Haider Yaqub, Plan International: Supporting Children in Rural China

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Editor’s Note

Haider W. Yaqub is currently Plan International’s Country Director for China. Originally from Pakistan, Dr. Yaqub has worked for Plan International for 20 years, and was Deputy Regional Director for Asia from 2011 to 2017. This interview was carried out in Beijing by CDB’s Gabriel Corsetti and Yin Qian on the 3rd of August 2018.


CDB: My first question to you is very simple. Could you briefly give our readers an overview of Plan International’s work?


Haider: I think it would be good if I start from the global and then bring it down to China. The journey for Plan International started in 1937, when some journalists went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. One day they were walking around and they found a boy who had a note in his pocket, saying: “if you find this boy alone that means I’m already gone, and there’s no one to look after this child. Could you help?” So that was a small message that helped a few people come together and lay the foundations of Plan. From a very humble beginning helping about 10 to 20 children, we are now working with over 3-4 million children around the world, in 72 countries, with over 800 million Euros of annual development budget.

Over the years Plan’s programs moved from handouts to needs-based programming, to participatory programming, and then to rights-based programming. So Plan was part and parcel of all these transitions within the development thinking.

I very clearly remember when we started to look at needs-based programming. It was very simple, you have a need so you go and fulfill that need. But Plan realized that sometimes this doesn’t work well, because whose needs are we looking at? Are we looking at our own needs, because we as experts, we as outsiders, identify the needs? So then the idea of participatory development came in. We would sit with people and come up with their needs, perceived needs, real needs, strategic needs, and then start to work on developing programs with them. We linked communities to the local governments, and to other networks and partners, so that the development could get more sustained.

Over the years both our own and global thinking on development changed, and we moved from participatory to child rights programming. The duty bearers’ responsibility came in stronger in our programming, and also the issue of how we can help the systems to work for every child, rather than for a selected few with whom the organization is working. That was a big shift in our own thinking, and from then on our projects were not just targeted at particular communities, but wanted to have a bigger impact for a larger population. That brought into our thinking the question of what role local governments, national governments, and international government agencies and organizations like ASEAN or SAARC can play for the children’s development, so we started to engage with these institutions as well.

During our journey, as it transitioned from helping individuals to communities and to the society at large, we realized that what we needed was to harness technology and to bring other partners into our development work, so that it’s not just us alone doing this work. We work with the host governments, with the local governments, with the civil society organizations as well as with the private sector. I am sure with all of us coming together we can have a better impact of our work. In recent years we have narrowed our focus on girls and young women within the wider “children” group, enabling us to look at one segment of society that has been under-privileged and did not have the opportunities to flourish with the rest of the society.

For governance purposes the organization has two categories, the national offices and the country offices. National offices are the ones that do the fundraising and limited programming, while the main responsibility of country offices is to develop and deliver high quality programs. For management purposes our organization has its headquarters in the UK, and it is divided into four regions, namely America, Asia, East Africa and West Africa. Plan International is governed within the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


CDB: Thank you for that very full picture of what Plan International does around the world. Could you talk a bit more specifically about what you do in China?


H: Every country makes its own strategy, for which necessary guidelines are provided. Every other entity of the organization supports the country to implement its strategy, so it is a bottom-up approach. It is very helpful because countries have different requirements. For instance if you just look at Asia, we have China on one hand and we have East Timor at the other end of the spectrum, so with such a broad variation you can’t just have one strategy which will work for everyone.

For China we have developed our country strategy. To develop a country strategy we conduct a situational assessment focusing on children and girls’ issues, we look at our own capabilities and capacities and our past performance, we see what and where are the existing gaps, we also see what others are doing, and then we carve out our strategy to operate in that country. In fact at this point in time we are going through our fourth country strategic development cycle, which should be finished in the next few months.

We will continue to focus on early childcare and development, because that’s the most fundamental programming area for Plan. The main reason for Plan to work in this particular area is that there is minimal investment in it by both the public and private sectors. The main responsibility for child development in the early years of a child’s life is left to the parents. In my mind these are the most critical years of a child’s development, because 80% of the child’s brain develops in this time period.

When we are talking about early childcare and development we also focus on removing gender biases, because at that time parents look at their child as a child, not as a girl or a boy. All of our programming for early childcare and development is gender-transformed, challenging gender stereotypes, making society more open to its girl children and to treating girls and boys equally, not one at the cost of the other, but with nurturing and care for both sexes.

The second area in which Plan works is inclusive education. We want schools to be more inclusive of people with special needs. We also look at ensuring that schools are places where learning takes place, where there is no gender-based violence and gender stereotypes are challenged and removed.

Our third program area will be child protection. We have worked with other development partners to ensure that there are robust mechanisms in place that can prevent and help in reporting on any child protection issues, so that government services are made available and are responsive to the needs. That program will continue, and venture into new areas including bullying in cyberspace.

The fourth area for us would be youth employment. We would want every child to finish high school, and be better prepared for the job market. To know what their rights and responsibilities are, what jobs are available and what kind of skills they should have before they enter the job market. This way they won’t just get a job, they will get a job that is meaningful to them and builds their capacity, rather than just a manual job that will be gone tomorrow. We undertake market scans, and we work with the institutions that provide training, help them to modernize their training package to respond to particular market opportunities, and we prepare the youth on life skills and protection requirements and needs. We prepare them on what they need to do and whom they need to contact if there is a protection issue.

In short our programs are interplay of these four main programming areas. We partner with local organizations, but our key partner is the Shaanxi Women’s Federation, and they are also our professional supervisory unit. We work with them in most areas, because women and girls are their main area of interest. For child protection we work with the MoCA and others key players, and for education-related interventions we are working with the Education Bureau. At this point in time we have a country office in Xi’an and a liaison office here in Beijing. We have program offices in Ningxia and Yunnan as well. At present Plan is operational in nine provinces/locations.


CDB: You mentioned that you plan to venture into the area of cyber-bullying, so do you have plans to partner with Tencent and other Chinese tech companies?


H: We haven’t started work on it as yet, but I am sure we will be getting engaged with Tencent, not just for this but for other programs too. In the Chinese context, if you want to scale up your programs there is no better way than using cellular technology. We are doing this a lot for our youth employment programs. We do beneficiary tracking, where we track young boys and girls who have gone through the training to see how they’re performing at their jobs, whether they are staying in their jobs, how long they are staying in those jobs, are they moving on to other even better jobs or they are dropping out. The information collected is fed back into designing for developing better programs.

In the case of China, I think cellular technology should be the backbone for our programming, thinking and working. We are now planning on using cellular phones for parenting education. We are working with one of our partners and if that experiment works well, it could be a model for the government of China to take forward. The thing is that we have to make our messages universal, make sure that they are meaningful and engaging. If someone has a three months old child, we have to have targeted messages for that parent, but if someone has a two-year old child and we are sending them messages relevant to a three months old child, it will not make much sense to that parent. We have to bring in much more advanced ICT thinking into our programming. Our messaging has to be targeted and interactive, rather than just being one-way traffic.

Now smartphones can provide that opportunity. We are piloting programs, if they work than Tencent and other big players can join in. We will love to work with them and take these ideas to scale. Plan doesn’t have the technology to make its programs reach 1.4 billion people, so we’ll have to find other ways of working.


CDB: Yes, I feel that for overseas NGOs in China it is often about presenting a good model, which can then be expanded by local players.


H: Yes that is definitely true, creating evidence of how it is done, but I would take it a step further, it is also our work to forge relationships, to get bigger players engaged in that process with us, for instance the All China Women’s Federation. If they get behind it, it is much easier to take an idea to the whole of China. I think this kind of work we as INGOs can do much more effectively.




CDB: You talked about how in early childcare it is important to remove the gender bias from the mindset of the parents and the grandparents, and your programs in China focus on the less developed areas/provinces. In those areas, and especially in the countryside, the mindset can be quite old-fashioned, as I’m sure you can feel. How can your programs, especially in the field of early childcare, challenge this mindset and get people to accept the concept that a boy and a girl are equal?


H: It’s a very difficult thing. It’s embedded in the culture, and it takes time. I think China has done a remarkable work in removing gender inequalities, and reducing the gender gap between boys and girls. According to a gender gap study that I think was done last year, China is 99th in the world out of I believe 180 countries. China with its economic development should be much higher than that for the gender gap. But if you look at most sub-indicators, like enrolment in primary education or finishing primary education, enrolment in secondary education or getting jobs, girls and boys are almost the same. The difference comes in the political process, in higher-level employment, and in gender ratios at birth, since more boys are born than girls. These are the three areas that are bringing China down to the 99th position, and if those gaps were reduced China would be much higher up on this scale.

Coming to your question about gender bias, it is a question which requires much more analysis. I believe removing gender bias is a process, where people get more concrete messaging coming to them, messaging which is more interactive, and it creates curiosity in their minds so that they can then ask questions. You have to do it in a way in which people don’t feel threatened if they ask those questions, in a way where people learn from it, and for me the easiest and best way to engage people would be through the mobile Internet. Wherever I have gone in China I have mobile signal, even in the remotest corners everyone has a cell phone. When I try to take a picture, I find young children with their phones taking my picture. Basically technology is in our hands, the question is how do we make the technology work for us to remove gender biases from our society.

The question I am still struggling with is how do we make messaging more meaningful, more entertaining, how do we make it so that people want to know more about the issues, rather than thinking that it’s just a message. No one wants to listen to a preacher. People want to see or hear a good story. You see, most gender biases come from old stories. If you watch old Hollywood movies, or Walt Disney movies, those stories reinforce gender biases. So how do we write new stories, giving girls more important roles in those stories? Now there are much more movies coming out of Hollywood in which women are given the central role. We need to use a similar way of telling stories, making it entertaining, making sure that gender issues are addressed and not reinforced.

A more sustained change is now taking place in China, and with the two-child policy replacing the one-child policy I think the gender gap at birth will be addressed. I am sure the government is looking at other ways to address this as well. It’s not easy.


CDB: Last year China implemented a new law on Overseas NGOs. How would you say this law has affected Plan’s work in the country compared to the past?


H: The major difference, at least now, is that you know what you can and can’t do. That is always good, compared to having to figure out yourself whether something is possible or not. I believe that proper governance should be in place. It should not be a laissez-faire where everyone gets to do whatever they please. The important question is why do you govern, is it for control? Or it is for innovation and to make something better out of it? That is the point we should consider. I think the law is fine. It may look very strict, but it is quite similar to laws in other Asian countries. Again I reiterate that it is not the law but what you get out of that law that is more important. I think what is important here is that you have to ensure that you govern people by certain principles, and people should know which red lines cannot be crossed.

On the other hand, the rules should not be made too tight, or too vague that they can be interpretated by different people in different ways. The interpretation should be uniform, and people should be facilitated for building a common understanding. Within my one year here, I have found that the PSU and PSB have been very supportive. They are very friendly in their interactions. In any case it’s good to have rules, because it guides the work. And if someone asks me I can tell them whether something is allowed or not allowed, it’s very simple. It helps me in my job as well.

Having said that I think there is still some space where the government could bring in more uniformity of thinking amongst the people who are implementing the law. I think there have to be some standards put in place so that everyone is on the same page. The law is still new at this point in time, so people are also finding their way. We are a bit like guinea pigs, we are being experimented on, but that’s ok. Hopefully good things will come out of it. Another thing that is very important is to determine what the country wants to achieve from the law. That’s something that has to be very clear. If the ambition is to shape the country’s civil society in a more progressive way, using international organizations, then it should serve that purpose. If it’s for total control, then you’ll use it for that particular purpose. I think that part needs to be made very clear – what you want this law for.

What I see in my interactions with government officials and others is that they all want to bring in ideas that are good for taking development work forward. I see that they are open, they want to create something new. I have had engagements and discussions where people are very receptive for doing things which are aligned to their own needs and requirements. So if you find that sweet spot where your expertise and government requirements or ambitions match, you can create something bigger for your organization and for the people. So I don’t see the law as something restraining us as such.


CDB: In your time with Plan you have worked in many different countries, including India, Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, almost everywhere in Asia. How would you compare working in China with working in other countries in Asia?


H: It is very different. In China there is hardly any bilateral funding, multilateral funding is also coming to an end, and these are main sources of funding for Plan’s programs in most countries in Asia. For instance in the Philippines a big chunk of our funding was coming from the Asian Development Bank, for youth employment programming. But here in China the Asian Development Bank is not going to give funding for youth employment programming, so our programming has to change. Moreover China is the second largest economy in the world, with ambitions to be the largest economy. So we can’t have the same kind of programming as we do for other Asian countries, the program thinking has to be very different.

The biggest players in China that can support our work is the corporate world, therefore working with corporate business is very important. How do we engage with them? Making sure that they’re part of the development journey with us. Not just by looking at corporate social responsibility, that’s one aspect, but looking at creating something better with them. Some of our programs in that area are starting to take shape as well. The big tech companies want to work to encourage more girls to get into science and technology space. That’s an opportunity for us to get involved, and we have started to work in that particular area with such corporate businesses.

Another idea that I can share with you is the use of a software which is developed for library management. This simple software records when a book is borrowed, returned and shelved, very easy to use. Governments want their school libraries to serve the students better, so this is an area where we can work with them. We work with a group of volunteers who have created a software for library management, we take that software out to the schools and establish an e-library system. It makes the school libraries work effectively. But our objective is not to make that library function, but to inculcate a reading habit in children. What happens is that when a child takes a book out, we want that child to tell the other children the story of that book, so that other children also take books from the library. We try to bring in creative thinking and imagination by linking children to the library.

The books are recommended by the Ministry of Education, and the software creates a momentum for children to come together for reading. We also celebrate the person who has read the most books that month. So you create a whole movement of change for that purpose. This is the kind of programming that has to be done in the Chinese context. We can’t do an e-library program in some other countries, because their governments do not have the resources to set up libraries.

China put in huge sums of money for overseas development, so we have to have more innovative programs coming from China. And we as INGOs can work with local partners to come up with programs to share with the rest of the world, and use China’s ambition of helping other countries in a more effective way. That’s what I was saying, how do you want our presence in the country to be used? If it is for building a classroom, I think this is under-utilization, because China can build hundreds of classrooms in a day. But how do we make each school a learning institution where children are enjoying and learning? I think our interventions should be meaningful, helpful and able to be scaled up.

In Brief

Haider Yaqub, country director for Plan International, talks to CDB about his organization’s work in supporting children’s development and fighting gender biases in China.
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