Phung and the other villagers decide toghether how to use the common funds. They vote and thus create local democracy.
Photo: Ana Spross/Sida
Is advanced democracy possible in a single-party state?
The work, which is helping people to help themselves, is being carried out and conducted by citizens in villages. As well as improving their living standards, they learn in a practical way how to vote and to influence common decisions, which is a pre-condition for democratic development. The cooperation is called Chia Se, which roughly means “partnership”.
Chia Se brings democracy directly to villagers
One village in the municipality of Vinh Tu in the Vinh Linh district is a good example of how Chia Se works at grass-roots level. About 50 people, basically all the adults in the village, attend a village meeting. They squash together in two rows around a table in their small premises. It is hot. The room has only one lamp, which makes it quite dark, despite the broiling sun outside. The villagers talk of how their lives have been affected by Chia Se.
"We choose our village leader every other year,” Phung says. “And he or she then leads the village meetings every month, where we gather to decide on what our common funds that we get from the district office will be used for.”
The poor decide how the money will be used
In the villages, the villagers, who are often very poor, decide how they will spend the money they get from the municipality.
“We decided that we wanted to have running water,” Huong says. “This water tank was built a year ago, and now every household has a tap. Before, we had to walk a long way to get water. Maintenance of the water tank and the system is secured through a fee that covers maintenance and wages for one supervisor.”
This mother of two now washes her dishes at home. She was forced to go a long way to get water before the village decided to use money for a water pump. [Photo: Johanna Palmberg]
Helping poor people to help themselves
Chia Se also gives subsidies to individuals. The poorest people are given help to help themselves so they can persevere in being able to provide for themselves. This could include them being given a pig, a cow, or rice to grow and harvest to give them enough for a family’s subsistence. They breed the pigs and sell the piglets to earn money. Those who receive a cow give the first calf to someone else in the village.
In the first few years, much of the work concerned giving subsidies to individuals, but in recent years the decisions have often been about measures that can benefit many people.
Johanna Palmberg, who is responsible for Sweden’s contributions to natural resources, the environment and rural development, says:
“Chia Se is a programme about rural development.” In reality, however, it is far more than that. Palmberg says that it is one gigantic experiment for democracy.
“Chia Se gives support to villages and individuals in ready money, which is exchanged for animals or corn,” she says. “This helps the villages and the individuals. But, it’s the way that this project is designed that is the whole point.”
Chia Se is designed so that there is transparency in all of the funding. The villagers are aware of how much money the municipality has set aside for their village, and can see how the money is used. They also have an insight into following up on contractors, which counteracts corruption.
The villagers learn that they have rights and influence. They have not previously been able to influence decisions that concern their local environment. Now, they can vote for their local leaders, participate in meetings and take decisions. This is local democracy at a very advanced level. This project, which engages people from grass-roots level upwards, has the potential to become a movement for democracy. The Chia Se programme not only has an influence at grass-roots, municipal and district level, but also at national level because the Ministry of Planning’s manual for district and municipal-level planning is now being tested in two districts. The intention is for the manual to be used across the country.
“I’m very impressed by the strength of the people we’re working with here,” Palmberg says. “With our support, they’re improving their living conditions and making demands. If there are enough of these people, I think they could have a very positive effect on the development of democracy in the country.”