Philanthropy or Social Development?

When I was in middle school, I saw the following news story in a local newspaper: a group of businessmen had been supporting the education of children from a poor mountain village. They stopped after a year, however, simply because they had never received any thank-you letters from the children and thus thought that they were being ungrateful.

From a personal perspective, the businessmen have the right to spend their money at will and choose whoever they prefer for their donations. But if the donor was an NGO, then it could not decide who receives the donations solely based on moral preferences. For instance, it is unimaginable that the One Foundation, during an emergency disaster alleviation project, would first investigate whether the local people are honest and worthy, or that the Smile Angel Foundation would choose whether to support children with a cleft palate/lip depending on their parents’ moral status. This is especially true when it comes to the government. After the government took over the Free Lunch for Children project started by Mr. Deng Fei, the project gradually expanded its geographical coverage due to having more funds, but its goal was to provide lunch for all children, rather than only the children with better academic results or a good overall performance.

The logic behind this is that the existence of disadvantaged groups, such as poor children, senior citizens who lost their only child (known as 失独群体, a special Chinese social phenomenon caused by the country’s long-standing one-child family planning policy) and the disabled, is due to the structural deprivation of rights caused by imbalanced social development. The disadvantaged groups are different from disadvantaged individuals. Therefore, the foundation of modern philanthropy (which I shall refer to as “social development” from now on) is to respect rights rather than provide help with kind hearts.

A good example is the four stages in the evolution of public opinion towards the disabled: there’s the religious phase, the charitable phase, the medical phase, and the phase of social integration. In ancient times, disability was viewed as a heaven-sent punishment. As civilization developed, people started to show compassion towards the disabled and try to help them. Until recently, society was dedicated to helping the disabled to regain biological functions with modern medical technology. After the proposal of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, people came to realize that the disabled face hurdles not only caused by their physical or mental disability but also by the uneven distribution of social resources.

For instance, if a person loses his right arm, which admittedly causes difficulties biologically, he can still contribute to the society, since having both arms is not a necessity for many jobs. Working in art, vocal music, or education only requires artistic insight, musical sense or the right knowledge structure. Nevertheless, mainstream society fails to acknowledge such people’s very existence. They are excluded from various aspects of life, such as education and work.

From the perspective of being able to function socially, high myopia, incompetence in operating a computer or driving a car in modern society can also be viewed as disabilities. The disabled suffer not only from inherited flaws or inevitable accidents but also from barriers created by public consciousness and ways of thinking.

Of course, this last phenomenon isn’t merely the result of public consciousness and the insufficient distribution of resources. It is certainly hard to help people with severe disabilities fulfill their social function solely through the redistribution of resources. But there still exist many artificial barriers for the disabled, particularly in areas such as education, employment, and marriage.

Some will argue that, even though the disabled will have more space if resources are more reasonably distributed, given the limited amount of social resources and a multitude problems, we should be focusing our resources more on development first of all.

This view bears some truth but is not entirely convincing. Society can never achieve a perfect balance through the egalitarian distribution of its wealth and resources. None of the societies throughout known human civilization have achieved that. Without some sort of gap, it would be impossible to develop any civilization. Social development demands differences. On the other hand, these differences should be kept within a certain range. To be more precise, they cannot be the product of a cut-throat natural selection as in the animal world, but rather of a model in which the more advanced can lead everyone else towards a common development. This is the meaning of civilization.

John Rawls proposed an interesting approach to the design of a well-ordered society in his book A Theory of Justice. Rawls proposes the following exercise:imagine you could design a social system, including its educational system, medical services, wealth distribution and so on, but you knew that you were then going to reincarnate into that system, not knowing whether you would be rich or poor, a man or a woman, healthy or disabled etc.. How would you go about it? In this process, most people will give sufficient weight to social mobility because they know they could be born into the lowest classes. Only then can they consider equality and justice from the angle of social development at a holistic level.

Therefore, the primary issue in social development is respecting and guaranteeing rights, what is known as “equality of public service”(specification of institutional safeguard of rights protection) in policy terms. If migrant workers enjoy an increase in their income, they will also need to enjoy the same social resources including medical care, education and permanent residence (Hukou) benefits, as other members of society. Despite the different discourse structures, both the government and the social development sector share the same goal of creating a better society. However, due to their limited vision and the primitive stage they find themselves in, many social development organizations are still operating from the point of view of“providing help”. “Providing help” is not a problem in itself, but the sustainability of their work will be undermined if they do not take ‘rights’ into consideration.

It is not uncommon to find that little attention is paid to the target group’s own perspective during the process of which they are “helped”. Forums on migrant populations are crawling with academics, and participants in official women’s development forums are mostly male. To be frank, “the disadvantaged” passively accept arrangements made for them instead of actively participating in the process- those without a disability decide for the disabled, adults decide for the youth, and men decide for women.

Difficulty in expressing needs impairs efforts to intervene. For instance, Wechat developed a project for donating a “voice” to the visually impaired community. People could contribute by reading one-minute long materials that Wechat would then put together. This project was criticized by the community because it totally omitted their actual needs. It is barely comprehensible when the voice, tone, and speed of an audio material changes every minute, let alone the pronunciation issues of amateurs doing a recording. This problem could have been avoided if a visually impaired person had been included in the design of the project.

In the long term, if the disabled were able to have more space for their development, for instance if most of the disabled could receive the same education as everyone else and with the knowledge and skills gained find good jobs, then they could have an income which would bring more freedom and opportunities. In most cases disabled people with resources and skills can, in turn, provide more help to others, for example through donations, raising public awareness, advocacy, and even establishing relevant organizations. When it comes to the society, then there is no need for frequent “sympathy” and “solicitude”. More significantly, the disabled gain dignity and character through this process, and are included in society as equal and contributing individuals – this is the value of development.

An analysis of the concept of “empowerment”

The concept of “empowerment” has been imported from the western social development sector. But considering the difference caused by translation and language structures, discussion and analysis are much needed.

Empowerment is the most important concept for the sustainable development of the disadvantaged in developed countries. “Empowerment” is translated as “Fuquan” (赋权) in mainland China, and “zengneng” (增能) in HongKong and Taiwan. “Power”(权力) normally implies supervision and limits whilst“rights”(权利) echoes respect and safeguards. In social development, the latter is stressed more. But the word “empowerment” contains “power”, while “funeng” (赋能) generally refers to “Capacity Building”.

In addition, there is much controversy over the character “fu” (赋), since it indicates inequality. Professor Pan Suiming from the Institute of Sexuality and Gender at the Renmin University of China once pointed out that sex education for young people aims to give them back their rights (复权) that they are naturally entitled but deprived due to some reasons, rather than give them rights (赋权). Hence, in some documents and organizations, “empowerment” is translated as “chongquan”(充权).

Due to different ideologies, some like the concept of “rights” (权利) and some don’t. Therefore, some experts, in practice, won’t use “fuquan”(赋权) but rather “funengchongquan” (赋能充权,capacity building and empowerment). These are a few of the disputes on “empowerment” and other related words. I would like to put aside the original definition and ambiguity of the translations, and explain these words as follows:

-“disadvantaged groups” (弱势群体): their existence is fundamentally caused by structural lack of rights; the effective approach to promote the sustainable development of the disadvantaged is “empowerment”, namely, equipping them with the same rights to social participation and personal sustainable development as other people;

-“capacity building” is an important method in order to achieve empowerment. Without the capacity building, empowerment is superficial and not profound. Sustainable development cannot be realized without sufficient information, knowledge structure, skills, opportunities, and economic status;

– Fu (赋) does not suggest inequality. This is just a misunderstanding caused by translation. All parties involved in “empowerment”(赋权) and “capacity building”(赋能) are equal. Fu ((赋) also means “promotion”, for example, young people have an inherent right to education and development.

In Brief

The author of this article, a project manager of Marie Stopes International China, challenges the currently dominant discourse by replacing “philanthropy” with “social development”, and “social organizations” with “social development organizations”. He also analyzes imported words such as “empowerment” from a Chinese perspective in the hope that these terms will evolve and thrive in the local environment.
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