The meeting was part of a Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade delegation’s tour of Southeast Asia.
The 20 participants included Canadian and Vietnamese parliamentarians, government department representatives, Canada’s Ambassador to Vietnam, and senior officials involved in VERN as researchers, advisors, or policy-makers,
IDRC’s partnership with VERN and its predecessors, the Vietnam Economic and Environmental Management program, and the Vietnam Sustainable Economic Development program, spans nearly 15 years.
VERN created the first network for young economic researchers in Vietnam. It served to inform the process of policy formulation on competitiveness, and employment and poverty, two issues facing Vietnam in the run-up to its accession to membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which was formally accepted in 2006.
VERN now focuses on enhancing the analytical skills of its constituents, raising the quality of work to international standards, strengthening the network’s links with the university community, and increasing the application of economic research to development policy in Vietnam.
Foundation building in Vietnam
The Vietnam Economic Research Network (VERN) may be unusual among knowledge-building institutions in that it operates in an environment where arms-length analysis is a novelty. Not many years ago, all of Vietnam’s public policy emerged from the country’s one-party command structure, and the very notion of an independent consultancy was unimaginable. Compared with similar organizations in other developing countries, VERN and its predecessors started with a blank slate.
Thus, while it carries out the same kind of practical research and capacity-building functions as do similar consortia elsewhere, VERN’s special role has been to provide direct advice to government decision-makers. This high-level input hastens the creation of the basic institutions of a modern industrialized society and at the same time builds local expertise to keep the economy growing.
It began in 1991, when Vietnam embarked upon a root-and-branch transformation, converting its economy from a centrally planned to a market-based system. This reform policy was called Doi Moi (“reconstruction”). The ideological push for collectivization was abandoned and private enterprise encouraged, and the country began to look outward toward integration with regional and global economic institutions. As a result, during the past two decades Vietnam achieved rapid and broad-based growth and has significantly reduced poverty.
This radical transition was complicated, however, by the scarcity of personnel qualified to carry out evidence-based policy analysis. From the start, IDRC stepped in with support for a series of research networks designed to boost Vietnam’s capabilities in this area. VERN is the most recent of these consortia. Launched in 2002, and funded by IDRC at least until 2009, VERN mobilizes a small number of research teams comprising leading Vietnamese scholars, including many younger academics and women.
VERN offers guidance and training in methodologies with the aim of creating a Vietnamese “community of researchers.” In its applied studies, meanwhile, VERN assists the emergence of national institutions and governance structures which — while customary in other societies — are new to Vietnam. Its policy papers, provided upon government request, have helped the country complete key changes such as trade liberalization and banking reforms, integrate into the global economy, and establish a modern market and investment system.
In the run-up to Vietnam’s 2006 accession to membership in the World Trade Organization, for example, VERN addressed the policy tension between ensuring competitiveness while raising employment and reducing poverty.
Encouraged by its success, Vietnam aims to graduate from a low-income to a middle-income country by 2010. IDRC, meanwhile, hopes to extend the VERN concept to the subregional level, embracing Laos and Cambodia.