Interview: Ji Hongbo, Asia Foundation

The Asia Foundation has been operating in China since 1979 and currently employs 10 full-time staff. Together with local partners it operates a range of programs covering areas such as disaster management and child welfare. CDB recently spoke with the organization’s country director, Ji Hongbo, about her own career and the work of the foundation.

How did you get involved with the Asia Foundation?

I joined around 15 years ago after starting out my career as a diplomat in China’s foreign service. In those days the kind of diplomacy I was involved in mostly just involved talking and I realized that I wanted to do something a little more concrete, something I could feel. So by chance I went into international development. At first I was doing projects funded by donor governments designed to help China’s development. Most of my initial projects involved rural development, grassland development, sustainability – but those came to an end in 2006 and 2007.

In 2008 China hosted the Olympics and the project I was working on came to an end around that time. I discovered Asia Foundation was hiring, and despite having limited experience, I went for the position.

Could you introduce the foundation and its history?

The foundation was established in 1954. We often say that what makes it so unique is its network of 18 country offices across Asia, which is soon to increase to 19. Most of our staff are locally based and we focus on developing strong relationships with our partners. Through them we find out the most pressing issues that they’re facing, identify the suitable locally-based solutions and ensure we make a success of our work. As our website says, we’re committed to improving lives across Asia.

What kind of projects across Asia does the foundation typically get involved in?

There are a few different program areas we work in: strengthening governance, promoting inclusive growth, gender equality and women’s empowerment, increasing environmental resilience and climate action, and regional and international relations. For example, we have a longstanding program called Let’s Read that’s currently providing digital books to kids across Asia. This has been particularly useful as so many children have been studying at home due to the lockdowns caused by Covid. There’s also another project we’ve been involved in where we offer digital skills training to workers, preparing them for the modern economy.

What areas does the foundation focus on in China?

In China, I would divide our work into two main areas: one is working in China, the other is working with China. When it comes to working in China, one area we focus on is women’s economic empowerment. For many years we provided training and welfare support to female migrant workers who came from places like Sichuan and Henan to work in the coastal areas. But these women are no longer “factory girls” and many now want to start their own businesses. So we provide entrepreneurship training to women like this, many of whom don’t have a hukou for the city in which they live. We’re also helping those who are running small and micro businesses. This is very much in line with contributing to rural revitalization and the goal of common prosperity.

When we talk about SMEs in China, we often talk about five, six, seven, eight, nine: they contribute over 50 percent of tax revenues, over 60 percent of GDP, over 70 percent of technological innovation, over 80 percent of employment, and make up over 90 percent of all businesses in the country.

Since the pandemic, we’ve also been doing a lot of work on green finance and green recovery – something that is in line with China’s 30/60 target (peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and being carbon neutral by 2060).

I have heard that the foundation has been involved in a lot of disaster response work. Can you tell me more about that?

We don’t do as much as we used to actually, although it has been a part of our work for many years. After the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake we wanted to see how we could help build the capacity of communities to respond to major disasters. In China, the state is very strong, but when a big disaster happens, the private sector needs to play a role as well.

The main component of our program was to help local communities adapt to responding to emergencies themselves. We worked with local partners for many years to adapt our programs to China’s unique situation, translating all the training materials and helping build a group of key trainers to train up teams in local communities. This is something that has had real tangible benefits.

How do you select a local partner?

Well first, even though we’re a foundation that distributes grants, we do always refer to them as partners because we see them as equals. We rely on local partners – they know best what the local issues are and they have solutions that they want to pilot. These are the types of partners we are interested in. There’s a lot of mutual learning that takes place; we constantly consult partners for ideas and solutions. We want to know what their priorities are. Their energy, compassion, commitment and dedication is really inspiring.

Sometimes maybe our partners might find us a little overbearing because there’s so much that we require from them — but I think this is necessary. Processes and procedures are vital for our organization’s credibility. It’s not about telling them what to do, it’s about taking the opportunity to help build their capacity.

How will the current policy environment impact your work?

Going forward, I think there are still plenty of opportunities for us. We manage to get support from a large number of donors and the current legal framework for NGOs provides us with a solid foundation in which to operate.  In every country where we work, there is always a variety of requirements and processes for us to follow locally. And we really take pride in our on-the-ground presence; we are not the type of organization that helicopters in a team to just get a couple of things done. So it’s very important for us to respect the local requirements wherever we work and operate in partnership with the local authority.

What are your hopes for the future?

Well, we’ll definitely continue working with local partners on our various projects. I can’t tell you what will be our priorities in 10 years or even five years because things change so fast. If there comes a day when we are no longer needed, then that’s okay. For now, we’ll keep working on our projects in ways that take into account local conditions.

Article photo: Asia Foundation

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