Dr Colman Ross is from Ardee, a small town in Ireland.  He has been in Vietnam since 1998, fell in love here and then got married with a Vietnamese. Now they have a happy family with 2 children. His PhD (University of Dublin, Trinity College, School of Education, Ireland) focused on Ethnic Minority Adult Basic Education in Vietnam).

Dr Colman Ross has worked as International Development Planning and Education Advisor with 19 years of experience on Programme Management, Coordination and Institutional Capacity Development in Vietnam. 

He has had collaborations with the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs (CEMA) and the Ministry of Labour Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) for the development, research and improvement of methods and systems for poverty alleviation including participatory Socio- Economic Development Plans (SEDP), rural development, educational and institutional capacity building interventions at national, provincial, district and commune levels in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

The following is an interview given by Dr Colman Ross to VOV:

Q: You have identified yourself with Viet Nam for almost 20 years. What motivated you to come to our country?

I came to Vietnam by choice with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) as a teacher trainer in the Cao Dang Su Pham Da Lat in 1998. I had a choice to go to Tanzania, Lao and Viet Nam and choose Viet Nam. This was a great experience living and working in teacher training in Lam Dong and supporting student teachers in remote Ethnic Minority schools. 

Da Lat is like a second home to me and I am still in contact with many of my old colleagues and students. I was the first foreign teacher to work in the Cao Dang Su Pham Da Lat and when I look back I realise how lucky I was to have been sent there. Da Lat is a wonderful small city in Lam Dong with surroundings that are beautiful and a diversity among the local population that is multi-cultural and very unique.

Q:  Having lived in Viet Nam for nearly 20 years has given you a wealth of opportunities to see drastic socio-economic changes that have turned  Vietnam from a poor low income to a middle income nation. Are these changes positive in your opinion?

I believe that many changes are positive. There is still poverty in pockets of rural and urban areas but in general people are better off and have more choices. Like many older Vietnamese people I also have fond memories of a more simple and traditional time when people were not as stressed or in a hurry and travelled by bicycles instead of cars and motorbikes. 

The social media is a good way to measure change and I can see from Face Book for example how my old colleagues have improved their lives in a material sense. However when I travel for research and project work to remote Thai, H’mong, Dao, Lu, Ma, Co Ho, Ba Na, Pa Ko, Bru Van Kieu, Khmer etc communities I can see sometimes a very positive connection to community that has been eroded in Kinh communities.

So changes in a materialistic sense are not always positive. We need a balance and for that balance development needs to be connected to cultural and environmental wellbeing. This is a great challenge in Viet Nam where there is such cultural, linguistic and socio-economic diversity. How to harness this diversity in a meaningful and positive manner to support holistic development. 

This is something that needs sensitivity and understanding and unfortunately there is no quick fix magic solution. Development needs to be in touch with not only economic but also the socio !!!! The socio side is sometimes neglected and communities are not consulted and engaged enough in the planning process of development.

Q: Dr Ross, your work in a number of remote and marginalised Ethnic Minority provinces (Lam Dong, Ha Giang, Yen Bai, Dien Bien, Son La, Lai Chau, Bac Kan, Cao, Bang, Thanh Hoa, Quang Tri, Quang Ngai and Tra Vinh) has provided you with a broader perspective on our country’s development. Has development been more successful in some provinces / regions than others? Why?

Unfortunately the answer is yes. Some regions and provinces have developed more sustainably than others. There is no single reason for this but much can be connected to planning and how involved local populations have been. Unrealistic and wasteful planning is usually a bi-product of top down decision making for all sectors. When local populations get a meaningful opportunity to be part of the planning process decision making is connected to local indigenous knowledge and cultural values. 

These are powerful development attributes that are sometimes ignored at central and provincial levels. Provinces that have been more progressive have done well compared to other provinces and these provinces need to be studied more. 
The structures are the same in all provinces so in many ways it is down to leadership and individual qualities. When there is a disregard for local capacity there is a stagnation in development. Infrastructure alone won’t bring sustainable development it is people and communities. There is much that can be learned from small scale projects supported by NGOs and sometimes these lessons are ignored. Especially in disadvantaged Ethnic Minority areas.

Q: Your PhD research focused on the relationship between Adult Basic Education and poverty reduction in Ethnic Minority communities (Ha Giang and Dien Bien) in Viet Nam? Can you elaborate on the importance of Adult Basic Education for Ethnic Minority communities and how your research findings can be used to help with multi-sector policy development?

I got the idea for my PhD when I was working for a Sida (Sweden) project called Chia se (sharing) in Quang Tri, Yen Bai and Ha Giang. I noticed that the people in Gio Linh and Vinh Linh were more aware of the project objectives than people in Yen Bai and Ha Giang. This I seen was connected to literacy in Kinh and that the project was communicated in Kinh mostly so people with better levels of literacy were at an advantage. 

The empowerment was connected to communication and when the ideas had to be translated then they lost some of their meaning. I then with Trinity College Dublin developed my research and I tracked three groups of Ethnic Minority women in Ha Giang and Dien Bien who had taken part in Government DOET and ActionAid Adult Basic Education programmes and measured how this helped them to access resources from CEMA P135. 
This was very interesting because the ActionAid Reflect programme was developed with a livelihood component and not as a classroom course. I had to travel by foot to many remote households and by spending a lot of time among the Tay, H’mong, Dao and Black Thai communities I learned a lot about attitudes to education and its importance to families. This was a wonderful time for me and I will always look back on it as a great privilege (link to my PhD http://www.tara.tcd.ie/handle/2262/77585)

Adult Basic Education is vital for development. The New SDGs recognise Live Long Education as key for personal and community development. Women with better education keep their children longer at school and support them to find alternative livelihoods and in turn young adults are taken out of the vicious circle of poverty. There are many Ethnic Minority women who did not get a chance to complete primary school and it is never too late to learn. To ignore adults and only concentrate on children is a mistake that will have negative effects going forward. Education is a Life Long endeavour not a schooling experience!!

Q: The education sector in Viet Nam is under pressure for modernization to keep up with the 4th Industrial Revolution? What is your assessment of our education system that can learn from other countries’ lessons in the region (Japan, the Republic of Korea) and Europe (Ireland, Finland, Germany etc)?

Yes Viet Nam needs to step back and assess its education system like other countries have done. Assess and restructure. My own country Ireland and Finland did this in the late 1960’s with the help of the World Bank. Japan and Korean did this also. 

This needs to be directed from outside the education system to be effective and directly linked to industry and trade. Education institutions are conservative and have their vested interests which are not always rational. There is tendency in Vietnam to link progress to infrastructure and by increasing the size and numbers of institutions (schools, colleges, universities etc) then access and quality will automatically improve. This is very short-sighted and to continue to expand institutions that are inefficient, overlapping and not fit-for-purpose uses up vital resources and ignores the more important system reform.

At this stage in Viet Nam’s development the technical advice of qualified experts who understand Viet Nam’s socio-economic and cultural context is vital. The best and the brightest from within and outside the country need to be engaged and as there may be only one chance to make the transition to consolidate Middle Income Country Status. 
The procurement of these technical advisors should be monitored and assessed based on evidence based measurements that link progressive ideas to identified challenges. By looking only at short-sighted solutions and using outmoded ideas, technology and systems Viet Nam will get stuck in a Middle Income Trap. Vested interests need to be put aside for the 4th Industrial Revolution to flourish. As more and more students finish secondary education there is a demand for diverse quality third level institutions in urban, rural and regional areas. Quantity is not the solution. Quality is !!!!!

Q: What are your future plans? You are supporting the VNU USSH as a visiting scholar and have been working as an advisor for a number of ministries for the past 10 years. Do you think that Viet Nam itself  is strong enough to maintain middle income country status?

I have been invited by Rector Pham Quang Minh of the VNU USSH to be a visiting scholar for Applied Social Science linking Ethnic Minority Development and evidence based research with culturally appropriate best practices. My colleagues in VNU USSH have much to offer in relation to evidence based research for social development. This is vital for a balanced society and I hope that there is more of an inclusion and support for the social sciences in an era where economics is seen as all !!

I hope that I personally can continue to contribute to the development of Viet Nam with a focus on the marginalised and remote Ethnic Minority communities that are being left behind. This is one of the greatest challenges facing Viet Nam and one that needs to learn from the lessons of positive case studies. Research plays a key role in this as the design and development of appropriate and focused projects. There is still much to be done here in Viet Nam and the inclusion of meaningful participatory discourse and dialogue must be developed and communicated in a culturally appropriate manner suitable for a multi-cultural society.

Q: Thank you very much.