Rekindling MCC work in post-war Vietnam

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

From 1976 (a year after the war concluded) until 1989, annual MCC shipments of aid and visits of MCC delegations to Vietnam continued despite the absence of expatriate MCC workers in the country. Beginning in the early 1980s, an MCC representative based in Bangkok worked through the Vietnamese organization Aidresep to make quarterly trips to Vietnam, providing assistance to select projects. In 1990, 15 years after the American War in Vietnam, MCC was one of the first North American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to receive permission to open an office in Hanoi, with oversight from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly after our arrival in Hanoi, I was shopping in the market when a vendor asked, “Are you Soviet or French?” I told her I was an American working for an aid organization. A friend called to her, wondering who
I was. “She’s repairing war damage,” was the answer. Then she said to me, “American bombs killed lots of people,” implying, with a smile, that it was appropriate that I should be helping to repair the damage. This conversation and others like it revealed to us the internal debate within Vietnam and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over how to handle foreigners and foreign NGOs. We quickly learned that for MCC, an NGO associated
with the country of the former enemy, working in a post-war era would necessitate redefining its role in the country and reconceptualizing how the organization would measure success.

In this context, MCC could not partner with local churches as it typically does. We were advised, for the security of the local church, to be very cautious in any contacts with the churches. At that time, there were no Vietnamese NGOs. All Vietnamese organizations received their mandate and support from the government, so “non-government” was a foreign concept. MCC continued to discuss with our Vietnamese government contacts our desire to partner with grassroots organizations. In the absence of that possibility, the government helped to broker relationships with several universities, local government offices, the Women’s Union, health departments and hospitals. Within these entities, we often found visionary leaders who were willing to take risks to bring about improvement in the lives of those they were serving. Some people within and outside of MCC were critical of our ties with the Vietnamese government, but this was the way we had to work if we wanted to be in Vietnam as a restorative presence in solidarity with our country’s former “enemy.”

MCC was seen as an “old friend” of Vietnam, who had not supported the American War. This often meant that we were seen as supportive of the North; it was difficult to communicate that we were pacifists, desiring to minister to human need on both sides of the conflict. MCC played three main roles during this period.

First, MCC provided financial assistance, which legitimized MCC’s presence in the eyes of the government. Beyond the tangible assistance, the money also symbolized solidarity with a suffering people and brought hope for the future. The amounts of money were relatively small, and our government contacts often pressed for more.

Second, MCC sought to strengthen human resources and provide professional opportunities. During the war years, professionals in Vietnam had been cut off from developments in their fields. We were able to link them with study tours, short courses and graduate study opportunities—particularly in Asia, but also in the West.

Third, MCC workers functioned as a bridge to North American communities, telling North Americans the stories of the Vietnamese people we had come to know and explaining to our Vietnamese partners that we represented North American Christians who wanted to help repair the harm done by the war. MCC was unique among the international NGOs operating in Vietnam at the time in having a strong constituency of people who felt ownership in the organization and supported it financially.

When we returned to Vietnam in 2012, we found a cohort of young Vietnamese who had studied development and were applying their knowledge to the situation in Vietnam. (In our early days there, such a group of people did not yet exist.) We also were able to meet with some of MCC’s early project partners who told us, “We will never forget that MCC
helped us when we were in extreme need after the war.” They referred to an old proverb: A grain of rice when you are hungry means more than a bowl of rice when you have enough.

Janet Reedy, together with her husband, Stan, served as MCC representative overseeing the (re)establishment of the Vietnam program in 1990. The Reedys continued to serve in Vietnam until 1992.

Learn more

Bush, Perry. “Vietnam and the Burden of Mennonite History.” Conrad Grebel Review 17/2 (Spring 1999): 5-27.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

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