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Here’s why peace has won out in Vietnam. Interview with Enzo Falcone

Here’s why peace has won out in Vietnam. Interview with Enzo Falcone

22/04/2014

According to Milanese doctor Enzo Falcone, Vietnam is an “indomitable” country which, despite a history marked by war, “has managed to make peace triumph” by embarking on a path of development. Falcone has lived in Da Nang in the center of the country for the past twenty years, and in 2002 founded Care the People, a non-profit organization that operates in the field of social assistance and healthcare. In the following interview with the Aspen Italia website team, he speaks about his most recent projects, including Casa del Sorriso (or House of Smiles, dedicated to assisting street children), and explains his grassroots approach to cooperation work – that is, an approach not based on large organizations but on the skills that every individual can put to the service of others.

After the war came an economic boom: is this how things really went in Vietnam?
Vietnam is an amazing country from an economic point of view, but above all it is an indomitable country which, having suffered a long history of wars and domination, has managed to make peace triumph. Let’s not forget that before the Americans were here, there was a particularly harsh French colonial occupation, which was replaced by the Japanese during the Second World War. Decades on, however, the conflict with the United States – so heavily mediatized and ingrained in our consciousness by Hollywood movies, but also capable of pricking the conscience of the West and giving rise to pacifist demonstrations all over the world – has left physical scars on people right up to the present day.

One particularly serious problem is the dioxin contained in the herbicides used by the US Forces, a substance that not only caused the death of 2-4 million people (according to estimates), but has also had a very heavy impact on the environment, reducing biodiversity by 16%. In short, it is a case of out-and-out ecocide. This means that dioxin pollution is still present in many people’s food chain and in the environment. Yet, in spite of all this, Vietnam today has succeeded in making peace with its old enemies and has even made allies of them to free itself of Chinese influence. This was how a bilateral dialogue began between non-governmental organizations seeking to address the issue of war victims of dioxin.

What made you decide to settle in Vietnam and how did the Care the People initiative come about?
I first arrived in Vietnam twenty years ago from Africa for a work mission. Then I decided to stay, including because I met my wife here. The choice I had was either to continue working around the world with the United Nations or to settle here. I chose to try and contribute to the development of this country, which, despite rapid economic growth, still has many social and health problems.

In 2002, I established Care the People. We still have a very small organization, but also a very flexible one, and we work side-by-side with the Vietnamese government, in the hope of also spreading best practices in health and other fields. In fact, in recent years, we have worked on various projects, ranging from cooperatives for the disabled to soup kitchens for the poor, from training for health workers to supplying medical equipment to health centers, through to providing treatment to the poorest segments of the population. Today, we work mainly with women and children, and we are involved in initiatives that span the provision of zero-interest micro-credit for those seeking to build a micro-enterprise, the operation of refuges for destitute children, and not forgetting the construction of houses for people living in vulnerable conditions. It may seem trite to say so, but even a brick house with electricity, running water and toilets is sufficient to reduce the occurrence of infections that can still prove fatal here.

Given that you’ve decided not to avail yourselves of government or European funds, who finances your activities?
We have a funding structure based on private donations, which allows us a lot of flexibility. Our size is limited, but we have no ambitions of becoming a large NGO. In fact, the risk in the cooperation field is that large structures concern themselves more with their own survival than with the actual quality of their projects. There are organizations that spend more than 85% of their budget on maintaining their staff and structure, following approaches not dissimilar to those of large corporations. That’s where we want to be different. We do not rely on government funding precisely so as to avoid the contributions we receive becoming a bargaining chip for economic or political interests. Besides, I am convinced that each of us can put their skills to good use and make a difference by dedicating a portion of their time – without any great sacrifice – to doing something for others.

Are there any new projects on the horizon?
Our survival is always a little precarious from a financial point of view, but there are two projects that we feel particularly strongly about. The first is a small hospital that we built and dedicated to Carlo Urbani, a colleague who worked with me in Vietnam. Unfortunately, this structure was demolished by the authorities to make way for a tourism development project. I’d like to find the funds to rebuild it. The other project is the Casa del Sorriso, a care initiative that seeks to protect the rights to health, food and education of children living in exceptional hardship. Getting children off the street is something you cannot do without ensuring some degree of continuity, so we aim to raise funds to secure the future of this initiative. Aside from this, from my own personal perspective, I will continue to dedicate myself to my work as a doctor going from village to village, where I work in liaison with the Vietnamese public authorities, and to work in conjunction with the Medical University of Da Nang. I don’t have any huge equipment and I only carry a small case with me, but in the end, even here the diseases that cause the deaths of many people are simple, and sometimes you need very little to treat them.

Enzo Falcone was born in Milan, where he graduated with honors in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Milan. He lives with his wife and 2 children in Da Nang, Vietnam, his home for the past twenty years. After serving as a doctor in Africa and Asia for various international NGOs, in 2002 he founded Care the People (www.carethepeople.it), a non-profit association that operates in the field of social assistance and healthcare, with projects aimed particularly at women and children.