Monday, March 21, 2011

I have a job!

Vinh was just a small boy when he first turned up at the Hoi An Children's Home back in 2003. His mother lived in the poorest village of the district, across the river from ancient Hoi An, and was so poor that she had no hope of supporting Vinh through school.

Mrs Diep, the director of the Home, took Vinh in; this was in the days before Blue Dragon was involved at the Home and the elderly Mrs Diep was looking after all of the kids pretty much by herself.

Throughout his schooling, Vinh stood out as being conscientious and hard working. He really wanted to make the best of his opportunity at the Home.

Blue Dragon started working at the Home in 2007, when Vinh was just finishing off his final school years. His older brother had also lived at the Home, and their mother was so appreciative that she traveled to see Mrs Diep one day to say: "This Home has saved my children." A pretty powerful statement for a mother make.

When Vinh completed Grade 12, his eyes were set firmly on university, and a wonderful sponsor named Michael from Auckland (along with a few good friends) was happy to put up the funds to support him - not only for his uni fees, but also for his living expenses. And Vinh, through sickness and through health, just kept studying away.

Vinh has just finished his degree at the Ho Chi Minh City university of Computer Technology.

Two weeks on, he's landed a job with an American company in Danang, just a half hour drive from Hoi An.

Vinh is just so excited - all his dreams have come true. All he wants to do now is share this news.

Van, a social worker at the Home who has known Vinh for some years, wrote to me over the weekend:

From the bottom of my heart, I am so happy for Vinh. I can see how much he has been trying
in his life, he has showed us that when they got a target of their life, no matter what life is
difficult with them, they will try their best to make it better and better.

Considering all the bad news on the TV lately, I thought that this was worth sharing.

Below is a picture of Vinh - hard at work!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The roadshow

I'm in Hobart now, in the final days of my trip to Australia and New Zealand. Although I am here on business, I'm having a terrific time and wish that I could stay here longer!

During the past few weeks, most of my work has involved speaking at schools, Rotary Clubs and on radio. It doesn't seem like work at all - in fact it's mostly been a lot of fun, albeit very tiring at times.

My hope on these trips is to raise money for the work of Blue Dragon, of course, and also to raise awareness of the issues we deal with in Vietnam. To keep our costs low, I've been really lucky to have flights from Jetstar, and a couple of families have hosted me in their homes. Here in Tasmania, one wonderful family have not only given me the run of their house, but their car as well, which is most fortunate considering I'm covering about 200km per day.

In these past few days, I have had a couple of quite touching experiences. My time in Tasmania is almost entirely about visiting schools and speaking - about Vietnam, about Blue Dragon, and about the kids who I see every day at our centre. While some of the schools I visit are fairly well-off independent schools with beautiful facilities and students from generally privileged backgrounds, I've spent just as much time in local public schools where most students are from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves. I've even been off in the countryside, at schools like Campania and Triabunna District High Schools, which I guess don't get too many visitors from Vietnam!

I've been moved to see how students at all schools, no matter what their background, have expressed concern for the plights of kids their age in other countries. When I talk at schools, I am very careful to not give a sales and marketing pitch with a plea for cash at the end, but I am invariably asked by the kids: How can I help?

I like to believe that we're pretty careful with our funds at Blue Dragon. We certainly don't splash out on expensive cars or business class flights or any other extravagances; we do our best to keep things basic and 'down to earth.' Some events over this last week have reminded me of how important it is for Blue Dragon to stay that way.

Today, after I spoke in one school, the student council presented me with an envelope of cash they had collected from their fundraising that morning. But one of the teachers, who didn't even identify himself (or herself!) to me sent up an extra $50. One of the students walked up and said "I'd like to make a donation too," and handed me $5. I just didn't know what to say.

At another school, out in the countryside, one of the boys approached me after my presentation and asked if he could use his participation in a motorbike race to raise money for us.

The generosity of people around the world is a beautiful thing. Each year when I travel about Australia, New Zealand and Singapore trying to raise funds for our kids I miss being in Vietnam, and long to get back to our centre.

But seeing how much people - including school kids - truly care, and are interested, in the street kids of Vietnam is a huge inspiration to me.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Sweet as, bro

I'm on the road now, hopping around Australia and New Zealand (with huge thanks to Jetstar for providing the flights - and a couple of very kind people for offering places to stay!)

Over the weekend I was in Auckland, where 3 Blue Dragon boys are studying at NTEC college. They arrived in September, and 2 are now preparing to head back to Vietnam, having completed their English studies and some hospitality courses. The oldest of the 3, Chinh, is staying on for at least 6 months more to complete a Business diploma... but he's doing so well that the college is now talking about offering a second year of study to provide him with an even better qualification.

These 3 guys - pictured below - are inspiring young people. Each has spent time working on the streets of Hanoi; one doing shoe shine, one selling newspapers, and one as a gang leader. Studying in New Zealand was beyond their imagination, and yet they have not only survived, they've thrived.

Their teachers are happy with them, and they now have friends from all around the world. Mastering the life of 'international student' and living in a hostel have been incredible learning experiences beyond what they've mastered in class. And on top of it all, they've earned a reputation for helping other newly arrived students to settle in and sort out their problems.

Of course, as an Australian, I'm a little concerned about their Kiwi pronunciation, and the way they call me 'bro' now. (Everyone knows the PROPER English term is 'mate.'). For anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of New Zealand English, check out the New Zealand government's official guide to the language here.

In a couple of weeks, two of the boys will return to Hanoi, and Chinh will continue his studies without them. For each of them, they must soon face the issue of what to do with their newly acquired skills and qualifications. I'm hoping that they'll find a way to help others in Vietnam; but I'll be just as happy if they continue their studies and keep on building up their own education.

Friday, March 04, 2011

So far...

At Blue Dragon, we keep a record of all our progress and achievements from month to month - anyone who has received an email from us will have seen this.

Our March stats have just been updated... Here's what we've done so far!

To date, Blue Dragon has:
Sent 1,912 kids back to school and training
Provided accommodation to 109 girls and boys
Served 204,543 meals
Built or repaired 38 homes for families
Distributed 15,157 litres of milk
Handed out 22,514 kilos of rice
Reunited 71 runaway children with their families
Taken 709 kids to a doctor or hospital
Put 5 teens through drug rehab
Obtained legal registration papers for 551 children
Rescued 101 trafficked children
Placed 62 teens in jobs
Played 883 games of soccer!

Not bad for an organisation with such humble beginnings!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The death of microcredit?

Over recent months, I've watched with some disappointment as criticism of microcredit schemes has mounted and the awful pendulum of popularity has swung away from what was, until recently, the 'big thing' in charity and development. For those who have put their hearts and souls into developing microcredit for the poor, this must be a most dispiriting time.

These two articles appeared in the New York Times during January; and a simple online search reveals other such criticisms appearing from time to time over the past year.

Microcredit pioneer faces an enquiry...

Microlenders, honored with nobel, are struggling

Just a few years ago, the Grameen Bank and similar schemes around the world were the darling of development. Now, it seems, they are not. Social enterprises have taken their place.

How has this happened? Was microcredit really a bad idea all along?

My own take on this - and others may have different insights - is that microcredit went from being a good, concrete practice to a romanticised notion that could never live up to its ideal. Yunus, arguably the 'father' of microcredit, never saw his scheme as being the one and only solution to world poverty, but eventually this became the common perception of it. Even within Blue Dragon, over several years I received many emails from people and some big organisations asking us if we were interested in starting microcredit programs. As much as I like microcredit, it has never been a significant part of our work, although we've certainly given loans and helped families set up their own businesses.

The problem seems to be, though, that too many people came to think that microcredit was the answer to everything. And when they came to see that it wasn't, they believed it had failed. They were judging microcredit against imaginary criteria.

And now, to use the cliche, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

Donor attention has turned to social enterprises.

Again, social enterprises are great; but they are not the answer to everything. Those involved in forming this new field have never claimed that they could end all poverty. They help certain types of people in specific instances, and they can do an excellent job at providing training and employment.

I fear, though, that perception is now shifting into that same fairytale view that clouded microcredit schemes. Countless institutional donors will only fund the creation of social enterprises, to the exclusion of everything else. People are again seeing them as being a cure-all; an excellent idea is in danger of becoming a short lived fad. When the media starts noticing that social enterprises are imperfect, will they turn on them, too, and condemn them as failures?