Working with Mekong Plus in Vietnam has allowed me to observe some of the many different ways one can help the poor. Aside of visiting Kiva borrowers, I also got a chance to observe other projects that Mekong Plus implements as part of its holistic approach towards attacking poverty.
Mekong Plus an extremely wide range of activities. One of the most successful and popular programs is its quilt shop, Vietnam Quilts. The project employs over a hundred poor women in the areas of Duc Linh and Long My. The women are taught to sew quilts and souvenirs that are then sent to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to be sold. The project has been very successful and self-sustaining. The revenues generated are poured back into the program, and the women receive a monthly salary. The impact is tremendous because it allows the women to stay close to home and work instead of leaving their children for several days at a time to find work in far away areas. Also, it empowers the women by providing handicraft skills and financial freedom. I had a chance to visit all of the small shops where the quilts and souvenirs are made and the quilt store in Ho Chi Minh City.
One of Mekong Plus’s most important programs to providing a long-term solution to poverty is its scholarship project. Mekong Plus provides hundreds of scholarships to poor students. Education in Vietnam is not free or mandated. Families must pay a yearly tuition if they want their children to receive an education. Also, they are responsible for buying the school uniforms and school supplies. For many poor families, the fee is too high. Many children of the families I visited do not complete the 8th grade. Without an education, they have very little hope of breaking free of poverty. I went with a loan officer one day in order to film and document the event, and I also ended up handing out scholarships. The parents of the students were also there, applauding as their sons’ and daughters’ names were called out. The parents have sacrificed a lot as well to keep their children in school. Not only do they lose on potential income their children could earn by working, but they must also save up to buy the uniforms and school supplies. The scholarships provided by Mekong Plus cover the school fees. The parents would not send their children to school though if they didn’t think it was worth the investment. Talking to the families afterwards, it is clear to me that the families realize how important education is to providing a better life for their children.
In addition to educating poor children, Mekong Plus provides health education to women. I visited two separate classes, one about female hygiene and diseases and another about proper infant care. Many families, especially in the rural areas of Vietnam, have very little exposure to properly caring for themselves or their children. They rely on advice from their friends, family, and even Vietnamese myths. Doctor visits are expensive and health insurance in Vietnam is inadequate. The class on proper infant care was very engaging and successful. The women learned about the human respiratory system. In small groups, they drew and labeled the different parts of the respiratory system. They were given different scenarios and symptoms and were asked to identify the illness. The Mekong Plus staff also taught the women how to properly care for an ill infant. Afterwards, the women were quizzed on what they learned. The class does not end there though. The women must then teach a class on the same topic in the future, and the Mekong staff will supervise them and provide support.
The class on female hygiene was a much more difficult class because the topic is still taboo in Vietnam, especially in the rural areas. The women were less willing to participate. I learned that over 40% of the women in Vietnam however suffer from various diseases, including STDs and breast cancer. The class aimed to provide correct information to the women so that they would be able to self-diagnose themselves and prevent infection. The Mekong Plus staff covered symptoms of various STDs and how to self-check for breast cancer. The staff member also taught the women how to maintain proper hygiene, such as where they should hang their underwear to dry. Cultural attitudes in Vietnam are still tremendous hindrances to sex and health education. I doubt anyone knows when Vietnam will be more open to the subject, but in the mean time, I think it’s wonderful that Mekong Plus has taken it upon themselves to provide proper information to the rural women. Through my interviews, I find that one of the biggest reasons a family ends up in poverty is due to illness. Families must take out huge loans and sell their land and assets in order to pay for doctor visits, hospital bills, and medication. Being able to prevent illness or detect it early may go a long way towards ending poverty.
I only highlighted three of Mekong Plus’s other programs aside from microfinance, but I would like to mention there other projects really quickly. In the Mekong Delta area, Mekong Plus helps build roads and bridges. They have an incense program that provides jobs and income to dozens of poor individuals. The incense is made by the poor and sent to France as part of a Fair Trade agreement. In addition to providing hygiene education to women, Mekong Plus sends toothbrushes, toothpaste, fluoride, and workbooks to schools so that children can learn and practice proper dental hygiene. Mekong Plus trains local citizens to become veterinarians so that the poor farmers can help one anther instead of Mekong Plus having to constantly provide veterinary services. Mekong Plus also has a theatre group that writes plays and puts on performances in the community. The theatre shows are used to educate the community about issues such as alcohol, drugs, HIV, and domestic violence. The list of activities that Mekong Plus is involved goes on. I have been very fortunate to visit many of its other programs, and it has taught me a great deal about how poverty is not simply an economic issue. It is also an issue of health, culture, politics, etc./>