Panel Discussion: how can International NGOs Help Chinese ones to “Go Out”?

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Editor’s Note

This is a translation of a panel discussion which took place on the first day of CDB’s forum for overseas NGOs, held in Beijing on November 6-7, 2018. The topic of the discussion was how international NGOs can assist Chinese NGOs in “going out”, or working in other countries. The panel was presided over by Wu Peng, the director of the department of international development of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. The other participants were Yang Hongping, secretary-general assistant of the China Association for NGO Cooperation, Qian Xiaofeng, director of Strategic Development at Save the Children, Fang Hui, Program Officer at the Asia Foundation and Wang Yalin from UNDP. 



The panelists from left to right: Wu Peng, Yang Hongping, Fang Hui, Wang Yalin and Qian Xiaofeng


Wu Peng: Out of the panelists on stage, Yang Hongping and myself are from domestic institutions, and the other three work for international organizations. How to help domestic institutions “go out” is a topic that I am very concerned about. First of all, please introduce yourselves and what your organizations have done to help local NGOs go overseas.


Yang Hongping: Hello everyone! My name is Yang Hongping and I am from the Project Management Department of the China Association for NGO Cooperation. Today I’ve prepared to talk about the internationalization of Chinese civil organizations and share with you the findings of some research on NGOs going out that we conducted with the support of some international organizations including the Asia Foundation and UNDP. Of course, if there are topics we didn’t cover, feel free to raise your hand to pose questions or comments.


Fang Hui: Hello everyone! I am Fang Hui from the Asia Foundation. I think today’s topic, “how international NGOs can help Chinese NGOs”, would be better expressed as how overseas NGOs can work together with Chinese NGOs, exploring the path of “going out” together.

The Asia Foundation came to China in the 1970s with the aim of building a peaceful, just, prosperous and developing Asia. In the early days of entering China, the focus of the Asia Foundation’s work was on solving sustainable development problems such as those connected with the economy, livelihoods and the environment.

The Asia Foundation has its root in Asia, and it works closely with local governments, think tanks, and communities in every country. Therefore, we have an advantage at least when it comes to helping Chinese NGOs enter other Asian countries.

In the past few years, our work has focused mainly on four areas:

Firstly, supporting policy research and advising policy-makers regarding non-governmental organizations’ participation in international affairs.

Secondly, supporting the upgrading of the skills of Chinese social organizations, especially at the level of participating in international aid, responding to relief work, and improving some of the mechanisms and collaboration capabilities in participating in international disaster response.

Thirdly, organizing seminars to promote the effective participation of Asian social organizations in international development cooperation.

Fourthly, developing corresponding tools to support Chinese organizations to “go out”. In the past few years, we have cooperated with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, the China Association for NGO Cooperation, the UNDP, and the Ford Foundation to develop manuals such as “Chinese NGOs Going Out Operations Guide” and “Chinese NGOs Going Out Self-Regulatory Codes”.

So as you can see, the Asia Foundation hopes to help Chinese NGOs go out at different levels.


Wang Yalin: Thank you! First of all, I want to clarify two points. The first is about the topic of discussion. As Fang Hui mentioned, this is an interactive process in which everyone learns and communicates with each other.

The second is that UNDP isn’t an international NGO, but an intergovernmental organization. It is a development research institution under the leadership of the United Nations. Originally my job was to deal with companies, mainly to help Chinese companies better fulfil their social responsibility and sustainable development concepts overseas. However, in the process of “going out”, I realized that Chinese companies and NGOs are both necessary. Therefore, my team focuses particularly on cooperation platforms between Chinese social organizations and international organizations in China on the issue of “going out”.

UNDP entered China in 1979, and its focus has been constantly changing following the focus of China’s development. In the past we paid more attention to the path of China’s internal development, for instance in poverty alleviation, the environment, and disaster prevention and management. After 2010 however, the Ministry of Commerce of China and UNDP signed the “Memorandum of Understanding on Supporting South-South Cooperation”. The main purpose is to pass on the development experience accumulated over many years since China’s reform and opening up to other developing countries. UNDP serves as a nexus in this process.

When we do projects, we usually have macro, middle and micro levels. Since 2015, the macro-level framework has mainly been the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Also, in accordance to the needs of China’s development, we focus on which parties can play a greater role from the mid-level perspective. For example, we signed a memorandum of understanding on the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the National Development and Reform Commission. Although it was signed with the government, it is enterprises who play the most important role within it. We all agree that if companies invest overseas, if they can focus on sustainable development they will bring development benefits to the host countries along the “Belt and Road”.


Why do we work with NGOs in this process?


We started talking to companies in 2013 and found that operating and doing business overseas is very different from doing it in China, especially in countries and regions where the culture of civil society organizations, social organizations, and NGO is better developed. If Chinese NGOs can serve as a medium or bridge to interact with us and help us better understand some local conditions, wouldn’t that improve the result of promoting sustainable development?

Therefore, in 2016, we jointly launched a “research on the ability of Chinese social organizations to go out” with the China Association for NGO Cooperation. We established a capacity building platform for Chinese social organizations to go out, linking up supply with demand. At the same time, we hope to connect Chinese NGOs with international ones through this platform.


Wu Peng: Well said. On the macro level, the outside world needs Chinese NGOs to go out. However, as we see in research findings, the ability of Chinese NGOs to go out is lacking. Therefore, doing policy advocacy, setting up dialogues, and connecting resources on this capacity building platform are all very important things – thank you, UNDP. Now we give the floor to Qian Qifeng from Save the Children.


Qian Xiaofeng: Some of you have mentioned the issue of supply and some. I would mainly like to share three issues:

Sharing China’s success in development since the reform and opening up with developing countries is an important reason for NGOs to go out and the reason why the government is promoting this.

Everyone’s horizons have become broader and broader. When the earthquake struck Nepal, many of us here today perhaps had been there, so we couldn’t help but care about the situation and hope to take some action.

In recent years, we have also seen an increase in requests from colleagues in other national offices. For example, in Africa, there is a growing number of Chinese companies making investments, and aid projects coming from China, but they don’t know how to establish contact with them. We are thinking about how to respond to this type of request.

Save the Children’s offices in Africa and Southeast Asia have more than a decade of experience. For Chinese NGOs with children-related projects, these offices can serve as partners after going out.

In addition to these offices, we also have offices in New York, Geneva, and Brussels dedicated for advocacy. This is our unique advantage which gives us support.

So far when talking about NGOs “going out” we have been talking mostly about projects. However, I’d like to point out that we don’t have to limit ourselves to this. For example, participating in an international advocacy platform can also be a way to go out. Today China is a signatory to the SDGs and plays a very important role among the G20 member countries. Similar to regional international networks, these advocacy mechanisms are relatively complete, and open to NGO participation. We’d like to share these experiences with others.

In addition, Chinese NGOs’ “going out” should match with the resources and capabilities they possess. Only when you have the right skills can you really go out. Capacity building has to be in every respect and cannot be accomplished overnight. Some patience is needed.


Yang Hongping: There are three key aspects for NGOs when they are “going out”:

The first is capacity building. For instance, internal management, international project management experience, development strategy, etc.;

The second is resource acquisition. Mainly in terms of human resources;

The third is the establishment of a cooperative network.


Q&A session


Q: The first step in“going out” is for funds to go out. What nature does this kind of overseas investment have under the current legal framework?

Wu Peng: A donation. There are two ways for China’s foreign exchange to go out: one is investment; the other is current accounts. But there is no donation under current accounts. The SAFE issued a document stipulating that donations are categorized as general trade. However, if you go to a bank for remittances, the bank would require you to pay taxes as you’re “trading”, so then you need to go to the tax bureau to record that this is a “donation”. This is where the difficulty lies. However, there is a new change in the regulations: less than $50,000 can be remitted directly, with no filing required; it the sum is more than $50,000, a filing is required.


Q: What kind of image and form do Chinese NGOs go out with?

Wang Yalin: First of all, “going out” requires professional operations. When we set up our platform, we invited many international organizations to specifically address issues in international development such as children’s rights, poverty alleviation and development, and climate change. Secondly, domestic projects cannot simply be copied abroad. Ex ante research and feasibility investigations need to be carried out in their own right.

Fang Hui: I’d like to add that the government has corresponding policies and resources, especially under the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Although there are many ways to “go out”, NGOs have to know themselves before doing so. This means that an NGO needs to know what “going out” means from the point of view of the organization’s objectives and future strategic positioning, and whether they are prepared on the operational level.

Wu Peng: I’d like to say something about the current situation of “going out”. If I use the China Association for NGO Cooperation as an example, the organization is responsible for the “going out” of private enterprises, and its nearly 300 members are “going out” in various ways. There is personnel going out to do international exchanges, there are funds going out to build schools and labs, there are projects going out, brands, organisations…etc.

In addition, there are quite a few “going out” situations occurring in border areas like Yunnan, Guangxi and Tibet. There is also a type of “going out” which happened earlier, for instance the China Association for Science and Technology, which sent many scientists to work in various international associations. There are also some industry associations “going out”, for example by establishing sister city relationships with foreign cities.

The government encourages “going out” and, in addition to policy benefits, it has also established a “South-South Cooperation” fund. This funding is not for supporting companies, but only for Chinese NGOs, international NGOs and NGOs in host countries.


Q: What are the main problems faced by Chinese NGOs in foreign countries? What kind of help can you provide them with?

Fang Hui: From the perspective of the Asia Foundation, it mainly focuses on capacity building before NGOs go out, including providing tools to help Chinese NGOs recognize the challenges they are about to face. However, it won’t be enough if an NGO just follows the manuals I mentioned earlier. The development status and capabilities of Chinese NGOs and the international environment are all constantly changing. Therefore, the Asia Foundation is also constantly engaging in dialogue with Chinese and international NGOs to encourage everyone to explore together.


Wang YalinWe are also thinking about how to do capacity building more professionally. Capacity building includes several modules such as internal management, development vision, and external governance. For example, to develop a five-year or ten-year plan, and re-evaluate each aspect for improvements regularly. At the same time, we cannot ignore the need for communication and learning between Chinese NGOs. We hope to better connect those Chinese NGOs who want to go out and those who have already gone out, so that they can support each other.

It is the entire operating system of an NGO that’s behind the move to “go out”. This includes the governance structure, a sound and complete financial management system, project design, project quality monitoring and evaluation. The better these things are built and run, the stronger the support can be for the NGO after it has “gone out”.


Q: How does the assistance of international NGOs to Chinese NGOs’ going out influence Chinese NGOs’ own development in China?

Fang HuiInternational NGOs come to China to do projects in order to follow and be part of the development of some areas. This summer we made a strategic plan, including foreign aid, foreign investment, and assisting Chinese NGOs to go out. It is a very important project for the Asia Foundation.

In Asia, interregional cooperation has always been a key point of focus for the Asia Foundation as a whole. For example, the Asia Foundation’s South Korea Office initially focused on domestic work in South Korea, but the country has turned towards promoting foreign development assistance and regional cooperation since it became a stronger economy in Asia many years ago. From the point of view of the positioning of the Asia Foundation, inter-regional development, including China’s connection with the world and Asia, is very important for our Chinese office and the entire Foundation.

The original aspiration of international NGOs is not to maintain their own existence and development. In the past, there were few local NGOs in China, and their capabilities were weak. International NGOs stood out in this context. However, a situation like this is not conducive to long-term development. If the whole sector is small and weak, the total impact will be limited.

If local NGOs develop and grow strong, the ecology of the sector can be richer. Both local NGOs and international NGOs need to discover unique values in this competitive and cooperative relationship.


Q: In the public discussion of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and NGOs “going out”, are there any voices expressing doubts?

Wu Peng: I remember that in 2005, online fundraising basically raised no money. However, In 2015, when the earthquake hit Nepal, we received more than 10 million in donations online, exceeding our expectations by far. After using the money for providing food, water, and other necessities, we still had a large sum left and we planned to build a school. However, building a school is not quick and easy. We had to register locally according to Nepalese law. We did it and started building the school. Currently the operations of our Nepalese office are still going well.

There were also doubts raised against the launch of the “China-Africa Hope Project” in 2010. When the news about “Building 1000 Hope Primary Schools in Africa”, was reported, the following sort of rebuke could be heard on the internet: “Children in the impoverished mountainous areas of China are not guaranteed the enjoyment of an education, and we’re going to Africa to build schools?”

In the intervening ten years, the public has switched from being indifferent to showing support. This is a significant attitude change. The trend of Chinese NGOs “going out” has also become more obvious.

This year there were two landmark activities; one was the China-Cambodia NGO Seminar held in Cambodia in May, and the other was the China-Nepal NGO Seminar held in Nepal at the end of July and early August, both of which were received very well. Developing countries are embracing the “going out” of Chinese NGOs.

As for the developed countries, do they have doubts? I don’t think so. Civil society needs humanitarian relief and continuous cooperation, as we see in the close collaborations between the Asia Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Chinese NGOs. We must play an exemplary role and soundly “go out”, while exploring the upside of international cooperation in a substantial sense.

In Brief

The transcript of a panel discussion in which five guests from important civil society organizations discuss the prospects for Chinese NGOs that want to expand their work abroad, and how international NGOs can assist them in their efforts.
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