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Country Books Viet Nam

About the Book

The Story.
The Impact.
The Lessons.

Atlantic Founder Chuck Feeney felt the United States had not treated Viet Nam fairly after the war, and so he wanted to help out. This book tells how that desire to lend a hand ultimately led Atlantic to invest $382 million in Viet Nam to improve public health, and revitalize libraries and universities.

What the book covers:

  • Overview of Atlantic’s work in Viet Nam.
  • People and groups the foundation supported.
  • What Atlantic’s grantees accomplished.
  • Lessons from the work.

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Summary

When Atlantic’s Founder Charles F. Feeney made his first exploratory visits to Viet Nam in the late 1990s, he found the kind of environment that always appealed to him as a businessman and a philanthropist. The country had clear, urgent needs; vast, untapped potential that could be unlocked with relatively little capital; and gifted partners able to put capital to use on ambitious, high­-impact projects.

He started in health and education, supporting the development of schools by the nongovernmental organization East Meets West Foundation, and creating and equipping modern facilities for universities, clinics and hospitals.

Feeney chose his targets wherever the severity of the need and the availa­bility of an economical solution made an impression on him—which was often. As a result, Atlantic’s first, exploratory grants in Viet Nam were chosen with a value­ investor’s sense of opportunity. He rebuilt and expanded tremendously overcrowded acute­-care hospitals that were literally falling down and helped launch the first 100 percent foreign­-owned university in Ho Chi Minh City.

Atlantic’s approach to grantmaking drew on the wisdom of the people who best understood both their own communities and the government’s complex system of funding and regulation.

Christopher G. Oechsli, then Atlantic’s country director of Viet Nam, Australia and Cuba—and now president and CEO—oversaw the early design and rollout of Atlantic’s strategic initiatives in Viet Nam. It soon became clear that only a full-time resident staff, on the ground, could see these efforts through to their full potential. Oechsli recruited a young Vietnamese-­American physician, Dr. Le Nhan Phuong, to open an Atlantic office in Ha Noi. The staff eventually grew to eight people, with a portfolio of projects spanning the entire country and amounting, in time, to an aggregate $381.6 million in 297 Atlantic grants to 97 grantees.

Outcomes from Systemic Approach

Over time, however, the underlying patterns of Viet Nam’s efforts at modernization and improved public services became clearer, so the foundation became more strategic and focused on systemic needs and opportunities mostly in the areas of public health and higher education, including:

  • reinvigorating and modernizing Viet Nam’s under-resourced system of primary care clinics, especially in poor, remote and minority communities
  • building a more professional and vigorous field of public health
  • creating a network of five modern university Learning Resource Centers
  • improving health services in certain areas of widespread need, such as maternal and child care, behavioral and mental health, and reproductive care
  • promoting injury-prevention and wellness campaigns such as the Tobacco Control and Helmet Laws
  • solidifying the field of social work as a profession.

In all its various lines of work, Atlantic was careful not to act on its own, but to forge partnerships and design solutions hand in hand with the public officials responsible for managing and improving public services. This approach helped overcome much of the official wariness and resistance that might otherwise have greeted an international donor. It also drew on the wisdom of people who best understood both their own communities and the government’s complex system of funding and regulation, within which any reform would have to function.

Value of Matching Funds

Atlantic’s investments of $382 million unleashed more than $690 million in matching funds from the national and provincial governments and other donors. Its extensive relationships with other foundations, both in the United States and internationally, made it possible for Atlantic not only to share the cost of several large­-scale initiatives, but to extend its networks even farther, learning from the contacts, experiences and perspectives of other funders.

In its later years, Atlantic required matching funds, which led public officials to pay close attention to the results of their expenditures and allowed them to take legitimate credit for program successes.

To be sure, the changes in program focus and strategy from one phase to the next led to some mixed signals and missed opportunities. In some cases, projects that had been central to the earlier, more opportunity-­oriented phase of work didn’t survive into the later, more sustained and strategic phase.

When partnerships were strong, as happened in the great majority of cases, the momentum they built tended to continue, and even to grow, even after Atlantic left the scene.

Over the course of its work in Viet Nam, Atlantic provided a substantial share of the money, but the ingenuity, dedication, vision and hard work were supplied by what Feeney called “the high­-quality people” on the country’s frontlines. And all of those assets remain, and will continue to build, long after Atlantic has passed into history.

Timeline

Atlantic in Viet Nam, 1997 to 2015

  1. 1997

    First grant (East Meets West Foundation: $100,000)

  2. 1998

    First exploratory visit

  3. 2000

    Largest grant ($15 million to RMIT for campus in Ha Noi)

  4. 2002

    Atlantic Board establishes population health program in Viet Nam

  5. 2003

    Opens office in Ha Noi

  6. 2005

    First Atlantic-supported community health center opens

  7. 2007

    Successful adoption of Helmet Law

  8. 2013

    Last grants (Yen Bai Provincial Health Department: $2.5 million; Ha Noi School of Public Health: $1 million)

  9. 2015

    Establishes Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in Southeast Asia

Photo: Magnum Foundation

Top Lessons

Our Top Takeaways

Atlantic’s experience in Viet Nam offers lessons for donors, funders and fundraisers.

  1. Bringing together exceptional people from different backgrounds and disciplines benefited Atlantic’s grantees and the work they did.
  2. The free-form exploration for investment opportunities made it possible to detect patterns and draw out ideas from local leaders, eventually resulting in strategies that proved their value over many years.
  3. Atlantic started looking for a better long-term solution, and ultimately focused on preventive care, public health and improvements in health policy.
  4. Looking for points of intersection among its grantees—and bringing talented people together across borders, disciplines and sectors—helped foster extensive collaboration.
  5. Rather than focus solely on creating and preserving new buildings, Atlantic also concentrated on enriching the education and health care available to all Vietnamese.
  6. The foundation made a point to seek out Vietnamese leaders who were already committed and active before its arrival and were likely, with support, to advance and widen their influence after Atlantic’s investment ended.
  7. Atlantic couldn’t be everywhere so it hoped that geographic distribution would first, lead to improvements at the chosen sites, and second, lead to replication among neighbors.
  8. Grant matching was key to the ethos of local ownership. In later stages, Atlantic required government, charities and others to provide an equivalent amount or it wouldn’t disburse the funds.
Photo: Magnum Foundation

Grantee Stories

Our grantees have stories to tell.

The book includes a series of vignettes with personal stories from these grantees:

  • Commune Health Centers
  • Sight Restoration: Fred Hollows Foundation and Eye Hospitals
  • Vietnam Public Health Association
  • Hue Central Hospital
  • Injury Prevention: Helmet Law
  • Learning Resource Centers
  • National Hospital of Pediatrics
  • RMIT University Vietnam
  • Ha Noi School of Public Health
  • Social Work Organizations

 

Photo: Magnum Foundation

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Read it now.

This book tells how Atlantic Founder Chuck Feeney’s desire to lend a hand to Viet Nam ultimately led to $382 million in investments between 1997 and 2013 to improve public health and revitalize libraries and universities.

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Further Reading

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