My Journey through the Charity Sector

Editor’s note: This article is the life story of a project officer from the Narada Foundation. It’s more than a simple recalling of his life, in fact it is a sort of dialogue which the officer conducts with himself, during which many realizations are made and unresolved problems found. As a foundation project officer who comes from a rural area and works in the city, Feng Yuan has always reflected with sincerity on himself, his values, and how to solve social problems. Towards the end of the article, he mentions a problem that “he tried to see clearly but couldn’t”. In this day and age, when charities are undergoing great changes, perhaps more of his colleagues should join him in attempting to solve it.

Introduction: It all started from here

In order to know ourselves better, starting from this year, my co-workers in the disaster-relief sector and I have tried writing about ourselves. I thought it would be easy, but not until I started did I find out how hard it is.

There is an old saying which goes: I am determined to study when I am fifteen, and I aim to be independent by the age of 30. Approaching 30, I thought I was on the right track. But when I started to scrutinize myself, I found my heart uneasy and restless.

Writing this passage is just the beginning of my self-examination. It’s also the beginning of a long journey.

One saying, one choice

“Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” —– Capital, by Carl Marx

For a man grown up in a small town, there is not much to talk about before high school. I had my innocent pre-school days, I studied like most of us, and maybe the only thing worth mentioning is how my town’s old center and my original “home”were lost because of the construction of a damn. That was the first time I realized that a peaceful life can always be forced to change by some uncontrollable powers.

My memories of high school are more vivid: I met many interesting classmates and teachers, among whom I should mention my history teacher. He was one of the few teachers who did not just follow the textbook. In his class, I learned a lot beyond what the textbooks said. What I remember most vividly are the quotations by Marx and the teacher’s own true experiences from 26 years ago. Ever since then, I have doubted the superiority of socialism and its beautiful dreams. At the same time, the fear of capital and being exploited is the lame reason I used for not participating in any kind of part time business job while in university. Instead, I devoted most of my time to student leagues.

From rural areas to the city, and then back to rural areas to reflect upon the cities

Though I call where I grew up a small town, in fact its closed nature makes it feel like the countryside. After the college entrance examination, I went to Jinan to study. That was a real city for me. The students’ league experience lead me back to the countryside and I began to seriously learn about the countryside, all of its characteristics and the reasons behind them.

Our league paid close attention to issues concerning agriculture, the countryside and farmers, and hoped to give the countryside all the help we could give. For this, we often went to the countryside in groups: to help teach the students, to conduct surveys, to help assist with NGO work, and to start our own “primary school”. After several trips, I felt really confused. Faced with big problems like the hollowness of the countryside and its severe lack of educational resources, we seemed to be helpless. Every teaching or survey experience reminded me of the promotional shows which shopping malls hold for the festivals—grand, short and lacking any long term effects. Going to the countryside and joining in these activities also made me wonder who we were really doing them for, the countryside or ourselves? Looking at who the beneficiaries were, it was clear that we gained a lot as students while giving very little to the rural areas. If we really wanted to boost rural areas’ development, what should we do and how? To seek for answers and change, I turned to reading material on the development of rural areas. Combining this with my own knowledge of these areas, I began to think that I should shift my gaze to the cities. At the time I had no idea what SWOT is, all I knew was simple logic—the start and standpoint of development and the hope for change in rural areas is the “people”, especially the young and middle-aged ones, most of whom are migrant workers in the cities. Of course in the case of university leagues this shift in the work emphasis is both affordable and efficient, while for me it was simply an extension of my work in the rural areas.

In early 2009, I attended an Internship program organized by Oxfam alongside ten friends from different universities. This allowed me to shift my attention from the rural areas to the cities in the real sense, and get familiar with topics related to the so-called peasant workers (personally, I prefer to just call them “labourers”) , and this experience totally destroyed all my illusions about socialism. During my three months in Shenzhen, I witnessed the sense of powerlessness and indignation of the workers, the avarice and untrustworthiness of capital and the false peaceful picture that everyone tries to present.

That March, I visited a hospital for the first time. I saw that on the first floor of the hospital there lay many workers suffering from industrial injuries. They were very young, many of them only 18 or 19. Some of them had only started working in factories for a few days. When I paid a second visit to the hospital, the number and identity of the injured workers remained unchanged while the workers themselves were different. There were two reasons for this: on the one hand, everyday there were industrial accidents and injured workers. On the other hand, some companies would not pay the medical fees and workers would be forced to leave the hospital. And this was only the situation in one hospital. We continued to carry out hospital research, popularization of legal knowledge, case consultations and follow-ups of typical cases. Although we really helped some workers, the increasing industrial injuries and the difficulties inherent in rights protection still made it hard for me to feel at peace.

This was the time when the red cotton trees were in full blossom. The kapok flowers with their bloody color were just like my emotions, and reflected the youth of the immigrant workers who worked there. In Zhong County, the place I went after the internship, I witnessed the lives of some of the migrant workers who migrated to the cities in the 1990s and had returned home. They couldn’t find an opportunity in the cities so they had to go back home for all kinds of reasons. However, what awaited them was not bouquets or a beautiful home life, but rather injuries and diseases of all kinds (industrial injuries, pneumoconiosis), and they could barely manage to make ends meet. This three-month period gave me the chance to listen to the stories of the first generation of migrant workers. I also witnessed in person the powerlessness of the injured workers who suffered from pneumoconiosis. After they came back home they had no way of complaining or being heard, and it was only death that awaited them.

30 years have now passed since the reform and opening-up started. No one talks about the “unchecked flow to the cities” anymore, and the identity card is not checked as strictly as it used to be. The exchange of population between urban and rural areas is increasingly big. The Labor Law, the Law of the PRC on Employment Contracts, and the Social Insurance Law have all gradually been released. It is however still a big challenge to ensure the implementation of the safeguarding laws which protect workers’ rights. Perhaps the truth is what the China’s Women Workers book describes: “the fuzziness of the identity between farmers and workers, and the disadvantageous positions the newly arising workers are in, is a strange phenomenon which appears while the nation makes use of its cheap labor force. ”

Faced with their powerlessness, I also felt powerless. In order to seek an answer, I joined a program team called “starting one’s own business”, in which we hoped to build an online platform to help the migrant workers communicate and give them a voice. As soon as we had the idea, we immediately built the website and started to provide news, useful information related to work in cities, and a platform for communicating about migrant workers’ culture and life. We thought that through the Internet we could help solve the problem of labor NGOs’ off-line services being too small in scale and influence. After the website was put into operation however, we found that it was way beyond what the workers could cope with. After more than 12 hours of manual work a day, the function of the Internet lies more in entertainment and leisure than in obtaining news or useful information. In any case they were not interested in our plans. Upon reflection they were doomed to fail, since we hurried to design the product before conducting a users’ survey.

Besides being taught a useful lesson, as a full time staff of the program team, I also conducted work like helping organizations to register and administration. My life was enriched and I also came to deeply understand the unease of grassroots organizations. At the same time, I found that the NGOs helping workers had little connection with NGOs of other kind.

To leave is to see clearly, but the whole picture is never clear

At the end of 2011,I chose to leave that team, and went to a foundation instead. Different platforms helped me to get to know more NGOs and the different ways they approached problems.

Speaking from a macroscopic perspective, during the past three years, I have seen a prosperous development of civil society, more support from the government, an increasing number of foundations and NGOs, and more and more public attention and donations. Research and debates about charities have been seen almost everywhere. But I have also seen the fakeness and fickleness behind this apparent flourishing—the homogeneity of organizations has increased, and organizations dealing with pluralism and minority (rights) find it hard to march forward. “Trans-disciplinary” activities have become the fashion in charity circles, but there is still no consensus on what “philanthropy” actually is. Public welfare (公益组织), social workers’ organizations (社工组织) and volunteer organizations and charities (慈善、义工类组织)have become three different types of civic “groups”, among which most of the conversation and cooperation tends to be superficial and don’t have substantial functions. Most of the charity groups and programs don’t consider the structural social problems and the foundations’ sponsors hope to see quick results. The pace of new words invented in the field even surpasses that at which people can understand them. In the end, people in charity circles have always been doing nothing but playing with each other, and the public haven’t had a chance to really participate.

From a micro perspective, during these three years I have been working with different institutions. I have met different people, programs and agencies. From what I have seen, individuals, programs, and institutions all need to improve themselves. In terms of individual development, as the Ginkgo Program slogan says, you should “have the world in mind and be down to earth”. In this spirit, we should understand society’s structural problems but address them from a small and practical angle. Institutions should have a sense of responsibility and vision. Besides talented individuals and programs, there is also a need for gradual goals and practices centered upon those goals(like product design, or identifying the problems which arise at any time and modifying your plans accordingly), before finally finding a suitable road.

Three years of observation and work in foundations have helped me get to know more about charities, but at the same time I am finding it gradually harder to see charities clearly. I have always believed that action will bring about change, but at present, looking at those organizations which aim to help minorities or marginal groups (those involved in rights-promotion or advocacy), my question is what exactly should they do? And how should they do it? If they can’t do or participate in anything, then what is philanthropy and why are we talking about it? At the same time, as both the economy and society undergo rapid development, charities have also entered their own “great leap forward”. As I myself am a member of the charity sector, I am also beginning to feel restless and I wish to see rapid changes. Finding out how to slow myself down and truly appreciate things while remaining down to earth will be the start of another journey.

In Brief

In a far-ranging reflection on China’s charity sector and its society as a whole, a young man looks back at the experiences which set him on course for his work in a Chinese philanthropic organization.
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