On March 18, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh welcomed Mr. Thomas Vallely, Chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Governing Board and Director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard University, and senior faculty from Fulbright University Vietnam.

The Government of Vietnam attaches importance to strengthening economic and development policy dialogue and consultation with the world’s leading research institutions, said Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh during the reception for Mr. Thomas Vallely.

The Prime Minister spoke highly of Mr. Vallely’s initiative to establish the Vietnam Executive Leadership Program (VELP) – a platform for discussing socio-economic development issues in Vietnam.

He suggested the VELP should focus discussions on such topics as green growth, sustainable energy development, institutional building, innovation, and public-private partnership in order to put forward recommendations to the Government.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Professor Thomas Vallely at the Government Office, Ha Noi, March 18, 2022. Photo: VGP

For his part, Mr. Vallely highly valued Vietnam’s groundbreaking commitments at the COP26, affirming his strong support for Vietnam in climate change adaptation and acceleration of green growth.

Vallely founded the Harvard Vietnam Program in 1989 and established the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP)in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994. FETP was later developed into Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, the first academic unit of Fulbright University Vietnam.

He leveraged the Vietnam Program’s research to engage in a candid and constructively critical dialogue with the Vietnamese government about the strategic challenges confronting the country.

Under his leadership, the Fulbright school emerged as a center of excellence in public policy research and teaching and a pioneer in the development of new modes of institutional governance in Vietnam.

Ha Van

Dr. Ian Kalman has been a dearly familiar name to the Fulbright community as one of the founding faculty members at the university, as well as his often raved-about course on Digital Anthropology, among many others. Every year, Ian has managed to bring new values to the school, from leading a Fulbright Speakers’ Series, initiating our first academic conference, to his recently published book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Last week, we sat down with him to chat about his new book, his teaching philosophy, and his vision for the future.

From a local case study to a global phenomenon

While the topic of borders is not entirely new since it forms a fundamental part of political life, often is studied in historical or geographical terms: when, where, and how they were drawn. Ian, however, explores them through a perspective known as Symbolic interaction in sociology. “[It] is the theory that the realities that we live in are constantly being constructed through our conversations. The world that can be experienced is known and reproduced through dialogue, discussion, and interaction,” he explained.

His book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, published in 2021 by the University of Toronto Press, addresses a fundamental disjuncture between scholastic portrayals of settler colonialism and what actually takes place in Akwesasne Territory, the largest Indigenous cross-border community in Canada and the United States. As a multi-sited ethnography, the mainstay of anthropological qualitative social science research, the book explores how border crossing represents a conversation in which different actors “frame” themselves, the law, and the space that they occupy in diverse ways. The blurb follows: “Written in accessible, lively prose, Ian addresses what goes on when border officers and Akwesasne residents meet, provides an ethnographic examination of the experiences of the border by Mohawk community members, the history of local border enforcement, and the paradoxes, self-contradictions, and confusions that underlie the border and its enforcement.”

Map showing the political geography of Akwesasne. Courtesy of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Ian shared that he first became interested in indigenous border crossings when he was an undergraduate student taking a class in Federal Indian Law, where he learned about the border crossing demonstrations. In these demonstrations, Native American people would march, parade, and simply walk across the border without stopping or giving identification to say that the border did not exist. Because for them as original people of the land with their own political and cultural identities, to a certain extent, the border does not exist. This resistance in literature, or rather refusal, piqued Ian’s curiosity, and he went on a quest to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to deny a border?’ and to learn more about the nuanced complexities surrounding this political yet cultural act.

Day of the bridge celebration at the creation of a new low-level bridge connecting Akwesasne to mainland Canada. Mohawk residents were banned from joining the celebration on foot by a barbed-wire fence.

A lot of researchers spend a few weeks or a month in the place where they do research to focus on secondary sources, surveys, focus groups and such, they would come in and get all the data that they could. But Akwesasne is the place where the border is part of everyday life, so in order to understand the border, Ian decided to experience the feeling about everyday life there, embracing the field of anthropology and its emphasis on long-term fieldwork. He held: “You need to be there until it gets boring, because it is boring for most people most of the time, waiting in/on line getting asked the same questions over and over again.” Ian has spent over a year living at the border, and crossed it over a thousand times, to fully immerse himself in the experience of the locals living there, as well as to see through the lenses of the border service officers. “The officers knew me just like they knew the people who live there. And that was part of what made the research feel worthwhile.”

The book itself provides broader meanings than just the descriptive analysis of borders. In fact, as an ethnography, “[it] is an intensive study of a specific cultural context with a theoretical basis that has something broader to say about the experience of being human. It’s about one thing, and it’s about everything at the same time. Many border regions are inhabited by people who are ethnically, culturally, historically, distinct from the dominant group. So this is a global phenomenon through a local case study,” he said.

Dialogues that shape our world

Borders, in a way, frame specific ideas of how the world works, especially in citizenship identity. Referencing the work of Erving Goffman, the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century, Ian regards the conversations at borders as matters of framing, such that when we pose the same question in different ways, we will get different answers.

For a border officer asking someone: ‘are you American or are you Canadian?’, demands that those are the only two types of people that one can be. For most indigenous and ethnic minority people, many of whom are located at the borders of different states, their identities, who they see themselves as their language, their culture, their way of life, is not American or Canadian but is one that is challenged by the borders. “So the question then is: if borders are not just these lines on a map, but are something that comes into being through conversations, in which you give your documentation to a person, and they demand certain things of you, and you communicate with them, it’s worth paying more attention to what takes place in those sorts of interactions, the sorts of conversations that happen, and how people come to experience this political reality through dialogue.”

Bilingual wait sign created by Canada Border Services Agency to Inform travelers about wait times. It is worth noting that few Akwesasne residents speak French.

Picture of “the Border” between portions of the community legal in Quebec and New York State. Note the only signs of change are the sidewalk and speed limit sign in Kilometers rather than miles.

In his work, Ian argues that rather than using identity indicators like nationality, race, social standing, or gender, etc., we should look to context as a predictive measure of human interaction.  “Sometimes we pay too much attention to cultural differences while there are a lot of things that are pretty much shared across all human beings,” he contended. “We all want respect. We don’t want our time wasted. We want people to be nice to us. We want people to accept the identities that we put forward in the world. So if we start from that perspective and focus more on context than identity as something that determines people’s interactions, then it will give us a lot of flexibility. Because then, we can take a more proactive role in shaping the context.”

With the understanding and appreciation for the community, Ian has spent a few years making cultural training materials for border officers to help improve relationships. He also did policy reports for the Mohawk government, both related and unrelated to this border crossing matter, helped them do quantitative research and analyze data. Time after time, Ian grew very close with the community and he still goes back to Akwesasne now, not for research so much anymore, but “just because I genuinely miss it and I miss the people”. His eyes were sparked with joy as he shared about his memories there, about the time he officiated a wedding for two of his friends along the river, or simply just the nights they played Dungeons and Dragons together.

Throughout his academic research sprinkled with light-hearted jokes, we can find one overarching theme in the book: be nice to other people. The author elaborated: “It’s a different sort of call to action. This is not a book that preaches revolution, it’s simply a path towards treating people as people. And if you do that, you’re going to be more effective with your intended goals.”

Selfie taken by Dr. Ian Kalman at the St Lawrence River.

Good learning is playful

That theme about kindness and the writing style that incorporates a bit of playfulness into a theoretical text is just about an accurate reflection of how Dr. Ian Kalman is in real life. He strongly believes that it is important to enjoy the classroom experience, to learn through stories and through laughter. More important is the ability to connect things that do not naturally seem connected. Quality learning is not so much about knowledge retention because, in this digital era, most information can be found on the internet easily. It is all about creativity, making connections, and piecing together the world in creative ways. “I think that good learning is playful. And that’s what I bring into the classroom as a teacher,”  he affirmed.

Throughout our talk, Ian projected a calm yet funny persona. Sipping water from a Spiderman mug, he shared with us that he was born in the same part of New York as the friendly neighborhood hero. Growing up in such a culturally diverse city, Ian has long been nurturing an open mindset and keeping an eye out for inspiration from the daily moments of surprise. He was excited to share with us his upcoming project on comparative philosophy between Native America and Asia, which was inspired by the heightened exposure to Asian philosophy from his time at Fulbright.

Dr. Ian Kalman at a workshop on Digital Learning Through Social Media for teachers from all across the country at PEN 2020 (Pioneering Educators Network), held at Fulbright University Vietnam.

At the end of the day, Fulbright is going to be the biggest accomplishment I’ll ever lay claim to, not as a sole person, but as part of that. [Being a founding faculty member], I thrive on this sense of adventure and greatly enjoy the process of building something major. At Fulbright, there is this freedom to teach a variety of classes and work with amazing students, and I have wonderful colleagues beside me. I think we genuinely are providing something new and transformative, both for their lives and for Vietnam on the whole,” Ian said.

Bảo Trâm

Duke University is organizing a series of joint workshop this fall semester with three leading universities/research centers in Vietnam, including Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) at Fulbright University Vietnam.  The goal is to share feedback on work in progress, as well as to expand their research networks for potential future collaborations.

The workshops are held weekly from August 31 to November 2, 2021. FSPPM representatives – Bui Manh Tien and Chu Duc Manh – presented two papers at two separate events; other Vietnamese researchers come from Mekong Development Research Institute (MDRI) and Development and Policies Research Center (DEPOCEN).

Bui Manh Tien, a former student of FSPPM’s Master in Public Policy (MPP) Class of 2021 and currently Research Assistant at FSPPM, presented his paper entitled “Impacts of fiscal decentralization on local development in Vietnam”. On a sample of 63 provinces during 2011- 2019, the study examines the impact of fiscal decentralization on provincial socio-economic development and the efficiency of provincial governments. Overall, the empirical findings support a positive impact of fiscal decentralization on local multidimensional development, measured by gross regional domestic product, local revenues, continuous educational attendance at upper-secondary level, and infant mortality, as well as the efficiency of local governments in using their resources for such purposes. To escalate such positive impact, the research suggests strengthening of decentralization, especially fiscal decentralization in Vietnam via boosting local tax authority. The fiscal assignment should be provincial-specifically adjusted in consideration of efficiency and equity in resources allocation for development. Furthermore, this research recognizes a combination of favorable institutional environment and capable local government in inspiring the impact of fiscal decentralization and local governments’ efficiency. A professional local administration with strong accountability, and a solid knowledge of the local conditions and preferences is optimal for fiscal decentralization. Without these factors, the effect of decentralization is weakened.

Chu Duc Manh, a former student of FSPPM’s MPP Class of 2019 and currently a teaching assistant at FSPPM, presented his paper entitled “Gauging changes in marginal propensity to consume caused by government expenditure: Evidence from a global sample”. This study aims to gauge the size of Keynesian multiplier for a global sample. It defines the Keynesian multiplier as the percent change of private consumption contributed by 1% change in government expenditure in this year. To achieve the research problem, the author applies a comprehensive theoretical model developed by Hagedorn, Manovskii, and Mitman (2019) for a large dataset covering 23 countries at the yearly frequency over the period 1990-2019. To address the problem of endogeneity among macro variables and the possible country-specific unobserved factors, the Panel Vector Auto Regression (PVAR) method is employed. The study indicates that the Keynesian multiplier is around 0.32 for overall sample. In other words, an 1% increase in government spending raises private consumption by 0.32%. This finding proves the effectiveness of fiscal policy in recent year. As a result, it implies the macroeconomic implications during Covid-19 pandemic. Besides, the study finds a negative and significant relationship between central government debt to GDP ratio and the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus.

Thuy Hang

The Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) recently hosted a virtual event to prepare for the second issue of the Fulbright Review of Economics and Policy (FREP), an international journal published on the platform of Emerald Publishing. On September 15, 2021, many established and rising international scholars came together to discuss policy responses for a sustainable post-Covid-19 recovery.

The conference was hosted by Dr. Le Thai Ha, FSPPM’s Director of Research and Senior Faculty member. According to Dr. Le Thai Ha, the topic “policy responses” has always been one of the key pillars at FSPPM. However, as the global health crisis raged on, it became clear that COVID-19 would have a significant impact on policies: how governments responded to the pandemic would signify the route to recovery.

As we face a global pandemic, our “policy responses” pillar takes on a new significance. Being a leading public policy school in Vietnam, FSPPM is determined to do all we can to assist in the sustainable economic recovery from COVID-19, especially for underprivileged groups and for our climate,” said Dr. Le Thai Ha.

The conference comprised of four panels, featuring academics and researchers from Australia, Taiwan, America, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong, Maldives, Luxembourg, New Zealand, South Africa, Indonesia, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and Portugal.

The first panel, moderated by Dr. Thai Ha, assessed policies that the governments in Vietnam, Taiwan, and the United States of America adopted to recover from the pandemic, as well as the challenges and implications such policy instruments would have on the economy, the society, and the environment.

Dr. Le Thai Ha, FSPPM’s Director of Research and senior faculty member, moderates a panel discussion.

Dr. Ian Kalman, Fulbright University Vietnam’s faculty member in Social Science, moderated the second panel, which discussed the impact the pandemic has had on single-parent families in Malaysia, on female entrepreneurs in India, on mental health students in Hong Kong, and on the public school system in the Maldives.

I think it is important that we talk about the influence of the pandemic on more vulnerable populations, often ones rendered invisible when looking at it in terms of economic and health metrics,” said Dr. Ian. “The researchers opened our eyes to the juxtaposition of the universal and the cultural in shaping the unique experiences of the pandemic in different national contexts.”

Researchers from Luxembourg, New Zealand, South Africa, and Indonesia joined together to navigate the challenges governments need to solve, such as climate change, social security, and population density. The panel was moderated by Dr. Le Viet Phu, FSPPM’s faculty member.

I’m happy about the connection we’re making between weathering the pandemic and identifying other imminent challenges to ensure a more sustainable recovery,” Dr. Phu said. “Though these challenges may be graver for some countries than others, we are all in the same storm and we have to find a way to solve these problems that will last beyond the pandemic.

The last and final panel was also moderated by Dr. Thai Ha. Researchers from the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and Portugal took on a more holistic view of policy responses: how different political climates affected policy responses and which prospects we should expect for the future.

It was my privilege to learn about the different policy interventions different countries employed to combat Covid-19, especially from such an esteemed group of researchers during the day-long virtual conference. While this pandemic is ongoing, FSPPM hopes that this conference helps to identify future challenges and creates the ground for cooperation to find our solutions,” Dr. Thai Ha concluded.

The second issue of the Fulbright Review of Economics and Policy will be released at the end of this year.

Following is the list of webinar’s speakers:

  • Professor Binh Tran-Nam, School of Accounting, Auditing, and Taxation, University of New South Wales, Australia
  • Professor Yu-Ying Kuo, Department of Public Administration and Policy, National Taipei University, Taiwan
  • Professor Marianne Ojo Delaney, Director of Centre for Innovation and Sustainable Development, USA
  • Nur Hairani Abd Rahman, Senior Lecturer, Department of Administrative Studies and Politics, Faculty of Economics and Administration, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Assistant Professor Sanjeev Kumar, Shyama Prasad Mukherji College (for Women), University of Delhi, India
  • Chun Wai Sun Derek, The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
  • Siu Ho Yau, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
  • Assistant Professor Fathmath Nishan, The Maldives National University, Maldives
  • Assistant Professor Ahmed Mohamed, The Maldives National University, Maldives
  • Helen Kavvadia, Institute of Political Science, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg
  • Injy Johnstone, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
  • Methembe Mdlalose, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  • Misran Alfarabi, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Indonesia
  • Slobodan Tomic, Programme Director – Masters of Public Administration (MPA), University of York, United Kingdom
  • Assistant Professor Mrutuyanjaya Sahu, Birla Institute of Technology & Science, UAE
  • Uzoma Vincent Patrick Agulonye, Centre for Development Studies and Africa, Lisbon School of Economics and Management Studies (ISEG), Portugal

Fulbright University Vietnam has received a five-year programmatic grant of US$1 million from two companies, Galaxy Studio and Dragon Capital to launch “Natural Capital Management” Program. Led by two visionary executives, Ms. Dinh Thi Hoa and Mr. Dominic Scriven, OBE., who share a life-long commitment to environmental sustainability in Vietnam, the two companies are entrusting Fulbright to address this grand challenge. The grant will enable the university to advance research, hold dialogues on policy responses, offer executive education programs and classes on Natural Capital Management issues.

For the first annual topic of the 5-year plan, the gift will propel the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) to address critical issues and policy responses in the Mekong River Delta region. Specifically, FSPPM will advance their research on the following key priorities: agriculture transformation, energy, air pollution and public health, climate change, flooding, regional infrastructure, and transboundary cooperation.

The Mekong River Delta region, and Vietnam, today is facing the ever-changing conditions and impacts of multiple pressing issues. Rapid economic development at the expense of the environment has resulted in serious environmental pollution. Increasing reliance on fossil fuels for the power sector, universal use of private transport, and poor urban planning has caused a great pressure on air quality, water quality, and public health. In addition, urbanization has been taking place very rapidly, with a rising flow of people from rural areas to urban cities to find jobs, whereas urban planning and supporting infrastructure is lacking behind.

In 2020, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management coordinated with Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) Can Tho to release the Annual Economic Report Mekong Delta 2020: Enhancing Competitiveness for Sustainable Development. This is the first research report on an economic region in the country, and the Mekong Delta was selected as a typical case of cohesion and consistency to develop an institution of economic region in the future.

These problems are especially severe in the Mekong River Delta, where the low terrain and susceptibility to climate change adds an extra dimension of challenge to its long-term development prospect. These developments are not helped by transboundary cooperation, particularly regarding the construction of a cascade of hydropower plants in the upstream Mekong River and agricultural expansion in the Lower Mekong Basin. It is of utmost importance to identify the most serious challenges facing the region, analyze, and communicate them to the public, policy makers, and other stakeholders to take proper actions.

While this first project will be concentrated in the Mekong River Delta, but its benefits will be realized for Vietnam as a whole: “The Mekong River Delta is essential to Vietnam’s economy even though its economic impact is currently lower than the national average. However, without a clear plan for sustainable development, the current expansion will add to the pressure on the region’s natural resources. We hope that this project will shed more light on different ways to address these issues through research, policy responses, and education activities. Such knowledge generation will flow across regional boundaries and play a unique catalytic role in strengthening national capacity to combat emerging and future challenges, in the region and in Vietnam,” said Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, lead researcher of the project and Director of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management.

A working session between FSPPM and VCCI Can Tho in March 2021 to collect opinions from economics and policy experts and business representatives for the 2021 report.

“Through this project, we iterate our personal and business commitment to the value of natural capital to the development of Vietnam as a whole via advancing high-quality research and teaching efforts starting with one of the country most vulnerable assets, the Mekong Delta,” asserted Mr. Dominic Scriven, Chairman of Dragon Capital.

“We entrust Fulbright and especially FSPPM with this project for their robust experience and relentless focus on sustainability issue in Mekong Delta and broader Vietnam. The deep and extensive working partnerships with local and central government ministries, domestic and international organizations, universities and research institutions in Vietnam and around the world will also ensure that implications from this research project will be further explored and hopefully, implemented,” added Ms. Dinh Thi Hoa, Chairwoman of Galaxy Studio.

This research project will be administered by the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, with the support from Fulbright University Vietnam.


About Fulbright University Vietnam:

Fulbright University Vietnam is Vietnam’s first independent, not-for-profit, liberal arts university. We are an expanding international team of educational innovators, with deep roots in Vietnam, strong political and financial backing, and connections to educational institutions around the world. Globally integrated but deeply embedded in Vietnamese society, Fulbright is dedicated to providing a world-class education, utilizing the latest advancements in institutional design, teaching, learning, technology and other fields to create an institution that is both innovative and globally relevant. Importantly, Fulbright is committed to serving Vietnamese society through rigorous research and responsible civic engagement.

The Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management is the first academic unit of the Fulbright University Vietnam. FSPPM’s mission is to advance transformative, innovative and inclusive public policy and management in Vietnam and the region – through its commitment toward excellence in teaching, research and civic engagement. In July 2019, FSPPM becomes the first Southeast Asian institution to be accredited by NASPAA (Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administrations).

 About Dragon Capital and Galaxy Studio:

Dragon Capital

Founded in 1994, Dragon Capital Vietfund Management (DCVFM) is a Vietnam-focused financial institution with long-standing investment experience in the country and the surrounding Indochina region. DCVFM manages over US$4bn in assets across public equities, private capital and fixed income, clean development and real estate. In addition to tailor made solutions for institutions and family offices, there are seven public funds available to investors. The company has a head count of over 150 in teams focusing on origination, portfolio management and research, fund accounting and operations, legal, and client services.  DCG has been instrumental in introducing international standards of corporate governance and professionalism as part of its long-term focus and commitment to the sustainable development of Vietnam’s financial infrastructure.

Galaxy Studio

Galaxy Studio was originally founded by Ms. Dinh Thi Hoa in 1994 as the first public relations agency in Vietnam. Galaxy Studio was the first private Vietnamese company to invest in the film industry when Vietnam first opened its doors to this industry in 2003. As the leader in the entertainment industry, Galaxy operates in film production (Galaxy Production), cinema chain and movie distribution (Galaxy Studio), VOD streaming (Galaxy Play), integrated communication (Galaxy Communications), and media and publication (Galaxy Media). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Galaxy earned up to 43 million dollars in annual revenue. On top of film distribution and movie theatres, the company has expanded into VOD streaming and online education in recent years.

When Dr. Le Thai Ha rummaged through the drawers looking for mementos of her student life, she found the brochure introducing the graduate research program of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. The photo on the cover of the publication shows Ha sitting on an ornamental rock among five other fellows from Singapore, China, India, and Finland.

The photo reminds Ha of the days when she was the only Vietnamese predoctoral fellow at NTU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her predoctoral fellowship was fully funded, and she was just nearly 22 years old and had just obtained Bachelor’s degree at NTU. Six months prior, she returned to Hanoi and worked in a Japanese bank there. Although she found her job, her colleagues, and the working environment pleasant, she always felt like she did not belong there.

When the announcement broke that she was granted the predoctoral fellowship with full funding for four years, she was a little worried. Thai Ha had seen the examples of other fellows who had to change their majors or topics of research because their dissertations came to a dead end. She was also warned by her instructor that it could take her 5-6 years to finish the program. She started studying like crazy. More than two years later, she finished the program at NTU with the highest score (4.92/5.0) in her class and excellent research achievement on energy economics with two papers accepted to be published in prestigious international scientific magazines. Energy economics has become a topic that draws a lot of attention for a decade now.

In August last year, 10 years after Ha started the predoctoral fellowship, she received an acceptance letter announcing her new scientific research was approved for publication in an international journal, making it her 40th international publication.

“The most obvious change in me after 10 years is probably the attitude towards research. Ten years ago, I felt a bit pressured – not because of the program or the instructor – but because I set my own expectations for the quantity and quality of scientific publications; gradually, I find the passion and love for research in the most natural way,” Ha wrote on her Facebook page.

After returning to Vietnam, Ha started her career as a lecturer at RMIT University. She emerged as an active lecturer in economics and made an impression in the field of research with a remarkable record of international publications. So far, she has more than 40 scientific research papers published by prestigious international academic journals, including leading journals in the fields of energy economics, environment, and other applied economics such as Energy Economics, Energy Policy, Energy Journal, International Review of Financial Analysis.

All of her research papers are in the ISI/Scopus category, of which about 85% are in the Scopus Q1 or ABDC (Australian Business Deans Council) group, with research quality rated A/A*. She is also a co-editor of an independent book publisher and has been (co-)author of chapters in nine books published by prestigious publishers such as Elsevier Science, Routledge (London), Springer, Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI-Japan), and World Scientific Publishing. The RePEc Economic Research project published in June 2021 ranked Ha third in terms of scientific publications in economic research in Vietnam.

Le Thai Ha was the only Vietnamese predoctoral candidate at HSS-NTU at the time, pursuing a Ph.D. on a full-ride scholarship at 22 years old, not long after she completed her Bachelor’s degree at this prestigious university in Singapore.

During the first decade of her career, Thai Ha focused on research with a variety of internationally published papers. Her career took a new turn after a meeting with a research fellow in late 2018.

An important encounter

 In late 2018, Dr. Le Viet Phu of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) met Ha while participating in the thesis defense committee of Vietnam-Netherlands Master of Economics program at Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics. As they had the same occupation of teaching and research on energy economics and environmental economics, they quickly connected and exchanged ideas on research activities.

“What impresses me is that Ha is very young but is among a few leading researchers in terms of internationally published papers. She has a great passion for research – a field that is usually dominated by males. With a good education background, a modern research mindset, and a large number of international publications, Ha represents the new generation of researchers in Vietnam,” Dr. Phu commented.

The encounter with Ha became an opportunity for Dr. Phu to connect Thai Ha with FSPPM. She began to engage in policy research – a unique strength of FSPPM, the school with a team of leading economic policy experts in Vietnam. For more than two decades, rooted as Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP), the school has been deeply involved in policy dialogues to make a positive impact in the government’s policy-making process. The foundation for these dialogues is high-quality, independent, and objective policy research that looks directly at Vietnam’s weaknesses. With constructive criticisms and applicable research, Fulbright has been deeply engaged in the process of addressing major challenges that Vietnam is facing.

Dr. Le Viet Phu (left) and Dr. Le Thai Ha (right) in a seminar on environmental issues at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management.

Dr. Le Thai Ha moderating a panel discussion on economics with her colleagues from Harvard Kennedy School and Vietnamese scholars.

During the few months of participating in seminars and other events at FSPPM, Thai Ha was really impressed with the school. This new experience made her realize the limit of her work – it was only known by the research community. She became excited about having her research applied to solve real world problems. On one occasion, Dr. Phu invited her to join a field study trip to a wind and solar energy project site. Although she had done some research on renewable energy, it was the first time she joined a field study trip. The stories of local people and businesses, their concerns over energy policies, and their experience in using energy broadened her horizons.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me. I realized that my research papers failed to meet real life expectations. And I realized that research that are not connected with the real world will be useless,” Ha said.

FSPPM had for decades focused on policy research and analysis, with priority given to institutional, policy, and legal issues that have a direct impact on Vietnamese society. FSPPM’s lecturers and economic experts had been involved in academic research for many years, and it was high time for the school to find the next generation of researchers.

In early 2019, Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, FSPPM’s director, invited Ha to join FSPPM as Director of Research. FSPPM aspired to become a public policy school recognized for three aspects: teaching, research, and policy feedbacks that reach the global standards. In 2019, FSPPM received accreditation from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administrations (NASPAA), becoming the first accredited public policy school in Southeast Asia. FSPPM’s Master of Public Policy Program is accredited by NASPAA for a period of 7 years, which is the highest possible accreditation outcome that one can expect.

The school’s policy feedbacks were mostly based on academic research or interpreted from the results of academic research. Fulbright experts always tried to interpret policy studies in an appropriate way for policymakers in a transitional economy like Vietnam.

“The difficulties that public policy schools are usually facing are how to associate academic research with both sound theory and sufficient practice and interpret them in the language that policymakers can understand easily. Dr. Le Thai Ha does academic research, but she also delivers policy implications via her studies. This shows the courage of the researcher to step out of the comfort zone of academic research. Presenting research with policy implications is a way to measure whether the research can be applied in real life. As such, researchers are more engaged, riskier, and potentially more impactful, and this is in line with the mission of a public policy school like FSPPM,” Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh talks about the role of Thai Ha.

Sweden’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Ann Mawe, and Dr. Le Thai Ha in the seminar “Nordic Green Capitals – Leadership, Governance, Sustainability and Innovation” organized by the Nordic Embassies in Vietnam (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden), in coordination with the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management on the occasion of the Nordic Day 2021.

This year, Ha has just published two policy studies used for publication in the Asian Development Outlook by the Asian Development Bank and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“Having published papers that satisfy my passion for research while also is applicable in real life makes me even happier. Academic studies, to some extent, are not compatible with reality. If we can have policy implications in our academic studies, it would be ideal,” Ha talks about her goal of developing research at FSPPM.

As the Director of Research at FSPPM, Ha has participated in many policy dialogues with ministries, agencies, and organizations and joined many local, regional and international economic forums. This allows her to test her research and recommendations and see how they are perceived and reviewed.

“I remember my first meeting on environmental issues with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment chaired by Minister Tran Hong Ha. Although there have been many studies on the environment from an economic perspective, it was the first time that I heard directly from the ministry and other agencies about their feedbacks on my studies’ recommendations and policy implications. It helped me clearly see the applicability of my research,” Ha said.

The launch of FREP

Early this year, FSPPM announced the launch of the Fulbright Review of Economics and Policy, an international journal to be published on the platform of Emerald Publishing. FREP is an academic, peer-reviewed, open-access journal that publishes theoretical and empirical results in all the areas of economics and public policy.

As soon as the announcement was made, a friend asked Ha why she kept silent about the news for too long. Hardly he knew that Ha lost a lot of sleep preparing for the launch of FREP at the request of Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh for over a year since the outbreak of Covid-19.

FREP, by its name, chooses to focus on two distinctive fields of research: economics and public policy. Economics is a highly theoretical field of inquiry tapping into large datasets and utilizes sophisticated mathematical formulas in its approach. On the other hand, public policy explores more realistic problems making use of analytical observations in policies, law, and institutions that directly impact people’s lives. FREP aims to make the connection between these two fields by integrating theoretical findings in economics to seek effective policy solutions and providing empirical evidence for policy prescriptions.

“We want to create a forum for the exchange of serious, evidence-based researches that have clear theoretical foundations, solve problems, and make specific policy recommendations for issues in Vietnam, as well as in the region and the world. We want to measure the impact of research, not only by counting how many other studies cite them but by seeing how many people actually benefit from the right policies inspired by economics and policy studies,” said Dr. Tu Anh, the mastermind behind FREP’s content strategy.

As the editor-in-chief of the journal, Ha invested a lot of efforts in the first year of its launch. She describes thinking about it even in her dreams. When the whole world was severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, her discussions with the UK publisher in 2020 only focused on technical issues. Although she is also a member of the editorial board of several prestigious international journals, running a brand-new journal was still an unprecedented experience for her. Before reaching the agreement with Emerald Publishing, she failed to contact and find the right publisher many times. The biggest challenge was to gather researchers and maintain the quality of the journal as expected.

“It was an experience I’ve never had in my career,” she said.

What encouraged Ha to keep going is that although FREP is a new name in the international community of academic research journals, it had strong professional backup from leading scholars, just like FSPPM in the early days of its establishment. An editorial board consisting of famous scientists and scholars from leading universities in the world, particularly in the United States, accepted to serve as consultants for the journal. Many of them have strong connections with Fulbright school since the early days of its establishment more than 25 years ago, such as Prof. Dwight Perkins (Harvard University), Prof. David Dapice (Harvard University), Prof. James E. Anderson (Boston University), Prof. Terry Buss (U.S. National Academy of Public Administration), Prof. Eddy Malesky (Duke University), and Prof. Scott Fritzen (University of Oklahoma).

Stepping out of the comfort zone

In addition to doing research, Ha is a senior lecturer in economics at FSPPM. She finds the joy of life in doing research and teaching. An optimistic person, she always feels happy with little things every day. It can be an acceptance letter from a publishing journal or a fruitful lecture. She is usually asked by her students: “Why do you do so many studies?”

“Today I received the acceptance letter from a journal. I felt so happy like the sun was shining through my heart. I found the answer to the question of why I do so many researches: I want to receive acceptant letters so that I could be motivated to do other researches,” she shared on her Facebook.

Ha considers doing research a way to relax and relieve the pressure of work and life. When she was waiting for a reply from a journal to publish her paper or feeling sad during the days of social distancing in the Covid-19 pandemic, she focused on her research. Doing research is not always a path full of roses. Along with published papers, she had many papers rejected. Usually, the rate of papers approved by prestigious scientific journals in the ISI category is around 10%. Therefore, Ha attributes her success to hard work and perseverance.

After spending a year on technical preparations for FREP, Ha and her colleagues spent another six months preparing the content for the first issue in the summer of 2021. Her busy schedule also includes lecturing in the Fulbright Master of Public Policy program and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academy’s programs at Fulbright University Vietnam. The first special edition of FREP and a launching workshop with researchers will focus on the world’s and the region’s post-Covid policy response.

“At Fulbright, I have many opportunities to interact, not only with the government’s policymakers but also those in the private sector. With my current job, I also have many opportunities to deliver talks in other local universities. The more I expand my network, the more I appreciate the environment I am working in. It is an environment in which I can develop my expertise without being distracted. At Fulbright, I step out of my comfort zone in research and teaching,” Ha concluded.

Xuân Linh