Thursday, December 15, 2011

Visiting NGOs in Shanghai and Nanjing: are they the future?

Everywhere I go, it seems I come across new epicenters of NGO activity.  When I was in Chengdu, I thought Sichuan was the new epicenter of NGO activity in Southwest China.  My recent visits to Shanghai and Nanjing show these cities, particularly Shanghai, are emerging as epicenters of NGO activity in eastern China.   I used to think eastern China lagged behind other areas such as Beijing, Yunnan and Sichuan when it came to NGO growth, but no more.

In Shanghai, I visited the Public Welfare Park in the Pudong New District where the Pudong disrict government has constructed an artsy, modern building that houses about 30 nonprofits, providing them with various support services and contracting with them to provide community services.

There I paid a visit to two movers and shakers in China's nonprofit world: Nonprofit Incubator (NPI) and the NPO Development Center.  Both provide consulting and capacity building training to nonprofits.  NPI is an impressive, professional operation with a public foundation and offices in Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and employs over a hundred people all told.  It incubates and supports a number of Shanghai's up-and-coming NGOs.  NPI symbolizes the future of what NGOs can be in China.  The NPO Development Center (Ying Lv in Chinese) is a much more modest operation, but has been working in Shanghai for many years providing capacity training to Shanghai's nonprofits.  It was founded by Zhuang Ailing, who was director of the recently-established China Foundation Center for a few months before returning back to Shanghai where she is heading the RenDe Foundation, a newly established public foundation started by the Nanjing-based Amity Foundation.  RenDe will be one of the few foundations in China devoted to making grants to support NGOs.

Much of the credit for what is happening in Pudong and Shanghai more generally goes to Ma Yili, the former director of the Pudong Civil Affairs bureau who is now director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs department.  Ma is seen by many as the driving force behind the Pudong Public Welfare Park, and the local government's efforts to promote nonprofits to contribute to the development of local communities.  These initiatives have been expanded to other districts in Shanghai, and their effects are being felt in other nearby cities such as Nanjing.

In Nanjing, NGOs are on the rise and the Nanjing city government is now considering similar measures to energize the development of nonprofits.  I visited the most prominent NGO in Nanjing, the Amity Foundation, which in 2009 established a NGO Development Center to incubate local nonprofits much as Shanghai's NPI is doing.  Like NPI, Amity is an impressive, professional operation located in a beautiful space next to the leafy campus of Nanjing University.  It is the only NGO that I can think of that has its name displayed prominently on its front gate.

I spoke with the director of the NGO Development Center who told me Amity was being contracted by the central government to develop policy ideas and strategies to promote the NGO sector in Nanjing.   Later I had lunch with the director, and two members of Green Stone, an environmental NGO that is getting Amity support.

I also paid a visit to Tianxiagong (Justice Under Heaven), a new NGO in Nanjing that is essentially a branch organization of the well-known Beijing-based NGO, Yirenping, which engages in advocacy and legal aid for hepatitis B sufferers who encounter discrimination in the workplace.   I spoke with Yu Fangqiang, the young, smart and very persistent NGO campaigner who used to work for Yirenping and now heads the Nanjing office.  He gave me a book they had just produced of interviews with NGOs and individuals in the east China region who were fighting for just solutions to various social and environmental problems.

As organizations that share a mission of supporting and promoting China's NGOs, NPI, the NPO Development Center, Amity and Tianxiagong will all play a pivotal role in reshaping the civil society landscape in this part of China.  Due to their efforts, eastern China is no longer a backwater for NGOs.  Indeed, it may represent the future for China's NGOs.