Thursday, August 26, 2010

Important trends among Chinese NGOs

August 26, 2010

Despite some of the recent concerns about restrictions on NGOs in China, there are some important trends in China that civil society watchers should keep an eye on.

One trend that has been written about here, and elsewhere, is the rise of private foundations and their growing influence in China. A number of the more prominent private foundations like Narada and Youcheng have taken the lead in supporting grassroots NGOs, and encouraging the government and GONGOs to support grassroots NGOs.

Another trend that has been not been as visible or discussed is the rise of social networks. I hesitate to use the term, NGO networks, because these networks are generally quite informal, varied and fluid in their composition. NGOs and NGO leaders are an important component, but these networks also include individual activists and individuals from GONGOs, mass organizations and even the government. In the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, we saw many networks form in response to the relief effort. We also see networks forming in the environmental, HIV/AIDS and foundation sector.

A third trend is the outsourcing of government services to NGOs in the area of community development, migrant education, poverty alleviation, and industry and commerce. This trend is important not just because it provides new sources of revenue for NGOs, but also because it may evolve into a more institutionalized channel by which NGOs can participate in the provision of public goods, and in shaping public policy.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Talking to some NGOs in Sichuan

August 13, 2010

I’ve been talking to some international NGO people here in Sichuan and the impression I come away with is one of frustration and caution. Frustration at the Chinese government’s inability to make life easier for international NGOs, either with regard to registration or carrying out public activities.  Caution about visiting Tibetan NGOs in western Sichuan and Qinghai.  

Talking with these INGOs, I realize why the Chinese government would be so concerned and conflicted about INGOs.  On one hand, they see these INGOs as a source of funds and a conduit to the larger international community.  On the other, they know that these INGOs represent very different agendas, and are concerned about their role in fomenting social conflict. There are INGOs that want to help China solve problems such as poverty and disease, but there are also those with an agenda that the Chinese government views with suspicion.  These include NGOs that want to help workers, farmers and those infected with HIV/AIDS enforce their legal rights, NGOs like the NED that had a hand in the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics, and NGOs funded by Tibetan exile groups.

What the Chinese government faces in the international NGO community is, in short, a microcosm of the pluralist interest group community that we are used to in democratic societies.  Only the Chinese have to deal with them in their own backyard.  I’m not condoning the Chinese government’s behavior, but if I was an authoritarian government concerned foremost about stability and staying in power, I might be doing what the Chinese are doing to international NGOs now – letting many of them operate here, but making life difficult for them.   In that way, the Chinese hope to have their cake and eat it too.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Visiting the Global Village project in Daping village

August 7, 2010

It’s not easy for a NGO in China to have a vision and translate that vision into a reality, but something like that is happening in the village of Daping, Sichuan.

After taking two buses and a small “breadloaf” van (mianbao che) that we didn’t think would make it up the steep mountain road, we are here in Daping village on top of a mountain in the administrative area of Pengzhou city about 2 hours drive northwest of Chengdu. Daping is the site of an ambitious project appropriately named “Home of Happiness and Harmony” (Lehe Jiayuan) conceived by Liao Xiaoyi, founder of the Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village. Daping’s houses were badly damaged by the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and when Liao first came to the village in July of 2008, she saw in it a chance to not just rebuild the infrastructure, but also to restructure the economic and social life of the village.

With funding from the Chinese Red Cross Foundation, and Jet Li’s One Foundation, the building began in earnest in September of 2008. When I was here in June of 2009, many of the houses, and the medical clinic, were going up. Now, most of the farmers’ houses, the medical clinic, and the academy are finished. They have been built with timber from the mountain’s plentiful reserves of cypress and cedar. Together these structures at the top of Daping mountain make a statement about Liao’s vision.

Global Village is also working on reviving the village’s economy by exploring new sources of revenue such as marketing handicrafts and tourism. Lehe Jiayuan is already hosting various NGO training groups who come up for several days at a time, and is hoping to attract other groups who come to learn to about this unique project and participate in various cultural activities that are in the planning. It is also trying to restructure village governance and social life by introducing an environmental association (shengtai xiehui) which will give villagers a voice in the redevelopment of their village. Decisions about Lehe Yuan’s development are to be made jointly between GV, the village committee, and the environmental association.

Global Village has also brought in the YouChange Foundation, a well-known private foundation in Beijing, which now has a station in Daping and is responsible for managing the volunteers who help out on the ongoing projects. The reason for coming here a second time was to bring my son, Simon, who will be volunteering in Daping with his friend later this fall. They’ll be working with Wang Pan, the YouChange station director here at Lehe Jiayuan.

Lehe Jiayuan is an ambitious project and it remains to be seen whether it will succeed and serve as a model for other villages, as Liao hopes. Transportation to the village needs to be improved to allow groups to visit. There is also a mine operating in the neighboring mountain, and the occasional explosions are a reminder that not all is harmonious in Daping.

Still, one can’t sense that Liao has created something special here, a sense of community. The place is full of energetic and good-natured staff, volunteers and villagers. At night, when people congregate to play games, dance and talk, you feel that Lehe Jiayuan lives up to its name.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visiting NGOs along the faultline: Sichuan to Qinghai

August 5, 2010

It seems my life these days only revolves around NGOs, but hey there are worse things to be addicted to! Next week, I'll be bringing my son to look at a project in Sichuan started by the well-known Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village, with funding from the Chinese Red Cross and Jet Li's One Foundation. The project involves not just rebuilding Daping's houses, many of which were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, but also revitalizing the social and economic life of the village and using the village as a platform for promoting tourism and traditional Chinese culture. I visited this project last year when doing research for a paper I wrote about the Wenchuan earthquake's impact on grassroots NGOs.

My son will be working with the YouChange (known in Chinese as Youcheng) foundation which is collaborating with Global Village on this project. YouChange, along with Nandu (Naruda), is one of a number of private foundations that has sought to create a new philanthropy model that emphasizes volunteerism, individual initiative, and support for grassroots NGOs. It also has other projects located in poorer areas in western China, as well as a project on the outskirts of Beijing.

After visiting Daping, we plan to head out west to the Tibetan areas in Sichuan, stopping in Kangding, and then making our way via the Sichuan-Tibet highway to Yushu, Qinghai where there was an earthquake earlier this year. I've never traveled in these parts before, and have heard it is both rugged and beautiful. I'm looking forward to it, and hopefully visiting some Tibetan NGO projects along the way.

I guess you could call this our "earthquake and NGO" trip because we're going from the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to the site of the 2010 Yushu earthquake, and seeing what kind of work NGOs are doing in these areas. As I've blogged about in other posts, the role of NGOs in disaster relief has been growing in China and deserves more attention and support.

I'll try to post news about our trip on this blog, so stay tuned!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Grassroots activism and public-private partnerships in the Hudson Valley

August 2, 2010

Grassroots activism and nonprofits in the Hudson Valley

Last month I went back to see family and friends in the Hudson Valley region of New York. While there I had the chance to see and walk across the Walkway Across the Hudson. The Walkway is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world with a span of over 1.28 miles over the Hudson River connecting the cities of Poughkeepsie on the east and Highland on the west.

The Walkway ( is also the name of the nonprofit that is responsible for revitalizing the bridge and transforming it into a pedestrian skyway with gorgeous views of the Hudson River.

 The bridge is more than 100 years old, and was shut down after a fire in 1974. In 1992, a handyman named Bill Sepe formed the Walkway nonprofit, but his ideas of using volunteer labor and funding to revitalize the bridge was voted down by the board. Under the new leadership of Fred Shaeffer, a local attorney, the Walkway began working with private foundations and the state of New York to make the Walkway a reality. The Walkway has been designated a State Historical Park, and the nonprofit is headed by a friend of ours, Elizabeth Hart.

I went across the Walkway three times while I was there, and was impressed at what it has done in terms of energizing the area’s business, civic and recreational scene. Every time I went, there were many people out walking with infants in strollers, with dogs, roller skating, and biking over the bridge. A New York Times article noted that there have already been more than double the estimated 250,000 visitors per year since the Walkway opened last October. At each end, there were several businesses/vendors selling drinks and food, renting bikes, in addition to Walkway volunteers selling T-shirts, cups, and hats to raise money to maintain the bridge. There are also plans underway to connect the Walkway to other bike trails in the region.

The Walkway is a great example of the kind of impact that grassroots activism can have. The initial vision and impetus comes from a single person who starts a nonprofit which then partners with private and public agencies to make their vision a reality.

On the bridge, there is a sign thanking the many supporters of the Walkway. They include a number of private foundations in addition to the state of New York. Let’s hope that we begin to see this level of collaboration in China.