Navigating environmental advocacy and policy: an interview with Zhang Boju

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China Foundation Forum (CFF) recently conducted an interview with Zhang Boju, secretary general of Beijing Ginkgo Foundation, on his experience of advocating for better environmental protection in China.

CFF: Transitioning from a nature enthusiast to a public service professional actively engaged in policy research and advocacy — what prompted this pivotal shift in your career?

Zhang: The impetus often stems from a genuine concern for societal issues. In the realm of environmental advocacy, witnessing deforestation, the disconcerting hues of polluted waters, and the adverse health effects on individuals in contaminated environments acted as catalysts for my engagement in environmental philanthropy.

As I delved deeper into this domain, new challenges emerged, propelling sustained action. For instance, addressing a community plagued by water pollution involves fundraising for medical expenses, supporting compensation claims, and, through the iterative process of resolving individual cases, recognizing broader societal issues, such as the contamination of an entire river.

By adhering to a problem-solving approach, I inevitably confronted underlying structural problems and predicaments, progressively delving into the intricacies of public policy.

CFF: Your roles encompass both institutional and non-institutional spheres. How do you navigate the considerations behind such role selections?

Zhang: Roles often materialize organically or are actively pursued, contingent upon the significance they hold for an individual. In my case, the transition from leading a grassroots advocacy group to assuming the role of a charity leader poses a pertinent question: what meaning does this shift carry?

Working at the forefront of grassroots initiatives, I believe the significance of assuming a leadership position in an institution lies in representing and safeguarding public interests. NGOs, well-versed in numerous frontline cases and the intricacies of legal systems, possess a unique understanding of challenges in practice.

Consequently, when new policies or laws are proposed by governmental bodies or legislative entities, and their potential impact on the public interest is discerned, NGOs are strategically positioned to articulate on-the-ground situations, issues, and cases in a manner comprehensible to decision-makers, ensuring that changes in legal frameworks favor public interests.

If one aspires to influence policy within the system, roles such as consultants or members of expert groups within government, the judiciary, or legislative institutions would be more reasonable. Individuals with specific objectives, such as advocating for new legislation, may choose paths like academia, think tanks, journalism, law, or participation as delegates in the National People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, actively engaging in discussions and decision-making processes.

CFF: Over the past few decades, philanthropic organizations in China have played pivotal roles in shaping public awareness, culture, laws, and policies. However, recent observations suggest a diminished presence of charitable organizations in the public sphere. What are your insights on the evolving landscape of advocacy visibility?

Zhang: The question presupposes a reduction in advocacy space overall or a substantial decline in the influence of certain groups focusing on specific issues. It is crucial to distinguish whether the overall space for advocacy has contracted or if specific organizations dealing with particular topics have experienced a reduction in influence.

When discussing advocacy, a distinction is often drawn between public advocacy and policy advocacy. It is imperative to analyze the intersection and divergence between the two. Public advocacy involves shaping public awareness, influencing behavior and consumer choices, while concurrently fostering a stronger consensus among the public to encourage active participation in changes to public policies.

Structural challenges influencing the advocacy efforts of charitable groups revolve around the distribution of resources in the philanthropy sector, shaping organizational setups and modes of operation.

The current trend emphasizes aligning resources with granular projects that yield rapid, tangible results, such as corporate donations, crowdfunding on internet platforms, and government procurement of services.

However, policy advocacy and the necessary capacity-building efforts prove challenging to fragment into smaller components. The process is time-intensive, lacks high visibility, and individual advocacy actions do not guarantee success.

Donors, often sharing values with advocates, may include high-net-worth individuals, international organizations, or select local foundations characterized by strong values, patience, and a deep commitment to addressing significant issues.

Despite the shifting dynamics in the sector’s resource allocation, there is a shortage of capital. Financially, the sector operates on a hierarchical basis, with diminishing support for advocacy and a simultaneous influx of funds dedicated to deconstructing traditional advocacy models.

Organizations previously committed to effective advocacy find themselves at a crossroads — whether to willingly undergo transformation, be compelled to do so, or simply find transformation unfeasible. It is crucial to confront the reality of the situation.

Even though the industry’s resource allocation may seem challenging, does it necessarily indicate a contraction in advocacy space? The availability of room, talent, and strength for advocacy persists; it is merely the scarcity of resources that tempers the sector’s visibility.

Those supporting policy advocacy require patience, eschew short-term objectives, and seek systematic solutions that address issues at their core. This should be the standard for informed donors.

With the withdrawal of foreign funds, there is a need to encourage local funds built on trust, involving more local resources in the allocation paradigm and the restructuring of resource dynamics.

While resources may be limited, advocacy space, talent, and influence remain intact, requiring a nuanced understanding of the prevailing conditions. When committed to comprehensive problem-solving, policy advocacy emerges not merely as an unavoidable facet but as an expansive realm for impactful action.