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Vietnam: Economic rise and social challenges

A Vietnamese social worker trained under the new bachelor’s program conducting a workshop on life skills for orphans.

By Michelle Osmond

Dr. Lan Gien has a personal connection to her latest international project. The longtime School of Nursing professor recently took her cause of reducing poverty in her homeland of Vietnam one step further. With partners from both here and abroad, Dr. Gien is helping to establish a master of social work program in a country where thousands of social workers will be part of a much needed solution to social issues over the next decade.

Dr. Gien and her team are building on a previous project that wrapped up in 2008 – poverty reduction by improving social services and health -- which saw the first bachelor of social work program established at the University of Labor and Social Affairs (ULSA) in Hanoi.

“For a country where social work is a relatively new concept, this success was remarkable,” commented Dr. Gien proudly. “But in 2005, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs commissioned a national study to assess the need for qualified social workers in Vietnam. They found that in the next 10 years, the country would need about 58,000 social workers, of whom more than 15,000 would be trained at the university level.”

Part of this need is fueled by the rapid economic growth, which in turn, has led to some social challenges (see below).

But those future social workers need teachers and that’s where Vietnam falls short. “More than 40 universities throughout Vietnam are educating future social workers, using the core bachelor of social work curriculum that came from the first project. But they are taught by teachers with backgrounds in sociology, psychology, political sciences, economics or law,” noted Dr. Gien, who has teamed up with Dr. Nguyen Tiep, an associate professor and rector at ULSA, as well as faculty from the School of Social Work at Memorial (Dr. Ken Barter, Dr. Sharon Taylor, and Dr. Douglas Durst) and the University of Regina, in addition to several other team members from Vietnam.

With $300,000 from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the researchers are collaborating once again with ULSA to alleviate the acute shortage of social work teachers and further contribute to the improvement of health and social equity for disadvantaged groups.

“Graduates with a master’s in social work will become the leaders in social work practice and education. They can supervise practitioners, organize and implement continuing education and training, provide community outreach through ULSA's social work practice centre established in the base project, and assist with field placements for undergraduate students,” commented Dr. Gien.

The project will also create opportunities for two instructors at ULSA, who have a MSW, to enter a social work doctorate program outside of Vietnam to further research, build knowledge and provide support and leadership.

According to the CIDA website, the number of Vietnamese living on less than US$1.25/day fell from 64 per cent in 1992 to 21.5 percent in 2006 and the gross domestic product grew by an estimated 6 per cent in 2008 despite the global economic recession. In fact, Vietman has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But, with that comes social challenges. For example, according to Unicef, the rapid socio-economic development has resulted in rising divorce rates and economically-driven migration that have fundamentally transformed the traditional family structure.