IU Is Everywhere

From Bloomington to Bangkok, meet members of the IU family who are acting as ambassadors for the university.

Anh Tran, Vietnam

In addition to being a School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor at IU Bloomington, Anh Tran acts as an advisor to the prime minister of Vietnam.

As a young graduate student, Anh Tran hoped to someday help the development of his native Vietnam. Now he’s doing just that after he was recently appointed to advise the country’s prime minister. His path to the position led through Indiana University and its School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

An associate professor in SPEA, Tran developed the school's highly successful training programs for Vietnamese government officials. He also directs Vietnam Initiative, a global think tank on Vietnamese development policy that incorporates expertise from IU and other world universities. He hopes to expand his work to benefit other developing countries.

Last summer, he became an adviser to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a responsibility that he combines with his research, teaching and service as a SPEA faculty member. He develops policy analyses and talking points and advises the prime minister on policy decisions, speeches and other matters.

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IU's Anh Tran, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.  Photo courtesy of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Tran said his academic work on public policy, public administration and government effectiveness connects seamlessly with his work with the Vietnamese government.

"I'm not doing research for the sake of research," he said. "I do research to be able to give good advice for people making important decisions that affect the lives of other people."

Tran was born in Hanoi in 1973, near the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Encouraged by his father, a nuclear physicist, he traveled to Russia for college, intending to study science or engineering.

But "Russia was chaotic," he said. The economy was undergoing a rapid transformation after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So-called oligarchs were getting rich while ordinary people struggled. Tran decided to study at the Russian Economic Academy and earned a degree in international relations.

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Anh Tran addresses the National Assembly of Vietnam on behalf of Indiana University during President McRobbie's visit in May 2014.  Photo courtesy of the Office of the President

After a stint working for Vietnam Airlines, he decided his interest lay in research and public policy. He earned a master's degree at the University of New South Wales in Australia and worked briefly for the Vietnamese government. Then, with U.S.-Vietnamese relations having been normalized, he moved to the United States, earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and joined the IU faculty in 2009.

The following year, he founded the Vietnam Young Leader Awards program, a SPEA initiative that each year brings about 15 young government employees for a two-year master's program. In addition to classes, the program includes research, internship opportunities and visits to government agencies, nonprofits and private organizations in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

In 2015, SPEA added the Strategic Leadership Development program, which brings senior Vietnamese government officials to the U.S. for 10 weeks of study under the supervision of IU faculty, including courses in policy analysis, management and leadership.

Over 100 Vietnamese officials have completed training through the programs at IU, Tran said. Another 1,000 or so have completed training programs that SPEA leads in Vietnam.

"IU has the largest center for public policy on Vietnam outside of the country," he said. "We have a huge impact on training and research there. There's no other program like this in the world."

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Anh Tran poses with a delegation from Vietnam that came to the U.S. for a two-week executive training program in November 2017. Photo courtesy of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs

In his role advising the prime minister, Tran leads projects to improve recruitment, training and management in the Vietnamese civil service and to institute a system of digital government that will use technology to monitor and improve government efficiency. He said Vietnamese officials and civil servants "tend to be capable, committed people. They want to do something for their country and their society. But they lack training."

As a scholar of development, Tran has long pondered a question that baffles experts: Most of the world's countries are either wealthy or poor. It is exceedingly rare for a poor country to transform itself into a wealthy country. And no one knows why.

"We argue about this all the time," Tran said. "My theory is, government effectiveness is key. The way to help develop the country is to improve the accountability of government."

SPEA's Vietnam Initiatives and Tran's role as an advisor to the prime minister are focused on doing just that. Can Vietnam become one of the few nations that makes the transition from "developing" to "developed"? Tran admits it will be a challenge.

"If this transition were easy, it would be less fascinating," he said. "I'm a public policy researcher, and finding effective policies is what we do. We are trying to do our best."