Mapping the Development of NGOs in Ethnic Minority Areas

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Introduction: In this article, Lu Xiaohong analyzes the obstacles NGOs working in ethnic minority areas have to overcome in order to operate and develop.

Economically weak and culturally-developing ethnic minority areas have long been important targets for the work of international NGOs and increasingly mature Chinese grassroots organizations. NGOs have no doubt played a big role in improving the structure of local governments and in achieving basic and equal public welfare. In order to map out the relationship between NGOs and development in ethnic minority areas, and to summarize experiences gained from “society building” and sustainable development efforts, the Ethnic Minority Study Center of China and the Management School of Minzu University of China held the Social Organizations and Ethnic Minority Development Seminar on December 15th 2012. Many NGOs operating in ethnic minority areas were invited for discussion with scholars in related fields. The theories and conclusions of independent researchers were combined with the on-site experience of NGO workers from remote border areas, and the result was a clear image of the work that NGOs have conducted in ethnic minority areas for more than twenty years.

Early development and discoveries

Although ethnic minority areas are important targets for NGOs, the development of local NGOs has been slow compared to other areas. Li Lüjiang, a representative of Angel House, an NGO based in Nanning, Guangxi, explains that there are currently no more than thirty grassroots NGOs operating in Guangxi. Only two have been working for more than ten years, Angel House being one of them. When it was founded in 2002, Angel House was the only children’s cerebral palsy treatment NGO in Guangxi, and the third one nationwide. When Angel House formed the National Cerebral Palsy Treatment Grassroots Organizations Alliance Network (全国脑瘫康复民间机构网络联盟) in June 2008, it counted only four organizations, today it has thirty-eight members. Over the last ten years, the number of organizations in this field has increased rapidly nationwide, but in Guangxi, the place that gave birth to Angel House, there is still only one. Comparing this to other places in China, in Xi’an’s Beilin district alone there are sixteen such organizations, and in Futian district, Shenzhen, every neighborhood has three to five of them. One single city hosts more organizations of this type than all of Guangxi’s social organizations combined.

Social organizations in ethnic minority areas often lack expertise, making it difficult for them to have an impact. Li thinks that there are two main reasons for this. The first is that Guangxi is located in China’s relatively under-developed south. People in these areas are poor due to an underdeveloped economy, making it difficult for NGOs to get donations. The China-ASEAN Expo will, from now on, be held in Nanning, Guangxi. However, even from an optimistic perspective, it will take ten years or more for the economic development zones in the Gulf of Tonkin region to produce enough revenue for social organizations to begin seeing government support.The second reason is that the government’s law and policymaking systems do not yet support social organizations. In theory, there are many policies that Guangxi could benefit from, such as the regional autonomy of ethnic minorities, or from various strategies that aim to develop the west of China. These policies, however, are limited to enhancing economic growth, and do not involve the development of social organizations.

Li also thinks that officials in ethnic minority areas like Guangxi possess far less knowledge and understanding of social organizations than their counterparts in northern provinces or in the more developed eastern coastal regions. In March 2012, due to lack of space, Angel House had to move from Nanning’s Jiangnan district to Xixiangtang district. A social organization is required to re-register with Civil Affairs when it moves to a new location. However when Angel House went to the Xixiangtang civil affairs bureau to register, the bureau staff simply didn’t know how to do it because since the bureau’s establishment, no social organizations had ever registered, and the staff simply didn’t know the procedure. They asked if Angel House was an elderly care home, and even after a long explanation they still didn’t quite understand the purpose of the organization. In the end, Angel House had no choice but to register as an elderly care home. In order to run an elderly care home, a minimum of fifty beds is required, but an organization like Angel House, which sends its staff to work inside community residential areas, doesn’t have that many beds. Finally, Li suggested that they should include the beds in the homes of the children they help, thus just managing to reach the required number. Throughout the process they had to explain themselves over and over again to the authorities, and a seemingly simple procedure ended up taking months to finish.

The “Village School Volunteers,” an organization consisting mainly of government employees, the “White Sky Swans,” made up of members of China’s civil aviation, and the “Village School,” run by members of the media, are new and powerful voices for public welfare in Xinjiang. Xinjiang resident Ya Likun has two different occupations: one working for the customs department of Urumqi, the other as the founder of the Village School Volunteers. They have been focusing on village education for five years now, and their team already has over 200 members from various walks of life, including civil servants, scholars, media workers, business executives, university students and peasants. As for the Village School Volunteers status, Ya Likun says frankly that a title is necessary in order to operate smoothly. After negotiations with the Xinjiang Communist Youth League Committee, they managed to obtain the required documents to link themselves to the Youth League Committee. The Village School Volunteers, the White Swans and the Village School are all members of the Xinjiang Volunteer Association. With these connections they were able to circumvent the problems of registering with the Civil Affairs Bureau. “We’re still more of a volunteer service team, perhaps still a bit short of being an actual NGO,” says Ya Likun modestly.

Luo Shihong, Guizhou native and founder of the Guizhou Institute of Highland Development, is now a consultant at the Guizhou Local Culture Society (贵州乡土文化社) and other local NGOs. When discussing NGOs and development in ethnic minority areas he emphasizes one particular problem he has noticed from his many years of observing NGOs in these areas: the difficult of mainstreaming issues about ethnic minority areas so that they can be discussed openly and solutions seeked. Luo has noticed that many NGOs do not dare to bring up many social issues that are taboo for the government, such as disputes regarding land, mountain forests and the construction of water reservoirs. “It’s a real shame that we haven’t found an effective space for discussion! These are issues that will have long-term effects on ethnic minority areas!” says Luo, calling for more scholars and the government to pay more attention to these problems.

The new trend after 2008: Private initiatives and cultural awakening

When the financial crisis erupted in Europe and in the US in 2008, foreign funding started to dry up. The Chinese economy, however, kept booming, and the whole world exclaimed, “China is on the rise!” Some foreign foundations started pulling out of China, leaving those local NGOs that had relied on foreign funding to fend for themselves and find new channels for fundraising. At the same time, the Chinese economy kept growing “the state moved forward as the people withdrew” ((Editor’s Note: 国进民退 guojin mintui. In this context, the saying means that the role played by the State in the economy increased while private initiatives receded)) and the real estate market boomed. At some point in this process, the Chinese government became “the rich master”. 2008 became a watershed year for Chinese NGOs.

Luo Shihong’s observation is that before 2008, when a foundation or NGO brought money into the country, on the surface the government questioned their background and intentions, but generally speaking welcomed the money to China. After 2008, however, the government just didn’t value the extra money anymore, and slowly developed ideas that started to contend with the ideas brought here by foundations along with their funds.

After 2008, real local thoughts and ideas began to emerge, and many of the new discussions were initiated by locals. One example is a new tendency in how schools are run within ethnic minority communities in Guizhou. When locals saw the problems their community faced, they started to put their resources together to run their own bilingual schools. This happened solely on the residents’ own initiative, without the involvement of outside NGOs. Many villages in Guizhou are taking such initiatives today. Another example is that, following the rise of internet-based fundraising, ethnic minority communities have started running their own poverty relief projects and activities, such as providing necessities to get through the winter or helping children to get education. This used to be done by outside NGOs, but now many young people who have graduated from middle or high school have started using the internet and other media to do this work. Another phenomenon is the appearance of privately-created cultural documentation in the forms of music and video. Most ethnic minority areas have markets and fairs, and at these lively village markets you will notice that much of the folk music and dance recorded in ethnic minority languages are made by determined, young people of local ethnicity. Furthermore they sell very well, enough to be self-sufficient, without the need for government or NGO funding. Viewed from the standpoint of NGOs, these are all examples of successful cultural businesses which contribute to the preservation, promotion and development of local culture in these villages. From another point of view this might seem like pure business, but it is an important cultural awakening among ethnic minorities, and these efforts to preserve their own culture are praiseworthy.

In the public interest sphere, one can also see a gradual increase in the number of local residents, and young people from local minorities are starting to notice and join organizations. According to Luo, in 1990 public interest workers had almost exclusively governmental background. After 2000, things changed and organizations started consisting mainly of scholars from within the system, and only afterwards did a number of genuinely grassroots organizations start to appear, sometimes including the above-mentioned scholars. Yu Xiaogang of Yunnan Green Watershed started out as a scholar, and later became the founder and leader of a grassroots organization, promoting development of communities from within. At that time however, most grassroots organizations would mainly work on the topics promoted by foundations or within the boundaries of government policy, a difficult task as it was not really clear what those boundaries were. The organization that Luo Shihong founded, the Guizhou Institute of Highland Development, was shut down in 2008 because the organization was promoting online learning exchange between different ethnic minority areas, a topic that the government wasn’t really willing to touch at that time. This experience tells us that if NGOs develop their programs solely from a rights perspective they might run into obstacles.

After 2008, a few co-workers from the days of the Guizhou Institute of Highland Development created a new organization, the Guizhou Local Culture Society (贵州乡土文化社), this time with culture promotion and preservation as a starting point. Since promotion of ethnic minority cultures is an important tool in the government’s efforts to enhance development in Guizhou, they thought the environment surrounding the cultural society should be a little better. There might, of course, be different opinions on how to define culture and in what ways it should be preserved and promoted, but by feeling their way they discovered where the boundaries were drawn, and found a place where they could develop their NGO within these boundaries while still distinguishing themselves as much as possible.

Another new trend in ethnic minority areas today is that young people from ethnic minorities are getting a stronger sense of ethnic identity. A university student of Miao ethnicity in Guizhou organized a very interesting project. The Miao ethnic group, being a nomadic people moving from place to place, have used songs and nursery rhymes passed down from generation to generation to record their travels. This young student organized young Miao people in his community and, guided by Miao folk songs, traced the travel routes of their ancestors, rallying a few more young people from every village they reached, to find out where their ancestors came from and where they went. About 200 people have answered the call and joined this endeavor. Although practically without financial support, probably only receiving 2000-3000 yuan, this search for the ancestral history of the Miao people has proved a very successful project, strengthening their sense of ethnic identity.


Through years of work and experience, NGOs in ethnic minority areas today have grown stronger, more independent and more culturally aware. However, in the face of the great challenges at hand, they remain fragile. Poverty in China is getting more and more concentrated in ethnic minority areas and today ethnic minorities represent the main part of impoverished people in China. Whether it is the drug problem that has been plaguing Liangshan for years, HIV/AIDS, or the recent “qiegao” ((This refers to a Dec. 3, 2012, incident in Yueyang, Hunan, in which a fight broke out between a Uyghur nut cake (切糕) vendor and a customer. Two people suffered light injuries, but the vendor received 160,000 yuan in compensation for the destroyed cake. This incident was seen by many Han Chinese as an example of reverse discrimination favoring China’s ethnic minorities.)) incident, these are all reflections of economic, social, and cultural development problems in ethnic minority areas. The rise of local NGOs in these areas is undoubtedly a reaction to these problems, and one of the most effective forces working to resolve them.

In Brief

In this article, the author analyzes the obstacles NGOs working in ethnic minority areas have to overcome in order to operate and develop.
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