Ten 10: Erwin Schweisshelm

This month, the Word sat down with Erwin Schweisshelm, resident director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Vietnam. Celebrating 25 years of operation in Vietnam, FES is a German non-profit organisation committed to the ideas and values of social democracy. Photo by Trung Del


The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) was founded in 1925 after the death of Friedrich Ebert, the first democratically-elected president of Germany. How closely does the FES of today follow the principles established then?


All political institutions have to adapt to changing conditions, and we have done that in our global work and here in Vietnam. The basic values and objectives have remained the same since the times of Friedrich Ebert. Our aims are to provide political education, since Ebert was convinced that only if you understand democracy would you be able to defend it. Also, to provide scholarships to gifted students from workers’ families. When Ebert took office as president in 1918, the impact of World War I was visible everywhere. Therefore, international cooperation became the third pillar of FES. These three principles still govern our work today.


FES first set up in Vietnam in 1990. What was the reason for the establishment of the FES office in Hanoi? How easy or difficult has it been?


FES is affiliated to the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Former Chancellor and Nobel Peace Award bearer Willy Brandt in 1973 declared that West Germany should support reconstruction in Vietnam once the American War ended. From the 1980s onward, the FES established contact with different organisations. These contacts intensified from 1986 onward when the government started the reform process known as doi moi. Consequently, we were among the first international organisations permitted to establish an office in Hanoi.


Our main objective was to support the process of economic, social and political reform. Since FES is a value-based political, non-governmental organisation, and the political systems in Vietnam and Germany are different, it was not always easy. But since we understand ourselves as dialogue partners and not missionaries, there have never been really serious problems.


What key successes have you had in Vietnam?


Unlike technical programmes, it’s difficult to measure the impact of political consultancy. In the early years, when few organisations were willing to work in Vietnam, we could make many contributions to support the process of changing the economic system in Vietnam from central planning to a market economy. We were able to support the gradual development of labour and social security laws that supported social stabilisation.


How much work have you done in Vietnam on promoting sustainability?


For two years, our sustainability programme, led by deputy resident director Dr. Sonja Schirmbeck, has been working on green growth and climate change. Vietnam is not only among the countries most affected by climate change, but it also suffers from environmental problems typical for industrializing countries. FES Vietnam supports efforts to change the Vietnamese growth model from predominately “brown growth” to “green growth” in cooperation with partners from CSOs, trade unions and the media.


One issue of foreigners coming into countries such as Vietnam is that they often “tell them what to do”. This rarely works. What approaches has FES used to help spread your concepts and thus aid the development of Vietnam?


You are right; this “development worker syndrome”, as I would call it, is a real issue. As I mentioned, we consider ourselves not as missionaries but as political dialogue partners. We do not hide that our values are different from those in Vietnam and we express our views, but we clearly know that each society will and must find its own way.


You’re celebrating your 25th anniversary of working in Vietnam this year. What are your hopes for the next 10 years?


Well, my hope is that Vietnam will continue its development as a respected partner and reliable friend in the international community, as it is doing now. The process of international integration is tremendous and I think it will go on. So basically I hope that Vietnam will continue to follow its way of pragmatic and gradual but steady reforms and opening steps, as it has done over the past 25 years.


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