me to come to the new University of An Giang, where he had just been appointed the first rector, to help his newly appointed and mainly young staff to write Vietnam’s degree in Integrated Rural Development. In exchange they would help me to access farmers to study their decision-making for my doctorate. This time the former British Executive Service Overseas (BESO), now merged with VSO, kindly funded my flights and insurance for two year. Over the next four years I visited AGU five times, spent eight months on the curriculum and at the same time worked on my research. In 2002 I gained an ESRC/NERC award to support my PhD and became a full-time student in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway University of London. I took up the opportunity available in the award to spent 4 months studying the language at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh. I also took part in a DEFRA-funded ‘Darwin Initiative’ on wetlands here in the delta.

The curriculum has now run for ten years and has an intake of 50 students a year. As it was the first of its kind I had no exemplars to follow, so it was very much a stab in the dark. We wanted to combine wide, but not deep, technical knowledge, with strong people skills, IT and English, and there were several national guidelines we also had to fit inside of. We had to invent from scratch subjects like community development, health and nutrition education, infrastructure development as well as crops, cattle and aquaculture. Not surprisingly, employers at first found these new graduates confusing, no graduates had presented that range of knowledge before, but after a thorough evaluation and some redirection its now running firmly and the graduates enter a wide range of employments.

My doctoral research was quite multi-directional at first and it took time to develop that ‘narrow and deep’ focus that is characteristic of many British PhDs. My focus was on ‘who takes the decision to build a dike?’ After two seasons in the field, interviewing nearly 50 farm households in some depth, I could see a paradox: the State said farmers were ‘free to grow whatever they liked’, whereas in practice their options were constrained by the water regime. Where there were no dikes farmers could grow long-duration, low-input and low yielding flooding rice, and gather wild goods in the flood season. Dikes built sufficiently high to keep out flooding river water until August, called August dikes, created a seven to eight month flood-free window when two crops of irrigated, high yielding, high input, short duration rice could be grown. In some places dikes sufficiently high to keep out all external floods created conditions for year-round cultivation. Decision about the dikes predetermined much of what happened, so who made them, how were they made? This was my final focus, and my thesis is available online at

I am back at An Giang University now, writing this piece at the delightful E-café with free wifi and an endless supply of weak green tea at ten in the morning. Normally that would be very late and lunch would come at eleven, but at present it is the New Year, the university is closed and most people are on holiday. This time I am here for six months and I have been helping to reconstruct the curriculum for crop science, another combination of my teaching experience and biology experience. Our rationale for change was based on three drivers: climate change which may deprive Vietnam of rice production in the coastal provinces; population growth and rising levels of individual consumption which may change peoples patterns of consumption as people become richer (Vietnam is predicted to become a mainly middle class country within fifteen years ) and the need to care for the environment here, in this province far from the sea, so that it is available to meet Vietnam’s food needs in the future. Alongside these drivers comes the unpredictable impact dam building up stream in the Mekong river, from China to Cambodia, will have on the delta. Our aim in the curriculum is to produce graduates who know how to grow crops and have experience in growing rice, to try and break the separation of theory and practice by having them carry out practical experiment right from their first semester. I was recently appointed a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester , and staff there helped me to develop a concept for this degree, to which much more has been added by interviewing potential employers and farmers and talking to staff here. The new Rector of the university asks for a degree that will act as a ‘bridge to farmers’, so people skills are being built into the practical work and we will draw on those aspects of the existing rural development degree. Among other things, we want students to work in small groups to cultivate rice on plots on the university campus, this way they can develop technical skills, teamwork and personal skills, gather data and present results and finally look at their work from an economic aspect—what did it all cost? The curriculum is also a vehicle for generating wider ranging conversations about climate change, food security and sustainability.

Looking back, the past ten years have been rich in experiences, but it would be a little arrogant for me to say what benefits this has brought to people living here. I know from earlier work on change in education in Scotland that it takes about ten years to see if a change has ‘stuck’, gained traction, so it will be for others to assess the benefits. In the meantime I am looking forward to doing some teaching at the RAC, perhaps working for another charity interested in using my experience and skills and most likely returning to Vietnam later this year or early next. I am keen to revisit a sample of my farmers and find out if they are still farming, what they know about climate change and how are they using IT, the internet and mobile phones.

Charles Howie