Cablegate: Educational Challenges for Vietnam's Ethnic Minority

Published: Thu 21 Aug 2008 08:41 AM
DE RUEHHM #0753/01 2340841
P 210841Z AUG 08
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A) HCMC 517
HO CHI MIN 00000753 001.2 OF 004
1. (SBU) Summary: Despite the GVN's goal of ethnic minority
development in the Central Highlands, ethnic minorities continue
to lag behind their Kinh counterparts in education, and as a
result in almost every other economic enterprise. Due to
cultural, historical, and pedagogical obstacles to educational
attainment, ethnic minorities begin their educational careers at
a distinct disadvantage to ethnic Vietnamese students and
continue to fall behind thereafter until, all too frequently,
they drop out entirely. While the GVN has instituted programs
to rectify this "education gap," those programs are hamstrung by
an ideological commitment to national unity at the expense of
learning outcomes as well as by an extreme scarcity of the human
resources that would be needed to implement major educational
reforms tailored to the unique needs of ethnic minorities.
While improving education for ethnic minorities represents an
enormous challenge, the stakes are high: if the GVN fails to
ameliorate the educational and thus economic marginalization of
ethnic minorities, past and present discontentment among the
minorities will almost certainly grow worse as they fall further
and further behind their ethnic Vietnamese neighbors. End
2. (SBU) Improving education in the Central Highlands is not an
easy task. While enormous steps have been made in access to
primary education, an efficient, child-friendly educational
system producing secondary-educated, skilled students is still
far away. Indeed, improving Vietnam's dysfunctional educational
system ranks among Missions Vietnam's top goals. In the case
of the ethnic minorities of the Central Highlands, these
systemic weaknesses in the Vietnamese educational system are
greatly exacerbated by factors unique to ethnic minorities and
the region.
3. (SBU) Economic and cultural factors act as barriers to
education for ethnic minority children. Economics is an
important factor. Simply put, ethnic minorities are caught in a
vicious circle in which poor people are unlikely to excel in
school and uneducated people are unlikely to escape poverty.
Because more than 50 percent of Vietnam's ethnic minorities
currently live in poverty, they are disproportionately caught in
this vicious cycle. The impact of poverty on educational
attainment is exacerbated for ethnic minorities by the fact that
the inexpensive foods they traditionally consume must be
communally prepared and are not easily transported to school,
effectively forcing many poor children to choose between lunch
and school. In addition, as in any poor farming region, child
labor is a fact of life and the opportunity costs of children
attending school rather than helping in the fields can be
prohibitive for a subsistence farming family.
4. (SBU) The dearth of economic opportunities for ethnic
minorities makes investment in their children's education even
less appealing: when high school graduates return to the fields,
parents see the extra seven years of school fees and lost wages
as poured down the drain. UNICEF, Plan International, and other
NGOs have reported that "selling" education through community
involvement can be effective increasing both attendance rates
and parental support, but it is a difficult proposition. There
are also long-term cultural issues to consider since those
members of ethnic minority groups who do excel at education
generally do not return to their remote home villages to live
traditional lifestyles in which their education would offer them
no advantages.
5. (SBU) With many ethnic minority groups, there are also
cultural barriers to widespread educational advancement. Deeply
rooted stereotypes that post-primary education is "not
necessary" or "not possible" are quite common among ethnic
minorities and even the most tireless advocates for ethnic
minority education have cited these stereotypes in conversations
with ConOffs. These stereotypes are not baseless: ethnic
minorities traditionally practiced swidden agriculture, a roving
lifestyle predicated on slash-and-burn farming techniques that
were neither conducive to, nor dependent upon, formal education.
Cultural traditions also impede preparedness: according to one
Jarai pastor, ethnic minority children are ill-prepared to
communicate effectively with adults or deal with a structured
setting since they traditionally "run around with their friends"
from ages two to seven. Parental support for education is hard
to come by as most elders did not attend school themselves.
6. (SBU) The most common time for ethnic minorities to drop out
of the educational system entirely is when they should move from
HO CHI MIN 00000753 002.2 OF 004
primary to secondary school. Reasons for this include the
children's growing labor potential and, particularly for girls,
the practice of child marriage which is still common among many
groups despite being illegal. Among some minorities, it is
common for girls to be married by age 13 or 14 with children
following soon afterwards. NGO's active in the area also report
that the problem of school dropouts tends to fall through the
bureaucratic cracks since the various components of the Ministry
of Education and Training (MOET) tend to focus very narrowly on
their specific function (running primary or secondary schools,
running vocational schools, running universities, etc.) and
therefore do not address cross-cutting issues such as tracking
and facilitating the transition from primary to secondary school
or motivating children to stay in school and attain a good
7. (SBU) MOET's mandating a unified national curriculum and a
single language of instruction (Vietnamese) complicates the
situation further. According to Plan and UNICEF
representatives, the GVN sees unified education as the glue
melding together Vietnam's 54 ethnic groups. (Comment: Even the
number "54" represents the GVN's obsession with enumerating and
categorizing what is more likely an even more diverse ethnic
range; most Western scholars believe there are many more than 54
separate groups, but the GVN's overriding goal of national unity
translates into a contrived number that cannot be challenged.
End comment.)
8. (SBU) This use of education as a tool to achieve national
unity is particularly important in the Central Highlands given
the region's long history of ethnic minority separatism (ref B).
As a result, progressive measures are extremely sensitive; a
UNICEF Education specialist noted that only in the past two
years ago has UNICEF been able to even broach the topic of
mother-tongue education to MOET. Unfortunately, insistence on
single curriculum and language puts ethnic minority students at
a distinct disadvantage since few ethnic minority children speak
any Vietnamese prior to school. As a result, they enter primary
school already far behind their Kinh comrades. Locally relevant
curriculum, incorporating traditional ethnic minority knowledge,
is by and large excluded; even though 20 percent "local"
curriculum is officially permitted, it is largely neglected as
few provinces allot resources to develop locally-relevant
material. In this light, ethnic minorities' lack of enthusiasm
for education is understandable: they are less than enthusiastic
about attending schools taught in a language they do not speak
based on a curriculum for urban middle-class Kinh that
deliberately neglects their cultural national heritage.
9. (SBU) Theoretically, at least, the "one language" policy
should be softening. According to Vietnam's 2003 Poverty
Reduction Strategy Papers, one of MOET's goals is to enable
students to complete primary education partly in Vietnamese and
partly in their mother-tongue by 2010. In support of this, Save
the Children and UNICEF are engaged in action-research programs
working towards developing mother-tongue education for ethnic
minorities. Unfortunately, UNICEF describes their on-the-ground
progress as plodding. While mother-tongue literacy is
all-but-universally accepted as the best path to second-language
literacy by educational theorists, MOET representatives claim
that "Vietnam is different" and are demanding research specific
to Vietnam. UNICEF (using a written mother-tongue curriculum)
and Save (oral only) have "action-research" projects designed to
address MOET's concerns by demonstrating the greater
effectiveness of mother tongue literacy for second-language
(Vietnamese) literacy. MOET's reluctance and the resulting
necessity for research is delaying large-scale implementation of
native language instruction. UNICEF has thus far developed only
kindergarten and first grade curriculums and has only
implemented it in those schools involved in the research project.
10. (SBU) MOET does not ignore the language barrier entirely.
Rather than emphasizing local language instruction, however,
they provide an additional year of pre-primary education for
minority students to familiarize them with Vietnamese before
they start school. This program also faces constraints. Not
only is funding a constant issue (as in all Vietnamese schools),
there are almost no teachers competent in pre-school or
kindergarten pedagogy. Teaching methods incorporating
Western-style "active learning" are generally known only to
those who have worked with NGOs. Even if these problems could
be resolved, teaching five-years old to attain fluency in
Vietnamese in the span of a year is highly ambitious to say the
11. (SBU) The "one language" policy is not the only element of
HO CHI MIN 00000753 003.2 OF 004
Vietnam's standard curriculum that has the (perhaps unintended)
effect of disadvantaging and discouraging ethnic minority
students. A representative of the NGO Plan International
explained that because the national curriculum was designed for
urban ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) students, it should not be
surprising that ethnic minorities do not fit it interesting or
valuable. She stated that the stereotype of ethnic minorities
"not caring" about education is inaccurate -- ethnic minorities
care deeply about education insofar as it is relevant to their
lives, their culture, and their future. Since at present it is
relevant to none of these things, ethnic minorities do not value
education because there is little there for them to value.
Because MOET is conceptually uncooperative with full localized
curriculums, Plan International and others have worked within
the allowed 20 per cent to create both materials and local
capacity for curriculum development. While NGO representatives
do not expect a wholesale move to local curriculum in the
foreseeable future, they are hoping for a gradual expansion of
locally-relevant material until it comprises 30 - 40 percent of
the total.
12. (SBU) Even if MOET wanted to move rapidly to increase local
content and mother tongue instruction, implementing the changes
would be challenging at best and likely not possible in the near
future. Finding qualified teachers, for example, would be an
almost insurmountable problem for mother tongue language
instruction. There are, for example, simply no H'mong teachers
capable of teaching above the 4th grade level. Even those
attempts that MOET has instituted to encourage more ethnic
minorities to attend school can backfire. Plan International
pointed out that the lowered entrance, class, and exit exam
requirements for ethnic minority students that are intended to
encourage greater numbers to attend high school and teaching
colleges has had the effect of systematically producing
unqualified teachers who have not passed normal requirements.
There are also cultural barriers within MOET, which has shown a
tendency to consider ethnic minorities as monolithic, assigning
teachers of one ethnic group to teach another and somehow
assuming that they would know the language.
13. (SBU) Other structural problems make the goal of
native-language, culturally-relevant education even harder to
attain. Ethnic minority-Vietnamese bilingual education might be
feasible in an area where all the pupils in a school are from
the same minority group, but an area with only one ethnic
minority is rare. A typical school in the Central Highlands is
likely to comprise five or six ethnic groups, each of whom
speaks a different language and has different cultural
traditions. The multitude of ethnic minority groups whose
traditional lands overlap and intersect also means that
developing suitable local curriculum is equally challenging.
While some provincial officials may oppose ethnic minority
curriculum because they fear it will lead to separatist
sentiments, the majority do not fund curriculum development for
lack of resources.
13. (SBU) UNESCO and UNICEF representatives express concern at
recent developments in the GVN's approach to education. They
are concerned that the Minister of Education's decision to place
greater emphasis on higher education, especially graduate study
abroad, may work to the detriment of basic education initiatives
for the most needy. While higher education is of great economic
and social benefit to the Vietnamese nation and economy, UNICEF
and UNESCO representatives are concerned that the GVN appears to
be shifting its limited educational funding away from basic
education for the masses and special education for impoverished
minorities and towards educating a privileged few at great
14. (SBU) As with almost any other group in today's modern
world, educational attainment will play a large role in
determining the economic future of ethnic minorities in Vietnam.
Education will also play a pivotal role in their integration
into the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Vietnam.
Ironically, the GVN's focus on nationally unifying education has
in many ways backfired since it serves to disadvantage and
marginalize the very ethnic minority students it is intended to
integrate into the Vietnamese nation. Fundamental changes in
the GVN's attitudes and approach are needed or ethnic minorities
will continue to fall out of step as Vietnam's urban centers
lead the charge towards increasing prosperity based upon
industrialization and global integration. Unfortunately, even
HO CHI MIN 00000753 004.2 OF 004
if MOET had the best intentions and the best planning to back
them up, pervasive structural and capacity problems mean that
improving education for ethnic minorities would be very
difficult. End comment.
15. (U) This cable was coordinated with Embassy Hanoi.
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