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Community Contribution

Bridging the technical and the contextual in activity design in the Mekong Delta

May 24, 2024
Sean Mulkerne, Mai Pham

Designing and implementing a new development project is often a challenging affair: we often work on complex issues with multiple causes and no clear, agreed upon solution, and of course, contextual shifts, unintended consequences, and unexpected challenges often conspire to derail an activity once it gets underway. Overlooking the context in the design process runs the risk of setting a new activity up for failure.

To help USAID/Vietnam navigate these challenges and identify possible roadblocks during the design of a new climate resilient agriculture activity in Vietnam, Social Impact engaged local experts to generate useful technical and contextual insights, and worked with USAID to make the best use of them.

Addressing climate impacts in the Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta in the southwest of Vietnam, home to about 18 million people, is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world to the impacts of climate change. Recent analysis has found that nearly all land in the Delta will be inundated by 2050 if the worst projections of sea level rise come to pass. Rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, erosion, extreme weather, drought, and pollution are already impacting agricultural production in the Delta, threatening half of Vietnam’s total rice harvest and three-quarters of its fruit and aquaculture produce. At the same time, agriculture in the Delta, particularly rice cultivation, is itself a significant source of methane emissions, contributing to Vietnam’s overall greenhouse gas output. 

The Government of Vietnam is taking action to protect the Mekong Delta while responding to climate change. It has committed to net zero emissions by 2050; signed the 2023 Global Methane Pledge, reducing emissions by 30% by 2030 vs. 2020 levels; and promulgated Resolution 120, supporting sustainable development in the region. USAID is supporting Vietnam’s leadership on climate change in the Mekong Delta, committing $48 million to help the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and five provinces in the Mekong Delta reduce methane emissions, build resilience for vulnerable communities, promote nature-based solutions to climate impacts, and develop effective climate policies. This will be operationalized through the Climate Resilient Agriculture in the Mekong Delta (CRM) activity, which USAID designed in 2022. To ensure this significant activity would be technically sound and contextually feasible, USAID asked Learns, implemented by Social Impact, to inform the design through a series of analyses.

Learning from local experience

Learns first engaged the Institute for Agricultural Environment (IAE), a local research institute, to deliver a robust technical assessment on opportunities for reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the Mekong Delta through CRM. The assessment found that many local communities are already using water management (such as alternate wetting and drying (AWD) irrigation) and integrated crop management practices to reduce methane output and to manage local salinity and biodiversity challenges. However, methane reducing practices such as AWD are not yet being applied at scale; there is room to improve rice straw and residue management; and strong potential to convert rice land to other crops, particularly fruit and vegetables. Wider adoption of these practices would mitigate the level of regional methane emissions without threatening local livelihoods.

Recognizing however that optimal technical solutions may not align with local contextual dynamics, Learns also supported a series of local consultations in the Mekong Delta. USAID climate specialists visited several provinces in the Delta, speaking with local government officials, farmers, cooperative leaders, and private sector representatives to better understand local needs, identify opportunities, and assess the feasibility of proposed approaches. 

Learns also delivered a political economy analysis exploring the key actors with greatest impact on the system shaping climate resilience in the region, as well as several wider systemic issues impacting agricultural and climate conditions, including:

  • Excessive farmer reliance on chemical fertilizers to boost crop outputs and meet production targets, which degrades agricultural land;
  • Upstream dam construction in neighboring countries, reducing the amount of freshwater entering the Delta; 
  • Overuse of groundwater contributing to land subsidence;
  • Intensive mining of sand, used to support construction and infrastructure projects elsewhere in Vietnam, contributing to local erosion;
  • Out-migration to other regions, particularly Ho Chi Minh City, in search of better economic opportunities;
  • Weak institutional capacity and coordination at national and provincial levels of government on water, soil and sand resource management.

These practices, largely rational responses to deteriorating climate conditions in the Delta over many years, will likely exacerbate these trends, contributing to further emissions, agricultural decline and increased vulnerability in the region. 

Finally, to ensure the new activity responds to the needs of women and marginalized communities in the Mekong Delta, Learns delivered a gender and social inclusion analysis. Among the most critical findings were that women and ethnic minorities typically do not benefit from agricultural extension and training services, are more likely to be landless, and have less control over family assets that can be used to respond to climate change impacts. In response, the report recommended that CRM encourage meaningful women and ethnic minority participation in capacity development activities, target support to these groups to promote livelihood diversification, and ensure women are engaged in dialogue and decision making processes.

Making use of insights

USAID/Vietnam and the Natural Climate Solutions team at USAID/Washington, with continued support from Learns, used these insights to design CRM in a responsive manner. Building on an existing strong partnership with MARD, USAID through CRM will support local actors, particularly women and ethnic minority communities, to:

  • Improve farming practices and promote diverse alternative livelihoods for different communities, taking note of gender and ethnic differences; 
  • Strengthen conservation of mangroves, wetland ecosystems, and forests that can absorb greenhouse gases;
  • Support conversion of rice-producing lands to horticulture and aquaculture;
  • Transition to fertilizers with lower climate impact;
  • Improve water and straw management practices;
  • Develop more effective policy and coordination mechanisms that can respond to wider challenges affecting the Delta.

CRM began implementation in late 2023 and is expected to support 1,500 communities in the Mekong Delta to adapt to climate change while transitioning thousands of hectares of land to low-emission sustainable crop production. The activity is well positioned to respond to critical issues in an important yet vulnerable part of Vietnam. A more effective design process was key in laying the groundwork for the project, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of the region’s challenges supporting coherent, responsive solutions.

A more effective approach to activity design

Addressing complex challenges like climate change resilience and agricultural development requires solutions that are both technically effective and contextually responsive. Design teams crafting responses to similarly complex challenges, in addition to finding optimal technical solutions, should:

Adhering to these approaches makes USAID’s programming better informed, more likely to align with local needs and dynamics, and more likely to succeed.

About the authors
Sean Mulkerne
Sean Mulkerne

Sean is the Senior Governance and Learning Specialist at USAID Learns, where he advises USAID/Vietnam on governance issues, CLA, research and analysis, and activity design. He has over a decade of experience in project management and MEL in a variety of African and Asian contexts. Sean holds a master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a bachelor's degree from Union College in New York. 

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Mai Pham is the Research Director of USAID Learns. She has led various research and evaluation projects to inform USAID/Vietnam programming, including the Assessment on Climate Change Mitigation in the Mekong River Delta. Before joining Learns, Mai was a doctoral researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and the Vice President of the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research in Vietnam.