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A Charity Was Vietnam's Latest Covid-19 Victim. Luckily, Other NGOs Saved the Day.

As the pandemic-induced economic downturn has pushed businesses to let go of 1.4 million workers in Vietnam, a charity in Saigon has had to do the same to its beneficiaries. This story, however, does not have an unhappy ending.

Founded in 1998 in Canada, Saigon-based Dat Viet Charity has supported thousands of underprivileged Vietnamese students with their tuition fees and helped hundreds of handicapped people get the surgeries they need. 

In recent years, the organization has only focused on scholarship programs. The charity, which has been featured on national television because of its work, recently reached rock-bottom as founder Nguyen Quoc My, a Vietnamese-Canadian man, and his chief fundraiser, Jean-Marc Mignot, a French resident in Saigon, told Saigoneer they would have to look for other nonprofits to take over their over 200 scholarship students. 

The internal lists of the students are categorized by their locations and their family backgrounds, including “blind parents,” “leprous families” and “handicapped families.”

“We usually take children from primary to university or as high as they can achieve,” Mignot said. The charity gives the students or their families an envelope of cash twice a year and pays their transport costs to collect the cash, which goes to their tuition fees.

Family members receiving funds for a handicapped student.

The fundraiser, who has been with the charity for a decade, said the pandemic has led their Swiss donors to cut their funding. The organization was hoping to get another donation from a major foreign business network in Vietnam when they filed an application late last year. 

The network, which was the charity’s donor from 2014 to 2017, said that they “would have very little chance to get support” because the network had decided to donate towards Vietnam’s COVID-19 responses in April, according to Mignot.

Mignot, 68, said he has been raising about US$35,000 per year for the last decade to help the students stay in school. 

“When I saw that Mr. My was having health problems, I realized that we would have to pass on the torch to young people with some enthusiasm for working for an NGO with a big budget and staff. We have also tried without success to register Dat Viet Charity in Vietnam, but it was very complicated due to the many provinces our students were from, and the association laws in Vietnam are also very complicated,” Mignot said, revealing the compounded reasons that have led to the end of the charity’s work, which might endanger their beneficiaries’ education. 

My visited Vietnam in 1998, six years after he had migrated to Canada. While here, he met a teacher with leprosy at a leprosy camp in Saigon who suggested that My help children at the camp to get the education they need.

Mignot, far left, with supporters.

“When I came back to Canada I invited some friends to join with me to create the scholarship program under the name Dat Viet Charity. Dat Viet means ‘land of Vietnam,’ [and] I am happy when I do something for my country,” My said. “Now I am 67 years old and sick so I cannot continue this job, I am very sad if this program was closed and the children have no support. Mr Jean Marc plans to come back to his homeland, without him I have no connection with any donors.”

In 2017, My had a stroke and was treated at a public hospital in Saigon, according to a hospital discharge notice seen by Saigoneer. Tran Binh Phuong, a former student of the charity’s scholarship program, only learned about the end of Dat Viet Charity when Saigoneer contacted him. “Jean-Marc and uncle My came to the place where I lived and gave scholarships to me and many other kids,” Phuong recalled. 

The two came to Ben San Leprosy Treatment Center in Binh Duong Province, where hundreds of lepers live, some with their families. Phuong had lived there with his mother and grandfather, who suffered from the disease, since he was 14, at which age he moved to Saigon to pursue his college degree in computer design. 

The 21-year-old student received the charity’s scholarship throughout his high school years up until last year, his first year in college, when he voluntarily withdrew from the program as he had found a job and wanted to relinquish his scholarship in favor of needier students.

“My and Jean-Marc are devoted people. It will be hard to find someone as devoted as them. They are old and their health is not good so they cannot do this forever. I’m just worried about the Dat Viet’s scholarship students and their future,” Phuong said.

The founder and the fundraiser began looking for the next supporters of their students before everyone realized the enormous financial strain the pandemic would inflict on them, including a French NGO who agreed to take care of 171 beneficiaries. But the financial turmoil led them to break the agreement in May. Saigon Children's Charity, who Mignot was also in conversation with, decided to take in a total of 200 female and male students between 8 and 22 years old in the wake of the news this week.

Founded in 1992, the organization supports disadvantaged children by providing vocational training and scholarships and working with local authorities to build schools.

“We ensure that not only can the kids have enough money for tuition and education costs, but also food for the whole family, glasses and bicycles for the kids who need them, emergency medical costs, and we make sure that all kids have regular care from our team of social workers, and opportunities to do group social activities to build their confidence and skills,” Damien Roberts, executive director of Saigon Children's Charity said, adding that the supporting cost to the newly adopted beneficiaries will be around US$45,000 a year.

“Logistically and in terms of staff time and resource, it will not be easy for us to take on these kids, but we all feel quite strongly that they need us and so we should make it work for their sake. The kids include some of the most at-risk kids in Vietnam,” Roberts said. The new students will join the charity’s current 1,800 scholarship kids living in Saigon and seven provinces across the Mekong Delta, whose support costs over US$400,000 a year.

Meanwhile, spokespersons of the American charity Giving it Back to the Kids and French NGO Enfance Partenariat Vietnam said they have accepted responsibility for seven and 16 students respectively, with the former also offering leadership training and emotional health training so that the students are prepared to join the workforce.

A family member receiving funds for a blind student.

While Roberts of Saigon Children's Charity acknowledges the men behind Dat Viet charity care about the students and want to secure a future for them, he said it is “very uncommon” for a charity to hand over its beneficiaries like this.

Marko Lovrekovic, Managing Co-Director of the VUFO-NGO Resource Centre, said: “when it comes to an unknown number of smaller charities, which are often founded and led by charismatic individuals who strongly believe in good causes, but are not registered — any answer would be pure speculation.”

While the charity in question is probably not the only one that has been affected by COVID-19 and lost its funding, Lovrekovic said it is impossible to know how many there actually are “not only because they do not want to speak publicly, but more importantly they are not registered, so there are no publicly available records, reports or statistics.”

The expert, who has worked in the NGO sector around the world for 26 years, said NGOs relying on a single force of funding from corporations or sponsors run the risk of unsustainability, especially unregistered ones. 

But this problem does not apply to the vast majority of 500 international NGOs in Vietnam that are registered both in Vietnam and their home countries, who mostly depend on overseas funding from foreign governments, individual donors, development agencies, international organizations like the European Union, the United Nations and overseas corporations, Lovrekovic added. 

He said international NGOs in Vietnam typically work both with partners and a network of other NGOs addressing the same problems in Vietnam so that if anyone in the orbit is facing financial challenges, the others will step in and help. While Dat Viet Charity has not built itself in such a network, some organizations have decided to lend a hand anyway.

For Nguyen Thi Hoa, mother of Nguyen Thanh Truc, one of the charity’s scholarship students, it was certainly good news.

“I think all charities are good at heart. Dat Viet Charity told me they are in a difficult situation so they can no longer support the students. I was only worried about whether my girl’s case would be accepted at the new charity,” Hoa said.

Truc, a 22-year-old university student majoring in medicine in Binh Duong, has become one of Saigon Children’s new 200 beneficiaries, as the organization signed a contract with Dat Viet Charity on Wednesday.

Hoa, who is deaf, works as a fundraiser for a group of deaf people in her province. She said: “Our family does not have a stable income. It’s just me and her living together. I only hope she studies well and opens a pharmacy at home so we can work on it together.”