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Ian Townsend-Gault is weighing the effects of projects that have sought to strengthen environmental law in Laos and Vietnam - photo by Martin Dee
Ian Townsend-Gault is weighing the effects of projects that have sought to strengthen environmental law in Laos and Vietnam - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 2 | Feb. 5, 2009

Law Prof Takes Aim at Foreign-Aid Projects

By Sean Sullivan

After 15 years of working on foreign-aid projects in Laos and Vietnam, Ian Townsend-Gault may soon discover what difference he’s made.

The UBC Law professor is mounting a two-year project to examine what effect foreign-funded law and policy projects have had on the environmental health of Vietnamese and Laotian citizens.

“I know it sounds like I’m investigating myself, but an insider is going to be as dispassionate as possible,” says Townsend-Gault, who is also director of the Law faculty’s Southeast Asian legal studies program.

The research takes aim at aid projects by donors such as the United Nations Development Program and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which have helped create basic environmental law and policy in both countries.

Supported by a 2008 Hampton Fund Research Grant funded by UBC’s real estate endowment, Townsend-Gault will measure the outcomes of these projects, looking at how future law and policy initiatives can better support residents’ environmental health.

CIDA, which manages Canada’s $4 billion in international development assistance, has planned more than $230 million in projects for Vietnam.

Initiatives include combating HIV/AIDS, improving access to primary school, encouraging economic growth, protecting children from landmines, and building foreign-language skills among young people.

In picking an area to investigate, Townsend-Gault says projects focused on strengthening or creating environmental law and policy were the clear choice: “I chose environment because it affects everyone in the country.”

The question for Townsend-Gault, who has served as a legal consultant to government ministries in both countries, is how well these projects have worked. He says despite the best intentions of donors, such large-scale aid can fall victim to shortcomings such as time frames that are too short, or failing to transfer the necessary expertise from international to domestic workers.

One initiative he will investigate is the Vietnam-Canada Environment Project, a $12-million CIDA endeavor with a broad mandate to help build the capacity to manage industrial pollution.

Townsend-Gault aided in the program, which in part sought to equip laboratories in three provinces with the expertise and capacity to undertake environmental diagnostic testing, such as air and water quality.

“We’re not looking to evaluate the legislation this project or that project developed, but what happened after that,” he says.

In Vietnam, decades of shifting priorities and changing government have led to varying levels of enforcement and a hodge-podge of environmental regulations. The country’s 1994 Law on Environmental Protection took aim at problems it does not face (e.g., nuclear waste disposal) while omitting provisions that are standard in most countries’ anti-pollution laws, such as the “polluter pays” principle.

Poverty in some regions has also led to discrepancies in Vietnam’s enforcement of environmental law, perpetuating a divide between the health of people in poor and wealthy areas, he says.

During a 1996 visit to the environment office in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Vietnam, Townsend-Gault found the office staffed by Soviet-trained engineers with little understanding of the existing environmental law.

“They said, ‘Ah, you’re a lawyer, you can tell us what this means, we haven’t the faintest clue!’” he says. “And we’re talking about one of the most sensitive environmental areas in the country.”

So, to what extent have things improved since then?
In Laos, Townsend-Gault points to the need for infrastructure and legislation that effectively protects the sensitive Mekong River, which is critical to the health of those downstream in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Townsend-Gault’s Hampton project will look at a project funded by Sweden that set up Laos’s environmental law, and for which he was a consultant.

The project could also contribute to the understanding of what practical steps are involved, for example, in using aid dollars to purchase latrines that won’t contaminate drinking water, and how such programs can be set in stone without having to rely on further foreign investment.

Back home, Townsend-Gault says he hopes his research will prompt Canadian officials to take a better look at their aid to Southeast Asia. Despite years of big-ticket projects, his counterparts in the area say Canada is slipping from their radar.

“We had a very important place in Southeast Asia, and I’m afraid that due to policy uncertainty in many fields we’ve either lost it or are in the process of losing it.”

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Last reviewed 01-Feb-2009

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