07/14/14 – This guest blog is written by Alistair Cook. He is part of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA and spent part of his summer working with Second Chance Vietnam.
“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays.”- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Your awareness of what you don’t know grows with time and experience, after graduation most people feel confident about themselves as they’ve been a success within the small, safe communities and context they’ve grown up in, or explored at university. Then suddenly, the whole world opens before you and you begin to realize your gaps in knowledge and experience. I am constantly aware of my lack of knowledge around things like finance, languages, world religion, and Facebook. This summer I’ve become aware of yet another gap around political and social systems which aren’t based on democracy or tribal systems.
Our team is in Vietnam, exploring the possibility of using the recent upsurge of Vietnamese interest in buying and selling second hand goods, to create a consignment store. This consignment store will have two purposes: (1) to make a profit (to fund a training program) and (2) act as a vocational training center. In Vietnam, there are a few organizations using businesses alongside classroom teaching to give vocational training, and another chance in life to homeless individuals and at-risk youth. Our plan is to follow this path, using the retail environment as our vocational context.
Despite the fact that our team includes a Vietnamese student who can provide local knowledge and context, we’ve really struggled to work out what we don’t know and what we need to know.
So, a couple of weeks in, what do we now think we are dealing with?
- Inherent corruption, from simple cases of overcharging and bribery to rampant nepotism and cronyism which seems to seep into everything mixed in with some very opaque financial practices (resulting in Vietnam placing 116th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s index).
- A political and business system which historically was designed to repel foreign involvement and which is still very much in the process of being re-formed.
- Legislation which does not allow for the business model we hoped to employ and an NGO sector which is over stretched and in-cohesive.
- Problems which in one early meeting led an NGO director to confide to us that if we didn’t have lots and lots of capital and very good political connections in Vietnam, it would be fool-hardy to even try.
However, our most pressing issue is one that we observed almost immediately after arrival. The streets of Hanoi are remarkably clean, and compared to other urban centers in similar countries, even Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam, empty of anyone living on the streets. Vietnam (and Hanoi in particular) has a policy of rounding up and detaining anyone found on the streets at two ‘rehabilitation centers’ with suspect reputations (see “Children of the dust” a Human Rights Watch report into this issue for more details). As this has driven the problem underground (and officially, doesn’t exist) working with this population is much more complex, both in terms of building trust with individuals and for NGO’s, for working on a problem the government formally, doesn’t acknowledge. Given the reputations of the ‘rehabilitation centers at Dong Dau and Ba Vi and the stories NGO’s working in this space tell of the police’s approach to homeless people, working with the authorities appears to be an ethical nightmare.
Clashes of different cultures ethics and operating practices are fairly normal when working in cultures and contexts that you aren’t familiar with. The question of what you as an individual need to stand up for, and what you can assimilate from the local cultural norms is more tricky, but is a constant challenge entrepreneurs face across the world. Given the change that entrepreneurs can begin, it can often be a very tough choice between your own ethics and how rigid they are, and the potential impact your venture could create.
“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”-David Hume