Foreign cleanup efforts fruitless without local support

May 23, 2016 | 06:16 pm PT
James Joseph Kendall smiled into the cameras from behind his facemask as astonished locals took shots of him while he was cleaning up a stagnant canal in Cau Giay District, Hanoi.

The story has attracted a lot of media coverage, and the chairman of Hanoi's People’s Committee expressed his gratitude by presenting him with a badge for his efforts.

This reminds me of another heavily polluted waterway: the Nhieu Loc River.

I remember in 2014, my friends working for the World Bank shared articles about the resurrection of the Nhieu Loc River – which was once a nightmare for residents of Ho Chi Minh City. My friends could not hide their excitement.

The project was funded by a $248 million loan from the World Bank and $68 million from the state budget, and proved to be a success when it was completed in 2012.

Following this initial achievement, the World Bank approved a further US$450 million loan for Vietnam to carry out the second phase of the cleanup project.

However, around 14 tons of dead fish were found in the Nhieu Loc River about a week ago. Contaminated water and garbage thrown away by locals have poisoned the canal again, and returned it to its fetid state.

The tragedy of the Nhieu Loc River and the World Bank project make me wonder: What will be left after the cleanup efforts of James Joseph Kendall and all the praise he has received?

Kendall cannot return to the canal in Cau Giay District to clean it every year.

This example set by a foreigner must be followed by locals or else it will have been for nothing.

I have seen how effective international support for Vietnam can be, but it seems once our foreign friends step aside, local efforts to continue these projects fall flat.

I know Japan has poured millions of dollars into providing vocational training for many villages in the country, but the government has failed to connect that training with a way for people to find the jobs they were trained to do. I also know that many public facilities had been built with international support, but stand unused without management.

The public praise Kendall has received will not help to keep canals and rivers in Hanoi clean, just like the World Bank could not protect the Nhieu Loc River.

International support is useless if local people only use their hands to clap.

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