Fulbright and the journey to “Vietnamize” global knowledge


Over 30 years ago, Thomas Vallely was invited by Vietnamese leaders to visit Hanoi. The former Marine Corps soldier then Vietnam Program Director at Harvard University could not imagine this would be the beginning of a journey to create one of the most important educational legacies in Vietnam – US relations.

Building upon the legacy of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), a partnership established in 1994 between Harvard Kennedy School of Government and University of Economics Ho-Chi-Minh City, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management put itself on the map, 25 years later, of world-class public policy schools, as it became the first program in Southeast Asia to receive NASPAA accreditation.

By integrating international economic-policy analysis to tackle the development challenges facing Vietnam, Fulbright has helped nurture a new generation of leaders, with over 1400 alumni now serving in the government, state-owned and private enterprises, as well as academic institutions across the country – organizations that are “thirsty” for competent personnel amidst a shortage of high-quality human resources in the economy.

And yet, education and training represent only the first, most immediate of successes achieved by Fulbright in a quarter of a century striving at the core of policymaking in Vietnam. The school has become a reputed source of critical scientific research addressing political and economic issues, engaging in straightforward policy exchanges with Vietnamese leaders on the country’s most complex problems.

It is a little-known fact that Fulbright’s hands-on approach, and its significant influence on national policymaking today, all began over thirty years ago, when a group of Harvard professors first arrived in Hanoi.

From a study trip of Vietnamese leaders on the market economy…

In early 1989, when Thomas Vallely and Professor Dwight Perkins, then Director of the Harvard International Development Institute, visited Vietnam, the two countries had yet to normalize their relations. Mr. Vallely recalls they had to transit in Thailand and secure their visas directly at the Noi Bai border gate.

Vietnam was just entering the Doi Moi reform process and was facing a severe economic crisis. Inflation exceeded 400%. In the winter of 1987-1988, a majority of the population in the North and the Central region suffered food shortages. A year later, Vietnam’s key trade partners and aid providers, the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries collapsed, pushing the country deeper into crisis. The Harvard delegation’s impression of Hanoi was comprised of “empty shelves, barely any hotels, roads full of cyclists, with a few Jeeps passing by.”

The scars of war with the US hindered any possibility to cooperate. “There were few people who understood economics that we could talk to,” said Professor Perkins. Vietnam’s then incumbent Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach confessed to the Harvard professors that he read and translated Paul Samuelson’s book “Economics” in order ­to learn about the principles of market economy –anything to find a way out of a post-war ruined economy.

Prof. Perkin in a meeting with Mr. Nguyen Co Thach, Minister of Foreign Affairs

This pragmatic approach to problem solving on the part of Vietnamese leaders was the foundation which made possible the establishment of the Fulbright School. In contrast to their initial concerns, the Harvard expert team found itself welcomed and supported as the researchers delved into prominent economic issues. Agriculture and industry were the two initial focal points of research, with the first study results compiled in the book “In Search of the Dragon’s Trail” published in 1994. The book applied market theory to outline the underlying principles of economic equilibrium in a “market-oriented” Vietnam, with ensuing policy proposals, from macroeconomics to individual sectors. The ambition: take advantage of the lessons from “tiger” economies of other East Asia nations, and transform Vietnam into a “dragon”.

Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung was assigned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be the interpreter for the exchanges between the Harvard delegation and Mr. Dao Duy Tung, then Executive Secretary of the Communist Party’s Secretariat. According to Mr. Le Hoai Trung, “In Search of the Dragon’s Trail” was well-received and read by many senior leaders. Former Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat, who supported the research efforts, recalls it “made a significant contribution to the reform process.”

But it was perhaps the educational endeavors of Harvard’s Vietnam program that left the most lasting impact. In 1990 and 1991, Thomas Vallely and David Dapice, another economist at the Harvard International Development Institute, organized two study trips for Vietnamese policy makers, economic ministers and many other senior officials to visit Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. For many participants, this was their first opportunity to visit their rapidly developing neighboring countries, and to meet foreign colleagues and peers responsible for promoting economic growth and improving people’s living standards.

The discussion sessions, according to Dr. Dapice, revolved around a wide variety of topics, from the role of education and the structure of modern society, to candid conversations about issues that Vietnamese leaders were deeply concerned about, including the interrelations of financial and political power, or the emergence of corruption. Dr. Dapice described economic principles and solutions, for instance: how to minimize the risk of unforeseen fertilizer shortages in a planned economy by trading with foreign suppliers and elevating prices to attract sellers. “Every time an official would encounter , the immediate question was ‘how can we do this?’,” Mr. Vallely recalls. Among the participants of the study trips was Mr. Phan Van Khai, who later became Prime Minister of Vietnam from 1997 to 2006, one of the most eminent reformers and expert administrators steering the opening and renovation of Vietnam’s economy.

Former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in a visit to Fulbright School

The late Prime Minister once acknowledge the value of lessons learnt through discussions with the Harvard scholars, most notably about the market economy. “I have successfully applied this knowledge during my incumbency to contribute to the development of the country,” Mr. Khai said at the 2010 commencement ceremony for Fulbright’s first Master in Public Policy graduates.

… to the “Vietnamization” of global knowledge

The impact of the study trip on Asian market economies was significant enough that ​​Harvard’s presence in Vietnam, training or advising Vietnamese officials and decision makers on applied economics, was no longer a political pipe dream, even as the relationship between both countries had yet to normalize. The University of Economics Ho-Chi-Minh City was chosen to collaborate with Harvard University’s Vietnam Program to establish the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP). In 1994, the construction of FETP’s facilities began in the Vo Thi Sau area, District 3, with a budget of 1’750’000 USD funded by the US Department of State.

In the beginning, FETP organized one-year training courses in economics which replicated the curriculum of the Harvard Kennedy School. Distinguished lecturers from top US universities were invited to teach in Vietnam, such as Professor Perkins, who delivered a course modelled after his East Asia Development Economics class at Harvard, Professor Dapice from Tufts University, and Professor James Riedel from John Hopkins University, with the help of Vietnamese teaching assistants. “Back then, we taught neoclassical economics the same way we did at Harvard. We used American textbooks and didn’t really connect what we taught with public policy issues in Vietnam,” Mr. Thomas Vallely recounted.

Even though the program only taught economics classics, FETP’s first students described the course as “eye-opening, expanding our perspective with new thoughts and knowledge.”

Mr. Cao Van Trong, Chairman of Ben Tre Provincial People’s Committee, was in 1994 one of those first students. When he joined the program, he had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in industrial economics from the University of Economics Ho-Chi-Minh City. During his one year at FETP, Mr. Cao Van Trong and his classmates found themselves excitedly discovering “completely new knowledge about micro and macroeconomics, about economic governance tools, and especially two extremely important facets of a market economy: Fiscal policy and monetary policy”.

Computers and the Internet were still rather new, foreign concepts to the majority of Vietnam’s population, at least until late 1997 when Vietnam joined the global Internet. FETP students were thus taught to operate computers and use them effectively for academic and research purposes.

It took 5-6 years, according to Mr. Vallely, for FETP to observe, research and experience Vietnam’s sociopolitical and economic context comprehensively enough to integrate the nation’s vividly relevant, real-life issues into the syllabus. Some subjects were unique to Fulbright, such as Local Marketing, Appraisal of Investment Projects, or The Relationship between the State and the Market. “In developed economies, such issues are no longer critical or prevailing. But as the Vietnamese economy is transforming and demanding drastic reforms, these new concepts and knowledge become crucial,” Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh explained.

Even in classically relevant subjects comprising standard economics training courses around the world, such as Microeconomics or Econometrics, Fulbright lecturers incorporated practical situations in Vietnam to ensure learners can immediately apply what they learned into analyzing policy or solving a management problem.

Mr. Thomas Vallely, Founder of the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program

At Fulbright, the Local Marketing course teaches students ways to promote investment and develop the local economy. Mr. Phan Chanh Duong, the course’s lecturer, was one of the founders of Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone, the first export processing zone of the country in the early 1990s. He also took part in transforming an isolated swamp into what is now the Phu My Hung urban area, a thriving economic and financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City. With his experience, Mr. Duong has turned every lesson into vibrant discussions about real situations and questions that each student faces in their job. “At Harvard Kennedy School, courses focus on theory and building models to try to understand how the world works, meanwhile, students here are always concerned about actual issues that Vietnam is facing – how do you find a solution; how do you get there?” – Mr. Duong remarked.

Bringing practical problems into the classroom, debating with their lecturers and classmates to find pragmatic and innovative solutions has become a signature trait of Fulbright students. From environmental and energy policies for the Mekong Delta region, to enhancing the efficiency of public-private partnerships (PPP), or building a modern state governance, Fulbright students’ dissertations are highly practical policy analyses that they can continue to pursue even after graduation as they return to their daily jobs.

During his leadership of Quang Nam province in the 2000s, Mr. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, one of FETP’s Executive training program alumni left his marks with efficient policies and initiatives to develop the local economy, most notably with the Chu Lai Open Economic Zone and Hoi An City. “One time, a group of Fulbright lecturers was invited by Mr. Phuc to visit Quang Nam. He wanted to consult with them about his vision to turn Hoi An, then still devoid of tourists, into a dynamic and vibrant destination,” Mr. Vallely remembers, “however, there was also a proposal to build a coal power plant. That was when Professor David Dapice had a frank conversation with his former student: ‘You can only choose between tourism and thermoelectricity. Quang Nam cannot have the Hoi An you want and a thermal power plant.’”

Hoi An has since become a world-famous tourist destination, while the former Chairman of Quang Nam’s Provincial People’s Committee went on to become Vietnam’s current Prime Minister.

For the Chairman of Ben Tre Provincial People’s Committee, although the knowledge he acquired 25 years ago is by his own admission outdated, the underlying philosophy continues to help him to this day. “What I learned at Fulbright is how to approach a problem. It’s a way of thinking, a way to look at it from different angles; that is never obsolete,” Mr. Cao Van Trong emphasized at a dinner with Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh.

  • Viet Lam







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