The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


DPU Working Paper - No. 127

Needle in a Haystack: Searching for Civil Society in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam


1 November 2003

Author: Khanh Tran-Thanh

Publication Date: 2003

The following attempts to demystify the ongoing intellectual debate on civil society and its related concepts, in the context of development. It will present two fundamental opposing approaches to civil society that are ascribing to it roles and functions: the neo-liberal and the neo-marxist approach. Both are inspired by Western philosophical ideas of the past centuries, and compete for recognition. In addition to these two competing views, stands the socially responsible capitalism approach, inspired by ideas of both neo-liberalism and neomarxism. The dissertation will also argue that it is the neo-liberal approach that has gained most in popularity in contemporary development discourses. Multi- and bilateral development agencies have pushed civil society up on their policy agendas for two main ‘official’ reasons: enhancing development-oriented activities, and promoting democracy.

But there is yet another agenda served by ‘strengthening civil society’ projects. This paper will then discuss the usefulness of civil society as a Western concept in a non-Western context. Drawing from the existing theory, practice and evidence from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the latter part of the paper will argue that civil society as defined by mainstream Western-rooted notions is not easily observable in the case of Vietnam. To assess the nature and extent of civil society, as it is defined in Westernised terms, will lead to the syndrome of searching for a ‘needle in a haystack’. However, because the notion of civil society, and the ideas it carries are deemed desirable in the context of development in Vietnam, it will not be entirely dismissed. Thus, it is recommended for donors seeking to support civil society, to adopt an ‘adapted’ version of civil society, which takes into account the particularities of the sociopolitical context of Vietnam. Only then will the notion of civil society be exploited to its full potential.

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