Political and economic transition in Vietnam and its impact on think tank traditions

15 January 2018

[This is a summary of the second working paper of the Working Paper SeriesPolitical and economic transition in Vietnam and its impact on think tank traditions]

Identifying opportunities for think tankers to engage with policy

Think tanks (defined broadly as sites of knowledge production and policy engagement) can and have helped to improve the delivery of services and public goods. They’ve shown they can work in problem driven and politically informed ways, be adaptive and entrepreneurial and support change that reflects local realities. However, in order to do so, they need to understand the context they are operating in and what role think tanks, research and expertise are likely to play in influencing change processes.

Based on a reading of various studies of the policy process, Ajoy Datta and Enrique Mendizabal have drawn up a framework to help ‘think tankers’ understand and work with the political context they are operating in.  Using their experience of working in Vietnam they put this into practice to explore the changing political context during the 1990s and 2000s and what opportunities this provided for think tanks to influence policy. The result is a new OTT working paper analysing the impact of key political and economic changes on the production of policy relevant knowledge and the formation of think tanks and their functions. It identifies changes in key actors and policy spaces, as well as the role that networks and formal as well as informal Institutions have played in this process. It goes on to discuss how these have influenced the demand for think tank advice, the institutional location of think tanks, their key functions and capacity, their communication channels, and finally their influence on policy.

Specifically, the working paper describes how during 1970s Vietnam, communism was the ‘touchstone’ of the economy and wider society, which was largely under the control of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The adoption of a Soviet-inspired system of research and higher education in the 1960s meant that policy relevant (and academic) knowledge was produced by numerous mono-disciplinary research institutes and universities organised under a wide range of government agencies. During the 1980s, facing an economic crisis, Vietnam took the historic step of making the change from producing for subsistence to producing for profit and capital accumulation, a process formalised in 1986 by policy reforms known as Doi Moi. Over time this resulted in the formation of new (often State) business interests; more robust government agencies, an enhanced role for the National Assembly, a de facto, if not always de jure, decentralisation to the provinces, and more diverse and vocal societal interests.

Vietnam has subsequently seen the emergence of more robust internal government think tanks, business associations, quasi-NGO research organisations and media entities. However, this has not amounted to the rise of an entirely new ‘tradition’ of think tanks. For instance, in many cases, they continue to rely on government funding, experience problems in the quality and objectivity of research, draft laws and regulation for, and/or provide advice to, the political elite. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Vietnamese think tanks also struggle to work collectively to address complex problems. They continue to contribute to policy discussions in subtle ways through commenting on policy documents (when invited to do so), through private or informal meetings, collective social processes and also through media coverage. And any impacts they achieve are often due to their knowledge or standing satisfying important political interests.

Nevertheless there has been some change. Think tanks are increasingly adopting new characteristics and behaviours through exploiting, for instance, the support provided by an international community keen to strengthen research capacity in Vietnam and a rising number of opportunities to study abroad – especially in the ‘West’. Several pockets of excellence now exist with a number of think tanks producing high quality research and providing critique to formal government policy, although carefully framed to avoid ‘backlash’. And they are also communicating research ideas through and with a plethora of relatively new media outlets.

Ultimately however, despite the scattering of power during the transition process, central government has effectively retained a near monopoly on the production of policy relevant knowledge with Vietnamese think tanks located largely within or are affiliated to state institutions. Ensuring most researchers and think tanks are employed by (and thus contained within) the State has enabled the latter to access research and its benefits, but also stifled potential challenges from the middle-class intellectual elite. And while the state has enabled researchers to engage with new ideas and practices partly through interaction with foreign actors, they have also insisted that researchers refrain from challenging its interests.

In summary then, using an approach to understanding a dynamic political context drawing on studies of the policy process, the authors have highlighted opportunities that have arisen for think tanks in Vietnam to respond to an increase in demand for high quality advice, particularly economic advice, especially from new interests (albeit within the state) through a wider range of channels.  The authors are eager to know what readers think about the approach and their findings, and invite readers to comment or challenge their findings. +

Read the paper.