Community development at village level in the Northern mountainous region – lessons learned from Lao Cai Happiness Program for New Rural Development

Community development at village level in the Northern mountainous region – lessons learned from Lao Cai Happiness Program for New Rural Development[1]   

Nguyen Ngoc Luan[2]

Thai Van Tinh[3]

 Improving livelihood, infrastructure and environment together with developing traditional cultural values of ethnic minority communities at village level is the base for gradually achieving new rural development criteria at commune level for such difficult area like the Northern mountainous region. Some practical experiences from Lao Cai Happiness Program, which based on South Korea’s successful Saemaul Undong[4], may contribute new solutions for new rural development appropriated with this specific region.

Text Box: Source: NRD-NCO (2017)According to statistics from National Coordination Office on New Rural Development (NRD), after over six years of implementing NRD, compared to other regions in the country, the rate of NRD-achieved communes in the Northern mountainous region was lowest with 12.2%; the average number of accomplished criteria per commune was also smallest (10.3/19 criteria). The numbers of accomplished criteria per commune increased by only 6.5 cirteria in years 2011-2017. Among 278 NRD-achieved communes in 14 provinces of the region, there were 170 communes (61.2%) of such more favorable provinces as Thai Nguyen, Bac Giang, Phu Tho and Hoa Binh. In the Vietnam, there were totally 190 communes which achieved fewer than 5 criteria, in which there were 114 communes (75.8%) in the Northern mountainous regions.

It is not really hard to give explanations for those afore-said results.  It is because the Northern mountainous region has been encountering with many difficulties in topography, climate, infrastructure, education level, human resource, etc. In spite of support from central government and many efforts of local authorities, accomplishment of NRD criteria should only be considered as long-term goals, not short-term objectives. In other words, only localities with favorable conditions should continuously make effort to reach the 2020 goal which is that 28% of total communes in the region are NRD-achieved communes (Decision No.1600/QĐ-TTg dated August 16th 2016 by the Prime Minister approving National Target Program on New Rural Development in the period of 2016-2020). The accomplishment of NRD criteria in other communes is a long way ahead, especially for over 70% of remaining communes which are mostly located in difficult and remote areas with high percentage of poverty and ethnic minority. The first footstep on that way should start at village community. The community with closest relationship is village because of many similarities in topography, infrastructure, environment, production, customs, generations, ethnic tribe, and language. Promoting village community means promoting the region’s identity, which is an appropriate approach to NRD in this region. Improving livelihood, infrastructure and environment together with developing traditional cultural values of ethnic minority communities at village level is the base for gradually achieving NRD criteria at commune level for such difficult area like the Northern mountainous region.

Since 2015, Lao Cai Happiness Program has been carried out based on the Memorandum of Understanding between Lao Cai Provincial People’s Committee and Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) dated January 17th 2014. The program’s objective is to support poverty reduction and improve the livelihood with people’s self-help and participation in align with NTP-NRD based on South Korea’s Saemaul Undong model. With village community-based implementation through bottom-up approach, results after nearly two years of Lao Cai Happiness Program can help to draw practical experiences to be applied for NRD in other difficult areas in the Northern mountainous region.

The most outstanding point of Lao Cai Happiness Program is the combination between two factors: (1) successful experiences from South Korea’s Saemaul Undong; and (2) reality of NRD implementation in Vietnam, case of Lao Cai province. Such experiences from Saemaul Undong has been applied flexibly in the project’s area in Lao Cai through a number of approaches like community-based; participation, decentralization, empowerment, etc.  

Successful lessons from Saemaul Undong can be shown via following activities in Lao Cai Happiness Program:

Saemaul Undong experience

Application into NRD in Lao Cai

Carry out in every village, promote the key role of village in planning, decision-making, activity organization and implementation

Pilot in 8 ethnic minority villages in 03 districts of Muong Khuong, Bac Ha, Si Ma Cai (villages in the north mountainous area now is as big as those in Korea in the period of Saemaul Undong with around 100 households).

Be paid much attention and strong direction towards the movement

In Lao Cai, NRD is paid much attention and strong direction (the numbers and rate of NRD communes in Lao Cai is much lower than those in 4 afore-said provinces).

Establish a strong management and organization system from grass root units to central government, create effective horizontal and vertical collaboration mechanism 

Closely collaborate with ODA PMU, Steering Committee of National Target Programs, NRD Coordination Office at provincial, district and commune level; Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; Department of Health, Women’s Union, relevant consultants for each certain subcomponent.

Develop the crew of leaders at villages, including 1 male leader and 1 female leader, independent from political systems. The leaders are elected by villagers, and empowered and provided official training.

Formulate VDCs and supporting groups. VDCs consist of 3 members (01 male head, 01 female head, and 1 secretary) elected by villagers. Those members cannot be official village leaders or secretary of village’s Communist Party. A particular training program and field trip, along with hands-on-based guidelines is designed for VDCs

Pay attention to training for officiers-in-charge at levels and participation of local authorities, scientists and journalists to create the movement for the whole society.

There is a subcomponent which only focuses on capacity building for NRD officers at provincial, district, commune and village level within the program’s targeted area. Training courses are organized systematically with attendance of journalists and researchers, using visual aid in association with practice and field trip within and outside the province.

Promote healthy competition among villages. The better they do, the more support they get.

Promote competition among villages. The better they do, the more support they get. Use specific criteria to evaluate: plan accomplishment level, changes in scenery and environment; self-study and collaboration; solidarity and people’s participation level; transparency, fairness and effectiveness of materials and equipment supported by the program; VDC’s capacity and participation level

Carry out step by step, from small scale to big scale, from infrastructure project to income generation project; build up confidence and activeness instead of self-desperation and passiveness.

Carry out small-scaled and easy-to-do works (paving the floor, constructing inter-household roads, building toilets, making animal cages), and then big-scaled works (constructing village cultural hall, village roads; organizing CIGs on buffalo raising, chicken raising, maize-growing; credit fund activity; nice and clean house model). The process requires the community’s participation, create the movement as well as improve people’s capacity, awareness, confidence and activeness.

Create a strong Saemaul Undong movement nationwide with songs, logos, uniform, and flags in association with the spirit of “diligence, self-help and cooperation”.

Regularly educate the spirit of “diligence, self-help and cooperation” to VDCs and villagers through training courses, village meetings, musical performances; give Saemaul Undong jackets and hats to all households; support 8 sets of TV, DVD player and DVD to 8 villages for introduction of Saemaul Undong lessons; support 24 cellphones to VDCs in 8 villages to promote collaboration between villages and PMC.


In fact, the implementation of activities in 8 pilot villages is just one of three subcomponents in Community Development Component under Lao Cai Happiness Program (as in the diagram). The other two subcomponents, along with Capacity Building Component, have direct or indirect impacts on results in 8 pilot villages.

It can be said that during a short time (from late 2015 to end of 2016), with great bulk of work (each subcomponent includes many activities with participation of many relevant agents), PMC Office of Lao Cai Happiness Program in cooperation will Lao Cai Provincial NRD Coordination Office, and some other consultant units made huge efforts to achieve plans and targets. Especially, activities which are most important and most difficult to do are under 8 Pilot Village Subcomponent. Active participation of village community and VDC played a key role in achieving results in the first year of the program. It is the program’s approaches and impacts that promoted that active participation. Below are lessons learnt from the Program which can be applied into NRD in villages in the north mountainous area:

- Firstly, VDC should be formulated by people’s opinions. Based on Korean new village movement with 2 leaders in VDC (1 male and 1 female), the Program consulted and supported local people to elect their own VDC including 1 male leader, 1 female leader and 1 secretary. VDC was nominated by all households, elected by votes in village meeting, and officially approved in Decision of Commune People’s Committee. It is quite different from formulation of VDC in common NRD when members of VDCs are officers of political system. The results in 2016 showed that the apparatus of VDCs with 3 members was much more effective than the normal one. They gained people’s trust and empowerment, and became contact people to receive the program’s support as well as other development activities. Compactness and gender equality in VDCs made the planning cover adequate contents, and made the work flow be faster than before. But it still ensured that specific plans and   tasks were reviewed by the community.

- Secondly, capacity building for VDC should be implemented systematically visually and fitted with practical situation. The Program entered a contract with Center of Agricultural Policy (CAP) under Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD) to do research activities, compose materials, and organize training courses, study tours and village forums. Those activities haven’t been done in just a few days, but the whole program. Training content was put into a book which was easy to read and understand with many pictures for description. It aimed to help VDCs easily understand the materials. More importantly, training content for villagers doesn’t aim to inform them about policy documents, but put emphasis on two main things:  (i) Raise awareness; (ii) Improving skills. In training program, a certain period of time was spent on showing videos about Saemaul Undong experiences, successful stories of poverty eradication in Korea and in Lao Cai; inviting some typical villagers to share their true stories with trainees. After the courses completed, VDCs in 08 pilot villages were continuously guided to carry out their real tasks in their villages. By doing that, there was an improvement in each member’s awareness and skill, making them capable enough to carry out community development tasks.

- Third, the commune should be decentralized to be in charge of supporting villages on production technique. The program’s resources and support of production technique in 2016 was done by cooperating with specialized agents at provincial level.  As a matter of fact, technical support and hands-on-based guidance by provincial officers was not as effective as expected. A reason was that provincial officers had their formal duties and usually stayed in their workplace, so they didn’t have enough time to regularly visit villages for support. Another reason was because of far distance and inadequate personnel. In the meantime, commune officers were said to effectively monitor and support activities in villages. Commune officers in charge of animal husbandry, veterinary, cultivation, and agriculture extension were trained adequately and decentralized with more responsibilities (with the program allowance) so they were motivated to promote income generation activities, develop models of cultivation and husbandry more effectively. 

- Forth, typical models should be shown for effectiveness to encourage the community to follow. Be aware of people’s mindset and customs at pilot villages, the Program selected some typical households to develop demonstration models. Only when villagers see effective models with their own eyes, they follow it. In spite of understanding situations, villagers still rely on support if only propaganda and promotion is available. Thus, the Program developed models in buffalo raising, chicken raising, black sow raising, maize cultivation, rice cultivation, nice and clean house model, septic toilets, buffalo /cow cage. According to report of 8 VDCs in 2016 sum-up conference, almost all demonstration models were gradually effective, raising people’s awareness on what they should do to increase their income, improve their health and protect the environment. Have changed the mindset, villagers have expanded successful cases since early 2017.

- Fifth, the program’s aid is not all for free but partially supports with counterpart fund of local people. It is an experience from many other supporting programs and policies. Under Lao Cai Happiness Program, all supports of production and infrastructure required villagers’ contribution. Those who received the program’s support were responsible for donating some money to the village’s savings fund. The fund was used for public activities. Fairness, transparency, and publicity were ensured in village meetings hosted by VDCs. As VDCs were well equipped with meeting organization skill, meeting chairing skill, presentation skill, dispute settlement skill, propaganda skill, VDCs created a strong consensus in the community. One striking point here is that villagers have changed their mindset much so far. Almost all poor households, ethnic minority households didn’t ask for 100% support from external resources. Instead, they only required support on interest rate, then they could borrow money to invest into production. It is related to use of NRD budget in the coming time. Local authorities should study specific cases in order to come up with appropriate policies on interest support instead of direct support or material support.

- Sixth, village community development should combine action impacts with spirit impacts. It is also a Saemaul Undong experience with the spirit of “diligence, self-help and cooperation”. Activities were done from easy to difficult one under the motto “we can do it”. Lao Cai Happiness Program effectively applied the approach at pilot villages. In terms of spirit, the Program organized many community meetings, combined technical training with musical performances, and integrated the needs of mindset changes in meeting content. Regarding action, the Program carried out various contents of different aspects such as infrastructure, production, credit and environment. Activities were also done from easy to difficult level.

Above are some initial experiences in over two years of implementing Lao Cai Happiness Program. The Program is still continuing in 2017 and going to finish in the first quarter of 2018. Those experiences should be continuously under the study to come up with more specific solutions to village communities in not only the northern mountainous region but also other areas.


Some pictures at 8 villages activities:



[1] New Rural Development, popularly called “nong thon moi”, is the strategic National Target Program of Vietnam in the period 2010-2020.

[2] Deputy Director of Center for Agricultural Policy (CAP) – Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD).

[3] Senior researcher of CAP – IPSARD.

[4] Saemaul Undong is a rural development movement in South Korea during 1970s. Saemaul means “new village” and Undong means “movement”.