What is social work? After emerging from decades of poverty, Vietnam looks to answer that question. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

One of the quirks of living in a country like Vietnam is the daily encounter with street after street of campaign posters. Some urge citizens to remember their prophylactics. Others translate the “Just say no!” slogan for potential drug users. More recently, campaign art has popped up around Ho Chi Minh City with a less sexy message: undertaking a policy of social insurance and health insurance is the responsibility of not just the government, but  businesses and individuals as well.

The posters are somewhat newer because the idea of social work is still evolving here. Generally, social work relates to social justice. It involves helping people get access to services that promote their physical and emotional well-being. The question for Vietnam, as every country has had to figure out, is who is responsible for providing these services and ensuring they get used?

Following decades of war, Vietnam has had to rebuild all manner of sectors before it had the money and capacity to provide the services that typify a safety net, from health care to child protection.

Dr Paul Duong Tran, chair of the social work department at Indiana State University, said Vietnam has no time to lose to develop a system of social work (known as “cong tac xa hoi”), which soon will need to replace international NGOs as the country grows richer.

“When countries reclassify as middle income, donors pull out,” he said in an interview.

But as the billboards point out, government is not the only source of social welfare. Among the more libertarian-minded, private individuals should be contributing to their own well-being or that of people close to them. The Christian Science Monitor reported in March that the trend of a “participation society” is taking hold in the Netherlands.

“The ‘participation society’ concept means many things, such as family or friends taking responsibility for the care of older people — driving them to medical appointments or helping them clean their homes — before seeking out state support at later stages,” the Monitor wrote.

“The unemployed are being asked to clean streets or parks in exchange for their benefits, a program on track to become a national law this summer. New proposals at the national level include asking the elderly and chronically ill, at least those well enough, to also volunteer in exchange for their social security payments.”

Such a proposal certainly could have appeal in Vietnam, where the budget deficit cap has had to be raised and where such basic services as secondary education are not actually universal. Nevertheless, there seems to be agreement that the Vietnam still has room to grow when it comes to public services. It spends a little more than 2 percent of national gross domestic product per beneficiary, according to a 2012 Economist article that cited the Asian Development Bank. That beat the Philippines and Indonesia, but compared with closer to 4 percent in Malaysia and 7 percent in South Korea.

The article argued that all of Asia is expanding the welfare state amid the process of economic growth and development. The trend moves away from the old model, in which “no one would come to think of pensions and health as the state’s responsibility. This model of welfare tried to keep savings high and work incentives sharp,” the Economist wrote.

Social workers, of course, don’t have to be on a public payroll necessarily. Whether working for the government or a private entity, social workers can be counselors, educators, mediators, administrators, advocates, political consultants or researchers.

Tran, the professor, recommended Vietnam look to countries with firmer safety nets for inspiration.

“You need to be paying attention to international standards,” he said. Not that this alone is enough. “Vietnam has done a good job of copying ideas. But there’s no one here to ensure quality.”

During a guest lecture at Open University in late February, Tran said Vietnam has social work programs (such as those at the University of Labour and Social Affairs) but little field experience and academic research. He later said, “There’s no reward system” to encourage research.

Vietnam is improving, setting for itself a goal to increase the number of social workers in the country. On its website, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs wrote: “Vietnam needs to improve teaching methodology, provide necessary skills for social workers so that they could work at communities, effectively contributing to enhancing the effectiveness of social activities in Vietnam.”