Bac’s Facebook page has gone into overdrive.

Since late last week, he has been uploading photo after photo of himself and all his Blue Dragon friends at the annual Blue’s Got Talent gala in our Hanoi centre.

It’s a brilliant affair. The lunch room is converted into a theatre for an afternoon, and the girls and boys get up to perform all kind of acts that they have been practicing for weeks (or longer!) to impress their friends – and a panel of judges.

Some dance, some sing. This year, some made food and drinks as part of their act. Bac’s entry, which earned him 3rd prize, was to put together a sandwich, a Vietnamese banh my.

Other kids have been posting about an event that took place the day before: the graduation of a group of teens from a barista course at our centre. Again, the teens made a sustained effort to learn and perfect some skills, then presented themselves to be assessed. For some, it was the highlight of their lives so far.

The girls and boys who find their way to Blue Dragon are with us because they’ve been through something terrible. It may have been extreme poverty, or slavery, or neglect; every child has their own story.

But that story doesn’t define them. There’s more to each child than something that has happened in their past, no matter how terrible that may be.

We all have something we love, something we are passionate about. That’s what should define us. Why should a horrible circumstance label us forever?

An afternoon of Blue’s Got Talent, or a graduation from a barista course, are the briefest moments in time, and yet they are moments for the kids to stand in a spotlight and say “Look at what I have in me.”

We all need these moments in life. They keep us going when times are tough and all seems a dreary grind.

For Bac and his friends, the beaming photos they have plastered all over social media tell it all. Nobody can take the pride of these moments away from them.




A long walk

On Sunday, I took part in a marathon walk. Forty-two kilometers along the Merri Creek in Melbourne, Australia, to raise money for the work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.

About 30 people took part, and although many of us had never met before we were united by our concern for the fate of Vietnamese children. We all had sponsors, and so we set out in the morning to accomplish a goal that’s small on a global scale, but significant for our own lives.

As we were walking, 4 teenage boys back in Vietnam were going for a trek of far greater significance.

The boys, aged 14 to 16, are from a tiny speck of a village high up in the mountains of Vietnam, in a province called Ha Giang.

Most people familiar with Ha Giang know it as one of the most beautiful places on earth. This one-minute of drone footage taken by a friend of Blue Dragon gives a sense of the remoteness and purity of the landscape.

But Ha Giang is also desperately poor, and this has made it vulnerable to human trafficking and other awful forms of exploitation. Many of the girls and women we bring home from sexual slavery in China originate from Ha Giang, which shares a border with Vietnam’s northern neighbour.

The 4 boys left home some months back, knowing that their families’ situations were dire and wanting to help. They saw no hope at home, and dreamt of a good life far away. Kids growing up in rural Vietnam are easily fooled into thinking that life somewhere else will always be easier and money will be plentiful; we’ve seen it so many times.

Two of the group were particularly driven to go in search of riches. Cuong and Bac have had a dreadful time; their mother is terminally ill with cancer, and when their father made the long journey with her to Hanoi for treatment, all they had to show for it was a $9000 debt. Their mother is now at home, in the final stages of her cancer, and will soon be gone. But the loving sons hoped, fantasised, that there might be something they could do to help their family escape from the hell they had found themselves in.

Their desperation was strong enough that they were willing to risk the chance that they would never see their mother again.

Setting out, Cuong and Bac, along with 2 friends from similarly impoverished farming families, had no real idea of where they were headed, and before long they met someone who promised them work with good salaries in China. Their dream was to be able to send money home to their parents, so saw this as their big chance.

Instead, they were trafficked and put to work in a factory without any pay at all. Deep inside China, they had no possibility of escape and all seemed lost – until the Guandong provincial police intercepted them while being transported around and returned them to Vietnam.

Thrilled to be headed home, the boys came to Blue Dragon for some short term care and legal support, and on the weekend our team traveled with them into the northern mountains to reunite them with their families.

Saying goodbye to the boys was incredibly difficult. We know we are leaving them in the situation from which they ran away, and we just can’t do that. So in coming days we’ll be planning how to get help to them and their families. Part of our problem is knowing that it’s not just Cuong, Bac and their friends; throughout their village and their district there are many more kids in need of help. We will need to work out what we can do, and get started.

From the nearest government office, where the boys were reunited with their families, to get to their village is a 2 hour walk. Some recent rains had knocked out any possibility of getting there by motorbike. And this walk was not under a chilly blue winter sky, as my walk in Melbourne was; Vietnam is in the grip of a heatwave, and their journey was across rocky, mountainous terrain.

I felt pretty proud of myself for finishing a marathon walk. In comparison, though, what I did was pretty insignificant compared to what Cuong, Bac and their mates have done.

And that only spurs me on to think what more we can do to help.



Humanity in development

I’ve given more than a few speeches in my lifetime. I truly enjoy the challenge of gauging an audience and adapting my message to meet their needs and interests; many times I have been standing on the stage before I have made a final decision about what I will say.

So far this has always worked for me, but last week I thought that maybe I had pushed it too far.

I had been invited to speak to 900 university students from around the world at the UN Centre in Bangkok; the students were taking part in a Leadership Symposium that was engaging them on a whole range of global issues.

While the topic I was asked to speak about was related to children, my message was broader than that. I wanted to speak about the power of being human; of the need to care; and of the importance of people over programming.

Sitting through a panel discussion right before my session, I started to panic. Somehow in my planning I had failed to note the location of the symposium – the United Nations! – and hadn’t thought through the question of what other speakers might be saying. I had prepared a 45 minute talk about why planning isn’t as important as taking action; why care is more important than sustainability; and why small, individual actions from the heart are equal in value to replicable and scalable programs.

Listening to several UN leaders in their panel before mine, I realised I was potentially right out of sync.

Fortunately, I turned out to be wrong. Rather than being oppositional, my ideas were accepted as complementing the more mainstream developmental views. In fact, most of the feedback was pretty positive. (But only ‘most’ – not all!)

Around the globe, there’s increasing chatter among NGOs and charities about taking more ‘human’ approaches to how we work. The ideas are still often seen as a bit ‘out there’ or accused of being an excuse for organisations that don’t really know what they are doing, but as I discovered there’s also a strong acceptance and hunger for development that puts people first.

Sometimes we don’t have all the data – and that’s OK. If Blue Dragon had held back from rescuing victims of human trafficking until we had baseline data so we could measure our impact, we would still be waiting. (We’ve rescued 668 people so far, and that number is going up by the week).

Sometimes we can’t measure the impact of what we do – and contrary to the dominant view, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. How do we calculate the impact of caring for children who have been abused? How do we determine the number of children who haven’t been abused or trafficked because of the people arrested as a result of our work?

As with so much in the modern world, we develop rules and structures, budgets and plans; and then we enslave ourselves to our own creations. The budgets become our masters; the strategic plans become our lords. As a charity, how can we refuse to help someone in need just because it wasn’t in the annual plan, if helping that person fits with our mission? The very idea makes no sense to me.

Plans and programs are useful as structures within which we can work to serve others; but they should never own us.

I once heard Hadeel Ibrahim, a British philanthropist remark,”We are sometimes so busy being developmental that we forget our humanity.”

It was a great encouragement to see the delegates and organisers of the University Scholars Leadership Symposium embrace my message and feed back their own ideas, questions, doubts, and dreams.

There are so many people in our world dealing with crisis and trauma; it’s not programs that will give them care and comfort, but people. And that may be hard to quantify or to scale up or to make sustainable, but in the end it’s the humanity of development that matters, not just the numbers.