Liu Hung To: Chinese NGOs going out have a long but meaningful way ahead

  • Home
  • >
  • Features
  • >
  • Liu Hung To: Chinese NGOs going out have a long but meaningful way ahead

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have long been prominent contributors to global poverty reduction, economic and social equality, humanitarian relief and resources redistribution, reaching out to places where other agents, and the government in particular, are absent. Historically, the first NGOs emerged to provide aid to people in need after wars and disasters. There has however been a trend for NGOs originating in one country or area to expand and work beyond their original borders as they develop, with the purpose of providing services to local people and communities that need aid in other countries. This trend began with NGOs from Western Europe and North America, but it has gradually expanded to organisations from less advanced countries. For the past four decades, China’s impressive economic and social development has prompted the emergence of a large number of local NGOs, and now some of them have also begun to run programmes in other countries and regions. In late August, CDB had the opportunity to invite the China Programme Director of Oxfam Hong Kong, Dr Liu Hung To, to share his insights on this topic.

As the China Programme Director and Chief Representative of the Beijing Representative Office of Oxfam Hong Kong, Liu Hung To sees that a number of Chinese NGOs are following the path of other international NGOs and offering their services overseas, just as Oxfam did in the past, and he believes that this action is of great importance. “Oxfam was started in Britain in the 1940s, and within a few decades, the organisation had created more than twenty affiliates all over the world, making great contributions to international development and humanitarian aid in collaboration with local governments and organisations. This is a development model for the majority of the NGOs worldwide. China has come to occupy the second place in the global economy and is actively engaged in many global issues, such as South-South cooperation and climate change. China’s voice is receiving more and more attention by different actors in global economics and politics. Chinese NGOs operating their programmes in other countries are a good reflection of China’s economic, political and cultural strengths and its position in international relations. This is an inevitable trend, and Chinese NGOs should continue following it.”

Dr Liu points out that Chinese NGOs moving beyond their national borders is a crucial step, in the sense that this action shows that China is more actively involved in the international society and reciprocating what the country received from international and foreign NGOs in the past. “As human beings, we understand that our social life, consisting of all kinds of relationships, is very important; because we cannot isolate ourselves and live entirely on our own. The same lesson applies to a country. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some big international development organisations came to China and offered essential aid for economic development and poverty reduction. Later on, many NGOs took the next step and opened offices in China, which equally made a great contribution to China’s urban and rural development. Now, with China’s new economic and political strengths, it is time to give back.”

There is a trend towards Chinese NGOs moving their services beyond the Chinese borders, but it is so far quite slow and small-scale. As Dr Liu reflects, “at present, the pace of Chinese NGOs moving beyond their borders does not entirely match the pace of China’s development and its global position. That is why part of Oxfam’s work nowadays is to support Chinese NGOs with a vision of conducting their aid and humanitarian programmes in other countries to reach their destination and goals.”

What Chinese NGOs have already started doing is to communicate with their counterparts in global forums and conferences with a focus on international development. This is one way to “go out”, but it has yet to be proven to be the best way. “Many Chinese NGOs are keen to participate in these platforms, and they have done so. However, more methods need to be explored by Chinese NGOs to effectively take advantage of these platforms and resources so as to allow voices and perspectives from China to be heard”, comments Dr Liu.

Another reason that this movement across the border has important meaning is that most of the Chinese NGOs stepping outside of their country will have to engage with local communities. This approach of inviting local communities to participate is different from the approach adopted by government-led investment programmes in China. The Chinese government has promoted a large number of investments in the world’s less developed countries, but one evident feature of these programmes is their lack of communication and engagement with local people and communities. The self-isolation of Chinese companies and workers in foreign countries has consequently caused misunderstandings between them and the locals. “Many local people think that the Chinese only come to their countries to make money, with few contributions to local communities’ development. But if Chinese NGOs are able to get close to local communities and build a good relationship with them, and their humanitarian and development-related work is locally grounded with a consideration for the local situation and needs, they will effectively help remove biases that the rest of the world holds on China and its citizens”, says Dr. Liu.

Liu Hung To has observed that Chinese NGOs working in other countries have focused mostly on the areas of healthcare, disaster relief and education, but only a tiny number of them have a local community focus. When it comes to issues such as climate change and gender inequality, on the other hand, Chinese NGOs tend to make their presence felt through global talks, forums and conferences. He reckons that a long way still lies ahead of Chinese NGOs, and it is critical for these organisations to proceed and learn simultaneously. Chinese NGOs need to share common characteristics and perspectives with NGOs worldwide, and therefore lessons and principles drawn from other NGOs’ practices and experiences are important to them, too.

In particular, Liu stresses four basic principles of international development practices to which he thinks Chinese NGOs should pay attention when they work in other countries. In addition to community-based poverty reduction and participation, there are another three principles: rights-based development, social and gender equality, and inclusive development and inequality reduction. Dr Liu elaborates: “Chinese NGOs have been making an effort to join international discussions on topics like climate change, and contributed Chinese voices to the debate. Recently there have been some NGOs from China working in Southeast Asia on the sustainable use of natural resources. In my observation, they have done well in talking to all the parties involved in the programmes, including local communities, and listening to people’s needs and requests. This action reflects the community-based principle of international development and has been welcome by the local government and beneficiaries. Yet in general, the number of Chinese NGOs who follow this principle is tiny.” In terms of the other important principles, Chinese NGOs are also in the early stages of learning and putting them into practice.

As a matter of fact, China has been investing and offering huge amounts of money and other types of aid to build basic infrastructure and help with poverty reduction in less developed countries. But these efforts have not all met with praise and welcome arms. Liu indicates that this phenomenon deserves our attention. Of course, this is not the consequence of a single factor. Rather, it is the result of many complicated factors working together, for instance, government policies, media reports or even opinions from experts. However, internal factors should not be neglected, either. One of the factors mentioned by Dr Liu is Chinese NGOs’ willingness to be involved in the international framework. “The current global development system has a framework with rules and principles agreed by the actors who participate. If Chinese NGOs want to take part in this system, they will need to act in a manner that is aligned with the framework. Although the existing framework has flaws, it provides development actors with a space to discuss, exchange ideas and negotiate. Without this framework, it is like a competition without rules. If development actors ignore these rules and principles completely, either discussions between them will not continue, or everybody speaks but they are all talking about different things, and it is impossible to reach any agreement and consensus.”

Development is a time-consuming process, and development work has to be context-based. When international NGOs first moved in to China in the early 1980s, they took time to learn the local situation and operated their programmes according to the local context and people’s needs in each place. Their work brought great progress to Chinese society. Nowadays, as Chinese economic power rises and the living standard of its citizens improves, the bulk of international NGOs’ work has shifted from China to other countries in more urgent need, and subsequently their work in China has significantly shrunk. Unfortunately, during the period when international NGOs operated in China in a massive scale, valuable lessons from their experiences were not sufficiently exchanged with their Chinese counterparts. Often many international NGOs and local Chinese NGOs worked separately, without much collaboration and communication.

Due to the lack of information sharing and exchange, local NGOs were not able to learn from the foreign pioneers. The reality is that, both in the past and present, Chinese NGOs need clear and effective guidance in order to successfully operate overseas. But first and foremost, Dr Liu points out, Chinese NGOs working overseas must be willing to approach local communities and people, examine the local situation and ask questions such as “what are the local demands?”, “have these demands been met by the local government and organisations?”, “if so, how? If not, why?”, “what can we, as foreign NGOs, learn from their achievements and mistakes?”, and “what are our advantages and setbacks as Chinese NGOs?” Local demands are the basis of any development work and the local context determines how the work should proceed. “Chinese NGOs cannot merely depend on their old ways in a foreign land, because the context might be completely different and their ways may trigger misunderstandings, hatred and eventually lead to failure. They have to learn the local ways of dealing with things. Only by recognising the local demands and setting up appropriate programmes within the local context to tackle these demands, can their work be approved by the local beneficiaries and guaranteed a certain success”, Dr. Liu reiterates.

There is no panacea to cure each particular type of development issue, hence, for emerging NGOs, there is a fine line between learning from their predecessors and entirely copying what they have done. While “learning” (international development’s basic principles and frameworks, and the good practices and faults of other NGOs) is an essential component in equipping Chinese NGOs to work overseas, Dr Liu explains that Chinese NGOs will also need to explore their own advantages and unique perspectives. For those NGOs that have domestic work experience within China, they can experiment with methods that worked well domestically in the new environment, but once again Liu emphasises the importance of context. “In a place where the local environment and ways of dealing with things are not the same with what they are used to, Chinese NGOs should take courage to learn but also try something new, being innovative in solving problems and communicate with different stakeholders.”

Nevertheless, Dr Liu notes that in many circumstances, Chinese NGOs can actually take part in advocating for actions that hold the local governments accountable, when those governments do not actively or properly respond to development problems. “In the past few decades, the Chinese government has taken a strong leadership in tackling issues such as poverty and educational inequality and got impressive achievements within a relatively short period of time. Chinese NGOs have also been operating under this model of strong leadership. This model is not without controversies, yet we cannot deny that it has shown its advantages in dealing with problems that are on a big scale and affect the whole nation. The government and NGOs have different roles to play in solving development problems, they should supplement each other’s job for the sake of the public’s benefit. When the government cannot reach certain areas of the society, NGOs need to fill these gaps, and vice versa. When the government is not fulfilling what it ought to fulfil, NGOs have the right and duty to hold the government accountable.”

Dr Liu believes that Chinese NGOs going out to work overseas has a significant meaning for the evolution of the field of international development, and in the meanwhile working overseas is a test for many Chinese NGOs. Those who stand the test will not only make a contribution to the global development field, but also benefit from these practices and explorations. “Apart from facing external challenges such as support from the public and raising funds, NGOs working overseas have to be clear about their missions and make mid to long-term strategic plans to fulfil their missions. Some NGOs pay excessive attention to fundraising, yet engaging in global development issues does not necessarily require huge amounts of money. Once an NGO decides to go beyond its borders to operate its programmes, the challenges mentioned above are things that the NGO needs to figure out and prepare itself for. After going through the entire process, the NGO will become more capable of understanding its mission, being objective about its problem-solving strategies and ultimately achieving its goals.”

“Chinese NGOs clearly have more advantages compared to the past, first of all because China’s national power has increased tremendously. A powerful nation is able to support its civil society with more resources, and with the rise of the nation’s economic and political status in the world, NGOs from China evidently have more confidence than before when they go overseas”, Dr Liu concludes. “Another obvious advantage that Chinese NGOs have nowadays is their rich human capital. With more and more Chinese students going abroad to study, and a large number of them choosing to study development-related subjects, Chinese NGOs should consider how they can attract these young talents who have both international experience and perspectives, providing them with big platforms and equipping them with essential skills. By facilitating these young individuals to realise their personal goals in the global development field, Chinese NGOs will surely grow, mature and be more ready to operate overseas and make their contribution to a better world of peace, equality and advancement.”

In Brief

Dr. Liu Hung To, Oxfam Hong Kong’s program director for Mainland China, talks to CDB about the challenges and opportunities confronting Chinese NGOs that want to spread their wings and make an impact outside of their country.
Table of Contents