Law Prof Takes Aim at Foreign-Aid Projects

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

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

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

“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