China’s NGOs Go Global: True Stories from a Program Director

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Editor’s Note

As a pioneer for Chinese NGOs active in overseas engagement, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) has set foot in many parts of the world, working in areas such as humanitarian relief, poverty alleviation and universal education. The following excerpts are based on a talk given by the director of CFPA’s international department Wu Peng, in which he recounts anecdotes and lessons learned while operating in Sudan, in a very different cultural environment. We hope they can serve as a helpful lesson for other Chinese NGOs who aspire to go global.

“You came too early”

The first story that I want to tell everyone is that when Chinese NGOs “go out,” they must understand the customs of the host country. We cannot always look at others’ behaviors through our own lens, but rather we must conduct our projects and activities in accordance with the host country’s customs. Take for example the perception of time, which we realized at the beginning of our program in Sudan, that our idea of time differed greatly from that of Sudanese people.

There were a few funny moments, the first of which was when one of our Sudanese partners told us that the vice president’s wife wants to treat us for lunch. At the time, we already knew that Sudanese start their days a bit later than us, so when they talk about getting lunch, we shouldn’t plan on going any earlier than one in the afternoon. On that day, my colleague and I dressed in a nice suit and tie. We arrived at one o’clock in the afternoon. Everyone welcomed us and served us a large plate of sweet date palms. We started snacking on the dates at one in the afternoon and ate the entire plate of date palms until we finally went to “lunch” at almost five o’clock in the afternoon. Later on we found out that Sudanese meal schedules are not consistent and that locals have morning tea and a small snack after waking up at five in the morning. They don’t actually eat breakfast until ten in the morning, then lunch around four in the afternoon followed by a late dinner at nine or ten in the evening.

Actually, the entire notion of time in Sudan is different from China. If you don’t pay attention to this difference, it will influence your work. I remember there was one time that I planned a meeting with some Sudanese colleagues at ten in the morning. I chose ten because it fit well into my schedule, but that was right during their breakfast time. At nearly ten o’clock, I gave them a call and told them we would arrive at the venue shortly. When they arrived at ten, they came in and immediately told us that they hadn’t yet had breakfast and would first go to eat. All we could do was wait for them there. At the time, I was very upset.

The difference in perception of time between us and Sudan also applies to the workweek, because in Sudan the workweek starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. If you want to do business with someone on Fridays, you’re not going to find them. On Fridays, everyone goes to the mosque to say their prayers. On top of this, their yearly schedule is a bit different from ours as well because every year in August or September is Ramadan, during which time people abstain from eating and drinking water during the day. So if there is any important work, it’s best to avoid doing so during this time. Before going to a foreign country, we must understand these customs because these are second nature to people living there. Therefore, studying up on local customs and habits before going abroad is extremely important and it will decrease conflicts and make for a happier work experience.

In fact, the gap between Chinese and foreign cultures is quite large. With regard to Sudanese culture, foreign men are not allowed to be alone with local women in the same place. There was a man from our international department who was educated overseas so he tends to be more freewheeling and open-minded. After arriving in Sudan for a month, he met a young Sudanese girl while attending a local wedding. That girl had previously studied abroad in Saudi Arabia, so the two had a lot to talk about. Since they got along so well, they planned to go see a movie at the cinema the day after. When they arrived at the theater walking side by side, the Sudanese police arrived and told the girl that she was not allowed to be with a foreign man. They told her to leave immediately, otherwise she would be arrested. Afterwards, our colleague came back feeling dejected. We told him that he should feel fortunate instead because if they had entered the theatre together, he would have risked being arrested.

I’m telling these stories because when Chinese NGOs “go out”, we should foster respect and understanding between us and the host countries. If we understand the other and respect their culture and customs, there is less room for misunderstandings and we will less likely become frustrated as a result of these misconceptions. As people, we must be a little more humble and respectful. We must also be a little more flexible in our thinking. We cannot use our own way of thinking to make conclusions or judgements while in a foreign country.

“The first lady or the wife of the vice president”

The second story is about choosing the right local partner. When we were preparing to run a maternal and infant safety program in Sudan, the Chinese embassy in Sudan and the Sudanese embassy in China introduced to us to a few local NGOs that were developing at the time as potential partners. Out of these NGOs, one was run by the first lady and another by the wife of the vice-president. While we were conducting feasibility research in Sudan, these two NGOs both paid official visits to us. The first lady’s NGO was called the Impoverished Mother’s Aid Association (‘Mother’s Aid’), while the wife of the vice president’s NGO was called BTO, which didn’t have much to do with maternal-infant health. Just by looking at the name, the first lady’s NGO seemed to be more appropriate. In addition to these two NGOs, the candidates then also included the Sudanese Women’s Association, the Red Cross and five or six other Sudanese organizations.

In the end, we decided against Mother’s Aid, the NGO run by the first lady. When we went to her organization and asked them what kind of programs they had, they couldn’t name one. After meeting with us, they assumed we’d choose them as a partner, so they took out project recommendation books one by one. Each project they showed to us required millions or tens of millions in funds, but none spoke of any specific content. By contrast, when we were visiting the NGO run by the wife of the vice-president, who is a professor at Khartoum University and speaks fluent English, she was able to communicate very effectively with us. Her organization had already established 12 maternal-infant health hospitals, on which topic she had a lot more substantive experience, including how to administer projects and how to guarantee the health of mothers and infants. In addition, she already had a team and an administrative structure, so in the end we picked the wife of the vice-president’s organization.

We now know we made the right choice, because two years later, in 2011, we heard news that the Mother’s Aid organization run by the First Lady had been shut down by the Sudanese government. Some of you may have learned from online sources that a Chinese enterprise once donated $3 million to Mother’s Aid. Now, with the organization being shut down, the donation has all been spent on nothing. This experience tells us that the task of picking a local NGO partner requires a high degree of due diligence. As NGO registration is relatively lax in many parts of Africa, selecting the right local partners out of the thousands of NGOs in the continent is no easy feat. It requires deliberation and thorough research. I caution all NGOs that consider going global, when choosing the local partners, you have to base your decision on how the strengths and projects run by the local NGO match with your projects. To make such a decision, a site visit is a must.

“Customs Clearance Crisis”

The third story I’m going to tell is my most memorable story from the five years that I worked abroad. At the time, we were donating to build the Abu Osha Friendship Hospital in Sudan, and all of our material was sourced from China so the customs were an important link in the chain. The Abu Osha Friendship Hospital’s scale of operations mounted to over $10 million (about 60 million yuan), which is not considered a large project by Chinese standards, and a project of this scale should not have consumed too much energy.

At the time however we found the customs clearance of the material purchased in China as challenging, and felt that it was out of our control. We thus turned to our local partner BTO for help and entrusted them with the customs clearance task. Now that I think about it, this was a mistake. At the time, our thought process was that we would do what we can on our end and our Sudanese partner would do what they can on their end. It made sense to commission a local partner to be in charge of the customs clearance, and BTO told us that they could handle it. Furthermore we of course entirely trusted that the wife of the vice-president’s organization could handle it. So we signed a contract with BTO.

I clearly remember that our package had arrived at the port of Sudan on November 15, 2010. At the time, it was the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha in Sudan. As a result, during the whole month of November, BTO’s activities were all at a standstill. At the beginning of December, BTO began to deal with the clearance matter; but since BTO had never accepted overseas donations before they had no tax-exempt customs certificate. We had to go to the Sudanese Ministry of Finance at the last minute to apply for such a certificate. But at that time, the Ministry of Finance was beginning their monthly account settling and the issue was naturally put on the back burner. I went to the Ministry of Finance and saw firsthand that all their work was being done manually. Their offices were all piled to the ceiling with packages and papers, so there was no one available to help us with our inquiry. We waited through the whole month of December without getting a word.

On January 18, BTO finally obtained the tax exemption certificate for the imported package. When they arrived at the port to pick up the packages however, they realized their packages had been sitting outside for two months, during which time they had racked up a large container demurrage fee. BTO said that they were unable to pay this fee. At the time, we had heard that if packages sit at the port for three months without customs clearance, they will be confiscated by the Sudanese customs. This was the first time we went overseas to do a project, and we did not have experience, most likely because of the language barrier. Our contact with BTO was very frequent, about once a week. Each time we would ask how the customs clearance is coming along? Their response remained the same, which was that everything was fine and the package was on its way from the port to Khartoum. It was only much later that we found out there had been a great delay in getting clearance.

This was a lesson for us that we should be more proactive in finding out what the hold up is. In this case, if we had found out that it was due to the tax exemption certificate that we could not clear our imports, we would have switched to commercial imports instead of donations to recover the package. We would have ended up saving money by paying more taxes upfront, rather than having to pay 300 thousand yuan in container demurrage fees.

After all was said and done we avoided the government fine as BTO negotiated a waiver, but the import company still needed to collect a demurrage fee. At the time we couldn’t pay the fee immediately ourselves. BTO handed the bill to the Chinese embassy in Sudan, and the embassy coordinated with PetroChina to help us cover the bill. Finally on February 17, three months later, we settled the customs clearance.

I recount this story as I mean to tell you all that when carrying out international projects, especially for the first time, we must strive to control the entire process and not let anything slide. If there is a task we don’t know how to do, we cannot just thrust others (without closely monitoring the process). The truth is that sometimes the other party might not know how to do it either. The second point I wanted to make is that we must be vigilant regarding the risks involved in project implementation, and act quickly to control risks and mitigate damage.

In conclusion, these are some stories that are related to the globalization process of Chinese NGOs. Only when these organizations go out into the world can they walk down this same road. When we first went to Africa, the path before us was unknown, but now that we have explored this path, we want to share it with everyone in the hope of helping.

In Brief

There is an increasing number of Chinese NGOs that have become active overseas. What challenges do they face when operating abroad? The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s program director recounts some of his experiences and cultural misunderstandings from when he worked in Sudan.
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