To complete my final year of my undergraduate degree in International Development at the University of Waterloo, I am volunteering with Students Without Borders in Hanoi, Vietnam at the Centre for Marine Life Conservation and Community Development (MCD). I am a Research Officer with MCD’s fisheries management team. My team is currently working to formally record how skipjack and yellowfin/bigeye tuna caught in Binh Dinh province, Vietnam reaches the consumer. This will help USAID Oceans to pilot a technology to trace and document legitimately caught fish in order to eventually eliminate illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing in Vietnam.

This project, as well as the rest of MCD’s work, coincides with the idea of sustainable development: to ensure that current human activities to meet the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This all-encompassing concept was the basis for a large portion of my education.

Sustainable development can be as simple as only extracting a natural resource at a rate in which it can naturally replenish or as complex as completing a development project in which the local social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental context must be understood in order to devise an intervention that is wanted and needed by local stakeholders, will not cause any unanticipated problems, and will be indefinitely self-sustaining. This idea is imperative for addressing the most significant issues faced in the world today such as poverty, hunger, natural resource scarcity, and climate change.

I believe that many aspects of sustainable development are evident in the work I am doing with MCD and USAID Oceans, from the way my team is approaching our value chain assessment to the end goal of eliminating IUU fishing in Vietnam. To acquire an accurate depiction of the tuna value chain in Binh Dinh province, my team is using a combination of local knowledge and international expertise; we received training from an American fisheries expert based in the Philippines, completed extensive investigation of secondary research, and developed interview questionnaires. The questionnaires will guide my team’s interviews with local stakeholders by uncovering previously unrecorded information about informal processes, social relationships, governance, volumes of fish, prices, activities, and local stakeholder needs in the value chain in order to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic context of the tuna fishing industry in Binh Dinh province. USAID Oceans needs this information in order to pilot a tracing and documentation technology that will fit with current practices without creating unanticipated problems. The objective of this technology is to eventually eliminate IUU fishing, which promotes environmental sustainability (i.e. tuna stocks will have time to naturally replenish if they are not overfished) and economic sustainability (i.e. legitimate fishers can continue to support their livelihoods indefinitely).

I have learned through my experience here, though, that striving for sustainable development is not as easy as understanding context and attempting to adjust approaches appropriately (as the previously described MCD/USAID Oceans project is), which is mostly what my impression was from what I learned in school. I thought that sustainable development was just the right thing to do, so it could always happen somehow. But while I think that learning about sustainable development and its many facets greatly helped me to understand the context of MCD’s work, the concept cannot be fully taught on paper – it must be seen in order to understand its true complexity. For example, MCD’s attainment of sustainable development is limited by donors and the political climate. Given its non-profit status, MCD requires funding to complete projects. Donors that provide this funding require specific deliverables and project end dates. For example, USAID Oceans only wants information that will allow them to pilot the technology, they would not care if MCD learned through interviews that local stakeholders would prefer a different solution that could yield better results. The project has a strict end date for the budget (March 31, 2020), as all other projects do, which is concerning when monitoring and evaluation must occur after the completion of a project to ensure its sustainability. Additionally, the political climate in Vietnam makes environmental activism problematic. These challenges make sustainable development a goal that cannot be fully attained by MCD.

This is definitely a new insight for me. I did expect environmental initiatives to be challenging in Vietnam and I did not have a lot of hope for sustainable development in this country given the political context, but I did not expect that MCD would have restricted objectives and would not be able to perform monitoring and evaluation. Since MCD is a large, well-established organization, I imagine that all NGOs have this same problem and that sustainable development is therefore much more difficult to achieve anywhere than I had previously thought.

I think that perhaps sustainable development has to take on a new definition depending on the context – ‘as sustainable as it is going to get’. Vietnam is a country where most activities are informal (e.g. the postal service in Cao Bang province is the public bus) and unrecorded (e.g. how tuna caught in Binh Dinh province gets from the ocean to the consumer), and talk of climate change is widely censored. The meaning of sustainable development should not be the same as it is in another country such as Canada where the government speaks openly about climate change, services are regulated, and information is recorded and made available to the public.

My new understanding of sustainable development will help me to view MCD’s efforts realistically and adjust my expectations for my future work in development. I feel that I now have a realistic view of how sustainable development can look in a complicated context. I also see some of the struggles I may encounter and how I may not be able to achieve some goals in my future career. Being part of MCD’s work has really solidified for me how complicated sustainable development can be.