Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Profile of Gao Guizi, coordinator of the 512 Voluntary Relief Center

September 21, 2010

The 512 Voluntary Relief Center (wuyaoer minjian jiuyuan zhongxin) is one of two large NGO networks that emerged in Sichuan right after the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008. It was set up by several people with diverse background in NGO work in the office of a legally-registered NGO, the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. Some of these people had worked together on a previous project in Sichuan involving a Hong Kong foundation that brought Hong Kong students to Sichuan to work on community projects. Unlike the other large NGO network started by Lu Fei (see my profile of him in an earlier post) and his friends, the 512 Center is still operating but last time I visited them in June of 2009, they were eking out an existence on a shoestring budget, and looking for someone to donate a SUV to replace the car they were using to drive into the earthquake-stricken areas. Gao is the coordinator of the 512 Center. We’ve met twice to discuss the NGO network that is part of the Center, and each time spent several hours sitting at a desk in the Center’s office talking, drinking tea, and eating tangerines. During our conversations, Gao would chain smoke. He’s an affable, grandfatherly-looking guy who liked to joke with the two women working in the office. Every so often, he’d also take a poke at me for being an “impatient American” but with a wink and a smile.

Gao was born in 1954 in one of the first group of students to attend university after the Cultural Revolution. He attended Yunnan University in 1978, the year after Yu Xiaogang, the celebrated founder of the Kunming-based environmental NGO, Green Watershed, and one of the members of the 512 Center’s network. After he graduated, he went to work for the provincial social science federation (shehui kexue lianhehui), a social organization (shetuan) for those specializing in the social sciences to exchange views and share information. In the early 2000s, the provincial government was engaged in streamlining its bureaucracies, and encouraged some of its officials to retire early. He was one of those officials, retiring at the age of 48 in 2002.

His interest in NGO work came from his participation in a Ford Foundation project while he was still at the social science federation. The project was an investigation into the problems with migrant children not having access to schools. He worked on a report that encouraged the government to improve the situation. After he retired, he went to work on another project funded by UNESCO and a French organization helping children in poor areas.

Since 2005, he’s also been trying to register an NGO that he calls Sichuan Shangmin Social Development Research Association. He describes it as an independent, nonprofit, research institute that would provide research on social problems to the government, public and other NGOs. Gao said he was encouraged by a government policy put out in 2004 promoting grassroots social science organizations. Apparently, the officials at the Civil Affairs office didn’t get that policy document because everytime he’s applied to register, he’s been rejected.

When asked why he went into NGO work, he said it was a combination of things. One is socialism. He grew up in the Maoist era, and he believes not all of the old education and propaganda was bad. “Socialism is better than capitalism,” he said. “Capitalism is about money, socialism is about people.” But he prefers to use the terms, “social development” or “sustainable development” in place of socialism.

Another reason he’s doing NGO work is that he’s retired, has time on his hands and economic security. He can now do what he wants to do, and what gives his life meaning. He’s also been influenced by his work with international organizations. He does not agree with everything they do, but he likes the idea of using participatory methods for promoting social development.

Gao might have one more influence that I did not ask him about – his wife who happens to be Guo Hong, a sociologist at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences who teaches classes on civil society, has been an advisor to the 512 Center, and an advocate for NGOs in China.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Profile of Ma Yinling, founder of (Yuexi county) Poverty and Development Research Center

September 2, 2010

I was introduced to Ma Yinling by a common friend in Beijing. Ma was nice enough to arrange a cheap room for me at the guesthouse of her university, Southwest Nationalities University in Chengdu, where she teaches anthropology and does research on the Yi minority. Ma herself is a Yi.

The morning I arrived in Chengdu, Ma showed up at my guesthouse door armed with several books she had edited or written on the Yi. One of these was a Yi-English dictionary, probably the only one of its kind, edited by her and two American linguists. She is clearly passionate about what she does.

Ma’s NGO is called the (Yuexin county) Poverty and Development Research Center, and is registered as a social organization (shetuan) with the county Civil Affairs bureau. Her NGO, which she started around 2000, targets minorities in poor areas through education, health and economic development programs. One of her projects, funded by the UN, is to help the Yi understand PRC laws and policies relating to the Yi. She has another project funded by the World Bank Development Marketplace to educate Yi women findmarkets for their handicrafts, and thereby earn money to pay for their children’s schooling. This project involves working with the local Women’s Federation and county officials.

Like other NGO leaders I’ve met, Ma can be single-minded in her devotion, seeing her NGO as her own personal project. She told me that she after working in Yuexi county for several years, she decided to build a house there so she could share her experiences with others from the city. When she brought up the idea with her husband and son (both of them are also Yi), they opposed it, but she went ahead anyway and built the house without the help of her family. Most of the building materials and appliances had to be transported from Chengdu, a two day drive from Yuexi.

Ma sounded reluctant to build up her NGO. She has a small 3 person staff which works mostly on a volunteer basis. When I asked why she doesn’t pay her staff full-time, she gave several reasons. One is that she doesn’t want to raise their expectations too much in case her NGO should fail, and she has seen too many NGOs go under because they devoted too many resources to their staff. She also said that her funding tended to be project-based and didn’t pay for staff salaries.

Ma talked to me about what motivated her to spend so much of her time and effort on her NGO work. She spoke about Yuexi, a poor county located on the Sichuan/Yunnan border with a diverse population of Yi, Tibetan, and Han. Yuexi, she said, faced a number of problems. – high infant mortality, alcoholism, psychological problems, spousal abuse, medical problems like Hep B. At the time she was considering setting up her NGO, a logging ban had been in effect since 1998 and a new policy in force which stopped assigning university graduates jobs. These two policies had a negative effect on minority graduates, so many minority families encouraged their kids to work rather than go to the universities.

Ma wanted to address both of these problems. One of her early projects was to teach minorities how to fix and use the gas burners that replaced the wood ones as a result of the logging ban. She also wanted to educate women about the importance of going to college. She said she started with 10-12 women, and was moved when many more than 10 women showed up to learn Chinese.

Ma also spoke to me about having to educate the officials about her project. A number of the local officials initially showed interest in her project because they saw it as a source of revenue, so she had to tell them that the money was for the women in the county. She found she also had to educate the officials about gender equality, and the use of participatory methods to lessen the gap between farmers and officials. One of her goals is to change the attitude and view of local officials so that they can see the bigger picture, and the importance of working with her NGO and the larger community.

When I asked her what pushed her into this line of work, Ma talked about her own anthropology work on ethnic minorities. Another important influence for her was the Fourth World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995 where she participated in a forum on minority women and first learned what gender equity and NGOs were. But most of all, what’s kept her going has been her work in Yuexi which opened her eyes to the many needs in the area and the desire of local women to participate in improving their lives.