Thursday, August 30, 2012

Massive Interventions

A few years ago, my team at Blue Dragon set out to write our mission statements.

This was not just an academic exercise; we wanted to capture the spirit and essence of our work with Vietnam's street kids. We wanted to be sure that, no matter what may change in our organisation in the future, our spirit and philosophy would carry on.

Among the various philosophical statements we came up with, one was just a little controversial:

Massive interventions, not quick fix solutions.

We added to this an explanation:

We tackle the problem of poverty from every angle, rather than focusing on one obvious cause or effect. Our interventions may take years, as we persist until we are successful.

 Some friends who looked over our drafts felt uncomfortable with this. "Massive interventions" just sounded too brutal; it had a whiff of wanting to conquer and dominate.

However, we kept it in the list of statements (I'll put the whole list below) because it summarised our view that to really help someone out of poverty, and really make a lasting change, our work had to be comprehensive, all-encompassing, and lasting.

Over the weekend I caught up with one of the Blue Dragon boys from Hue, named Cuong. He strikes me as a perfect example of the sort of "massive intervention" we had in mind when we wrote that.

He's 16 years old, and when we met him back in 2009 he lived in a tin shack with his family. Cuong had dropped out of school, which was hardly a surprise; it's unbelievably hard to live in a hot tin shack with no electricity and no place to study, then take yourself off to school every morning.

Cuong's old house...

And with his family's only income from fishing - which is poorly paid, dangerous, and seasonal - Cuong could hardly see any hope for a better tomorrow. What's the point of going to school when there's no future anyway?

Cuong's life today is incredibly - massively - different.

In 2011 we built Cuong's family a new brick house, replacing the tin shack with much greater comfort and protection from typhoons... and with electricity.

... and the new one being painted!

We then invited his mother to join an income generating activity we had started in their village. Today, Cuong's mother raises fish in a set of cages in the nearby lagoon. The money she makes has more than doubled the family's income in just one year.

As for his studies, Cuong is now studying in an internationally certified motorbike repair training program. He's about two thirds of the way through his course, and just loves it.

On top of all this is the mentoring he and his family have received over the years; the social activities we organise every week; and the encouragement Cuong gets just from being part of Blue Dragon.

Through these few interventions designed not only for Cuong, but also his family and community, Cuong has reason to hope for the future. His family is not rich, but they are no longer living in poverty, hungry during the off-season for fishing, and vulnerable to child trafficking.

"Massive interventions." I'm glad we kept that phrase, because I've really grown to like it.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Just a week, and hundreds of lives have been changed.

The big news of the week is that the Blue Dragon team succeeded in finding a young woman who had been trafficked into China, and brought her home. She's safe and well, but once again I can't say much more until the police work is done. It's quite a story, and I hope I can tell it soon.

The handover 

Just out of interest, the photo above is of the 'handover ceremony' held at the crossing between China and Vietnam. The red line on the road is the international border. Each time we bring a girl back from being trafficked, a small ceremony like this takes place as she returns to Vietnam.

On the anti-trafficking front, we had another reason to celebrate this week, although to most of the developed world our reason must seem a little odd. Our staff worked in Loc Tri commune of Hue province to register all the 'unregistered' citizens we could find. In total, we registered 399 children and adults. So the population of Loc Tri went from about 9,000 to about 9,399 in 2 days! 

Sign me up! 

What does this have to do with trafficking? Quite a lot, in fact.

Throughout Vietnam, tens of thousands of people are unregistered. This means they have no birth certificate, no ID card, no driver's licence - nothing to 'prove' that they exist. Without such paperwork, they cannot access government services, like school and healthcare.

We've known for a long time that kids who drop out of school are at the highest risk by far of being targeted by traffickers. But what we have also learned along the way is that, without paperwork, the rescue of trafficking victims is much, much harder. How can police open a case file on a person who doesn't officially exist? How can the police in China or Cambodia - or England or Australia - facilitate the return home of someone who has no documentation at all?

So our staff worked with the Hue government, focusing on just one commune, to ensure that everyone has the paperwork that they need. It was a busy 2 days, but 399 people now have extra protection against trafficking, and can access all the services that it is their right to do so.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Weekly roundup

What a whirlwind this past week has been!

My own week started in Hue, where Blue Dragon is fighting against child trafficking. However, I was there for a different purpose: I was catching up with one of the street kids from Hanoi has been... well... 'recovering' in Hue for the past few months. He's a young guy (let's call him "Minh") who has a good heart but was finding himself in all sorts of difficulties in the big city, so headed to the quieter environs of Hue to work and study. The change has been fantastic for him.

Despite the fresh start, Minh has been having some difficult times, and as it was his birthday I went down on a surprise visit to spend a couple of days with him.

Back in Hanoi, much of the week was taken up with meetings, supervising the renovations and construction of our new centre, and planning for the BIG MOVE on September 15. We even transported our first truckload over, although renovations have a few more weeks to go.

This new centre is a great step for us. After 5 years in our current centre, we've well and truly outgrown the building and need a whole lot more space for all the kids. There are so many facets of our work that we either didn't have, or were very small, 5 years ago. The new centre should be big enough to see us through the next 10 years. And thanks to some skillful negotiations by my staff, the landlord has agreed to not increase the rent for the whole 10 years that we will be there!

The end of the week saw one of our friends, a 20 year old named Hai, undergo heart surgery. Hai had a stroke some months ago, and on investigation doctors found that his heart had an abnormality which needed to be corrected. As I write, Hai is recovering from the operation, which took almost 10 hours on Thursday night.

Blue Dragon's main role through this has been to provide guidance and advice for Hai and his family. Before coming to us, they had not been told that Hai needed to exercise in order to recover some strength from the stroke: they believed that no recovery was possible.

Hai, in the trendy green hospital outfit, with his cousin. 

They were also expecting to wait until February for the operation to take place, even though there has been some urgency about correcting the problem quickly. Our staff were able to help the family, who have no experience of Hanoi bureaucracy, navigate through the hospital system and get much better care for no extra cost. 

While Hai had his surgery, 2 Blue Dragon staff set off on an operation of a different sort: looking for a young woman who was trafficked from Vietnam into China to be sold as a bride. The young woman is with them now, but they are still a long way from home so I can't say much. Until they are back, it's hard to rest. Every such trip has an element of danger, and while this trip has been relatively simple so far, I'll be very happy to see the 3 of them safely home.

And to top the week off, Hanoi delivered up a typhoon on Friday evening. Fortunately it has worn itself out sufficiently to allow us to get back to work on Sunday with a meeting for all of the families of the children we work with in Hanoi.

As always, there's much to hope for. More news to come soon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

... and closer...

Work at the new Blue Dragon centre is switching now to extending the drop-in centre, where the kids will play and join in activities. The foundations have been put down, and soon the frame will be put in place... 

Monday, August 13, 2012


With just over a month to go before the new Blue Dragon centre opens, preparations are coming along fine.

Internal renovations are more than halfway done, and the next step is to build an extension of the Drop-In Centre. If the rain holds off in coming weeks, we will get there on time!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where have all the street kids gone?

It was about 10 years ago that I first arrived in Hanoi, fresh from the south of Vietnam to teach English to post-grad economics students.

On the surface, Hanoi was a very different place then. There was much less conspicuous wealth at that time; people were stashing their gold under mattresses, afraid to 'flaunt it' as they do now. But the wealth was there, it was just hidden.

The situation of street kids has followed an opposite pattern. Ten years ago, street kids were very visible in Hanoi. The photo above, taken in 2003, shows a few shoeshine boys from Hung Yen province, working on Hang Gai street, famous for its boutique silk shops. Such scenes were typical at the time. Street kids were pretty much everywhere.

Today, I often hear people commenting that Hanoi "doesn't have street kids." And on the surface, the city does seem strangely void of children begging, selling, and cleaning shoes. Just as often, people ask me: Why don't you work in Cambodia, where there's 'real' need?

Comments like this miss the point that, as with so much in Vietnam, there is always more than meets the eye. Far, far more.

Street kids in Hanoi try to camouflage themselves to fit in and hide among the mainstream. Standing out means discrimination, and possibly even detention in a "Social Protection Centre" or Reform School.

The camouflage takes many shapes. Street kids now try to dress like everybody else; they have learned that dressing in the cheaper, simpler clothes of their countryside makes them easy to identify.

The kids have also learned that certain times and places are safer to work. Safer, because the chance of being caught is considerably less. What times are safest? The kids have found that late at night is their best chance to earn money. Problem is, what kind of work can they do at night? Legitimate ways of earning money are much more difficult, so many kids have turned to theft and prostitution. These "jobs" also yield much greater income than the traditional jobs like shining shoes and selling bread.To avoid getting in trouble with the law, many kids have turned to breaking the law.

And finally, the kids are masters at finding places to sleep where nobody can find them. For those who hit the jackpot with a big income one night, they may head off to a hotel for a few days, often inviting their friends to join them until the money runs out. Others become expert tree climbers and hide out right under the noses - or, more accurately, above the heads - of tourists around Hoan Kiem Lake in trees like these.

It's been fascinating to watch the development of Vietnam these past 10 years. I find it hard to say that the lives of street kids are any better than they were when I first arrived, but there's no doubt that things are very different for them.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Bluey gets busy

Blue Dragon is moving. We're opening 2 new centres, relocating our classrooms and offices, and expanding our services.

It's all very serious business.

And that's why we've given the task of showing our renovation / construction process to Bluey.

Be warned: prepare to smile.

Bluey gets busy.