New Frontiers In China’s Third Sector Development: Strategizing For Effective Advocacy

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Given the growing collaboration between the government and both international and Chinese NGOs in recent years, he sees more opportunities for advocacy networks to shape policy, particularly in the areas of environmental protection and social development (e.g. education, poverty alleviation and health). These are areas consistent with the government’s own development agenda which he argues is the most important consideration when strategizing for effective advocacy. Advocacy is also more likely to be effective if it is based on concrete experience, technical know-how and scientific study. Finally, Noakes recognizes that Chinese NGOs are often seen as lacking the capacity to serve as effective partners in advocacy networks, and recommends that international donors and NGOs do more to strengthen the skills and attitudes of Chinese NGOs to serve as effective local partners.

Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the sheer number of NGOs in China, as well as important renovations to the institutional space they have come to occupy. The privatization of state assets begun during the 1990s left behind a vacuum for many of the services previously provided by government agencies that needed to be filled. Meanwhile, the break-neck rate of growth experienced by the Chinese economy, especially in the eastern coastal region and Pearl River delta, has created a niche for non-profits having technical expertise in certain areas to assist the government in addressing key development challenges.

These trends have led not only to more vigorous exchange between Chinese organizations and their international partners, but the enhanced engagement of both with Chinese authorities. Third sector expansion is furnishing new opportunities for NGO participation in the policy process through more direct consultation with the state, opening the door for issue advocacy networks, comprised mostly of international NGOs (INGOs) and a few of their domestic counterparts, to play a more active role in public decision-making.

But not all advocacy campaigns are influential. On the one hand, the central government is highly responsive to the needs of the Chinese people, and mindful—indeed, even welcoming—of input from external sources. On the other hand, it has remained selective in the policy advice it adopts. What then determines whether NGO networks in China become effective as advocates? Why are some apparently more successful than others? What, in other words, explains the variable policy influence of groups in China’s emergent advocacy community, and what, if anything, can groups in that community do to help ensure their success?

China’s Burgeoning Third Sector and Its International Supporters

The rise of China’s third sector owes more than a little to the support of foreign actors. Though they often work together on matters of common concern, a distinction needs to be made between the nearly 6000 INGOs working in China (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Greenpeace) and the large number of domestic groups built with the help of foreign donors that include INGOs and grant-making agencies (like the Ford Foundation or Carter Centre), as well as several national governments.[1]

Due to the lack of uniform reporting standards and differing goals of aid providers, measures of international assistance to China’s third sector are invariably crude. However, some general trends can be identified in who gives what, and for what purpose.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the main clearinghouse for information on foreign aid expenditures, the Japanese led the way in terms of gross bilateral assistance to China in 2007, supplying nearly three times as much as any one else at roughly 1.25 billion USD. Most of this money has been spent on economic restructuring, and to some extent, reform of the Chinese legal system for compliance with international standards. This has included, among other things, the provision of formal legal training for judges in order to facilitate smoother investment by Japanese companies. Germany, France, the UK, and Spain round out the top five donors for 2007, providing about 450, 200, 140 and 81 million USD respectively.[2]

The OECD also details specific provisions for “governance and civil society aid,” which are typically funds aimed at NGO capacity building and promoting cooperation with government through the creation of consultative fora and numerous village-level deliberative democracy experiments. The United States is the leading benefactor in this regard, giving just short of 12 million USD in 2005. Significant contributions have also come from the European Commission and Canada, (who gave an estimated 10.5 million apiece in 2005) and Australia (who gave 4.9 million) that same year.[3] However, not all civil society aid comes in the form of a direct cash grant to Chinese NGOs. For example, the Canadian government makes funds available for projects to be implemented jointly by Canadian or international experts and parallel organizations on the ground in China. Such arrangements tend to shift the focus of donor policy away from “foreign aid” in the conventional sense toward technical cooperation that helps build the capabilities of Chinese organizations and affords the Chinese government greater ability to direct assistance where it sees fit.

A good deal of external support for civil society also comes from multilateral agencies. In addition to providing direct financial assistance for specific project initiatives, the World Bank has been an active partner in facilitating internal capacity development and networking among Chinese NGOs since 1995. In 2000, it financed start-up of the China NPO Network, the first organization of its kind, funding several workshops, newsletters and training activities for domestic groups. It has since sponsored a number of international, national, and provincial-level colloquia in order for domestic and international partners to share experiences and information on best-practices.[4]

Further, the OECD indicates that the education and health sectors comprise the bulk of all international spending in China, with much assistance also going towards multisectoral projects that include significant spending on environmental and social development programs. Taken together, these areas stand out as particularly vibrant and deserve special mention as having been instrumental in offsetting some of the externalities associated with China’s modernization. As areas of closest cooperation with government, they present the some of the strongest possibilities for NGO networks to engage in issue advocacy.

NGOs in China’s environmental sector have performed important consciousness-raising and agenda-setting functions. Groups like Roots and Shoots, (a Chinese NGO operating under the umbrella of the Jane Goodall Institute) have focused attention on the need for environmental citizenship training, working in the classroom with Chinese students to promote environmental stewardship among future generations. Due to the resulting increase in attention to ecological concerns, other organizations have succeeded in partnering with the Chinese government to support the interrelated causes of biodiversity and ecosystem health. The World Wildlife Fund is among the most active and visible in this area. Wang Limin, Deputy Conservation Director at the organization’s Shanghai office, attributes the success of its biodiversity campaigns primarily to the input of scientists and technical experts who were simultaneously able to assist local and provincial authorities in providing public goods such as safe, clean drinking water.

A second major area of focus has targeted economic and social development. These are usually poverty alleviation and educational programs, but many also focus on providing basic infrastructure such as improvements to plumbing, roads, schools, and hospitals. Many also seek to open new markets by providing assistance to struggling farmers or entrepreneurs in relatively underdeveloped rural areas. The Chinese government has been an active partner in these efforts, particularly in the new market initiatives in resource-rich parts of western China where local people may lack the training necessary to perform the kinds of jobs required if those local economies are to take off.

Finally, in partnership with foreign donors and grassroots groups, the Chinese government has made major strides toward eradicating treatable, preventable illnesses. While this effort has generally not been acknowledged outside China to the extent warranted, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, diphtheria, and hepatitis have all been on the decline thanks to cooperation between INGOs and the authorities, as vaccines and clinical care have become more widely available outside large cities. There have also been major improvements in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, as both foreign and domestic NGOs have pushed for sexual education and the provision of supplies such as clean needles and safer blood transfusions in affected regions.

Navigating the Institutional and Organizational Terrain

Foreign assistance has helped advocacy in some respects and hindered it in others. Like third sector growth itself, advocacy around various issues is led overwhelmingly by INGOs, while domestic NGOs primarily restrict their activities to service provision. This is due to the fact that, despite the good intentions and best efforts of donors, the internal capacities of Chinese organizations have lagged well behind those of their international confreres. On occasion, situations have arisen where Chinese organizations in dire need of internal capacity development have benefitted less directly from aid programs than relatively experienced and professionalized INGOs. And funding levels out of sync with the number of Chinese NGOs who can execute aid strategies or competently liaise with government officials compound the challenges of effective advocacy.

Some observers have pointed out that many domestic NGOs in China face low levels of transparency and accountability, and consequently are not always assets as part of a larger issue network. Anecdotal reports from the field also suggest a considerable amount of infighting among Chinese NGOs who must learn to work towards common goals in a more cooperative and civil fashion.

At least in part, this conflict is created by foreign donors themselves. Funding for a given project normally goes to Chinese partners who are articulate, western-trained, and English-speaking because donors find them easier to work with.

But the number of reliable and committed Chinese partner organizations has not progressed at the same rate as foreign funding. Those that have reached a functional level of professionalization are thought to be a tiny fraction of the total NGO population—perhaps just a few thousand groups. As a result, aid often flows to the same recipients over and over again, causing some Chinese partners to over-commit themselves to multiple international stakeholders, and projects to suffer as a result. Some international practitioners also report a tendency for some grassroots NGOs to exaggerate their internal capacities, due largely to stiff competition in grant-making processes.

Additionally, with international funding on the increase, the temptation for domestic recipients to take advantage may be very strong. In a large proportion of new NGOs, foreign support can make up some or all of their operating budgets, effectively turning non-profit work into a for-profit enterprise. There is also substantial risk that the scale of foreign support could outstrip the absorptive capacities of domestic organizations leading them to become donor-dependent instead of more self-sufficient. However, few other viable funding sources are available to most Chinese NGOs at the moment.

Beyond issues of organizational capacity, there are several other factors determining whether NGO networks become successful policy advocates. One major possibility centers on the characteristics of the external environment in which these groups operate. The configuration of Chinese institutions, relationships between the Ministry of Civil Affairs and local Civil Affairs bureaus, the availability of resources in other government offices concerned, or in outside stakeholder organizations can all affect the outcomes of advocacy campaigns.

Moreover, while the growth of NGOs over the last decade offers compelling evidence that China’s reforms are providing new actors room to cooperate with government, these changes are not yet complete, and NGO networks must contend with the uncertainty of a system that is not optimally equipped to handle them.

Opportunities for advocacy are limited by the fact that the concept of NGOs has yet to gain wholesale acceptance in China. Nor are the functions of NGOs generally well-understood by the Chinese public. As recalled in a 2008 report by the Swedish International Development Agency, the term non-government (feizhengfu zuzhi) has sometimes been perceived as anti-government in the Chinese context, a conviction that has yet to be entirely shaken.[5] Coupled with a historic and not completely unfounded suspicion of foreign intentions, this makes the going rough for many would-be advocacy groups, whether they are INGO-led networks, or simply domestic groups assisted through international funding schemes.

While the loosening of official requirements for domestic NGOs has led to the registration of some new organizations without the required sponsor in some cases, the corresponding lack of an enabling legal framework for dealing with INGOs sometimes creates difficulties for foreign groups seeking access to Chinese institutions and partners. Where access is granted, it is often determined by a pre-established level of trust, built on long-standing personal connections, between representatives of the INGO and well-placed officials in the relevant government agency. This works to the detriment of foreign groups without any prior connections to the government, and hammers home the importance of cultivating solid Chinese contacts before launching their programs.

Making Advocacy Work

Each of these factors is certainly relevant, but the weakness of institutional, organizational, or “supply-side” conditions for effective advocacy suggests that success in this endeavor has far more to do with the “demand” for certain policy prescriptions at certain times than it does with the internal capacity of networks themselves, or the resources available to them. Professionalization and financial solvency rarely hurt, of course, but do not provide any guarantee that NGO networks will gain the state’s ear. Rather, policy input from outside sources is much more likely to be accepted when it directly speaks to the government’s established development agenda by addressing the twin themes of maintaining social stability and economic growth. (Occasionally, this demand also comes in response to unforeseen or unanticipated events like natural disasters, as illustrated by NGO involvement in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake recovery effort).

Put another way, NGO networks may be more influential where overlap with state goals leads to mutually beneficial outcomes. This is precisely why the areas of environmentalism, social development, and public health have seen the strongest level of state-NGO cooperation.

One important caveat is that effective advocacy is much more likely if it is based on concrete experience, technical know-how and scientific study. This tends to make any advice given seem more objective and impartial. Advocacy that comes packaged in ideologically-motivated rhetoric is almost certain to be rejected, a fact that creates problems for some groups with explicit U.S. government backing which can sometimes be more a liability than an asset.

But even the most unbiased expertise is ultimately unimportant if there is simply no demand within government for a given set of recommendations. From a practical standpoint, this implies that the most important thing activists can do to become successful is tailor their goals to government priorities, as opposed to telling the government what its priorities should be. This applies as much or even more to foreign groups as it does to domestic ones. Besides forging deeper Chinese connections, it is the most pivotal thing they can do ensure the government considers their advice.

That is not to say, of course, that a few further systematic modifications would not allow advocacy networks to serve the practice of governance in China the best it can. Greater attention should be paid to cultivating the skills and attitudes needed for fledgling Chinese NGOs to serve as viable local partners, and foreign assistance programs should be tailored to ensure grassroots groups reap direct benefits in the form of coaching and training. Notable strides have already been made in this regard by Zhuang Ailing, who runs the NPO Development Centre in Shanghai. Since 2004, her organization has offered professional development training to non-profits, focusing on capacity-building, accountability, and collaboration among these organizations.

Donors should also do more to prevent aid projects from being double-funded, or activities from being duplicated, two problems that have gone unaddressed for far too long. One possible fix would involve the establishment of a project database that is open and accessible to all stakeholders, in order to better track flows of financial support. Building China’s philanthropic sector would also assist in creating a home-grown base for NGO financing in the long term. In particular, the enactment of charity legislation would help create a more sustainable institutional framework for the third sector.

Though the number of organizations involved remains relatively small, refining the techniques of advocacy promises a great deal for tackling the practical challenges of governance in a climate of rapid reform, and presents a more collaborative approach to China’s development agenda. For government, advocacy offers access to useful knowledge and expert advice that allows it to govern with greater efficiency and responsiveness. For foreign and domestic NGOs who have the necessary expertise in priority areas, it holds the potential for more meaningful participation in public management, and perhaps an opportunity to shape policy discussions or even their outcomes.

[1] Though not all domestic NGOs benefit directly from foreign funding, their total number likely exceeds 300 000 (the Ministry of Civil Affairs reported 280 000 registered as of 2005), while the number of unregistered groups in China may number as many as 1.2 million. See the European Commission’s “Evaluation of EC Cooperation and Partnership with China, Country Level Evaluation,” (2007), p. 90.

[2] These figures are based on 2006-07 data, the most recent available. See OECD aid-at-a-glance chart for China, 2008, retrieved from (August 9, 2009).

[3] These numbers reflect calculations by the author based on 2005 OECD spending estimates and program information from the donors. However, the myriad purposes for which governance and civil society aid is used and the attribution of third sector growth specifically to these funding schemes, (as opposed to other aid programs channelled through non-profits in general), makes the task of measuring their impact especially difficult.

[4] “The World Bank and NGOs in China” (2006) retrieved from,,contentMDK:20600359~menuPK:1460599~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:318950,00.html (August 8, 2009).

[5] “Emerging Civil Society in China: An Overall Assessment of Conditions and Possibilities Available to Civil Society and its Organizations to Act in China,” retrieved from, April 4, 2009.

In Brief

Noakes’ report provides some specific recommendations for international funders and NGOs interested in strengthening issue advocacy networks that would involve Chinese NGOs in playing a larger role in shaping policy
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