Thinking Strategically: An Interview with Perrine Lhuillier of Save the Children

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This interview was conducted by Dr Andreas Fulda ((Dr Andreas Fulda is an academic practitioner with an interest in social change, organisational development and documentary filmmaking. During the past ten years Dr Fulda has helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese CSOs: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). Dr Fulda is also the editor of the book Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in the PR China (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2015). Contact:; as part of a research project commissioned by Geneva Global. It is published by China Development Brief and Geneva Global. Geneva Global is an innovative social enterprise that works with clients to maximize the performance of their global philanthropic and social impact initiatives. The interview reflects the independent opinion of the interviewee and does not represent the views of the publishers.

To download the interview as a PDF click here.

To view the rest of the series click here.

To view the Chinese-language version click here.

Andreas Fulda (AF): Save the Children has a long history of engagement with China which dates back to Republican period. In much more recent history Save the Children first moved its program office from Hong Kong to Kunming in 1995 and later to Beijing in 1999. Given Save the Children’s longstanding engagement with China, what is its vision and mission?

Perrine Lhuillier (PL): Our vision and mission in China is the same as our global vision and mission: a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation. Our mission is to inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children, and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives.

AF: When you go about your work here in China, which of the three sources of funding are most common in your work: government funding, foundation funding or corporate funding?

PL: We have seen a change in China starting in 2008. China now has become the second biggest economy in the world and institutional funding has phased out of China. On the other hand it is becoming a key market for big corporate investors. We have seen an increased willingness for corporations to partner up with Save the Children initiatives. Right now our main source of income growth is actually the corporate sector – in China. This is slightly different from other countries in which Save the Children works. Globally speaking, we are still engaged with a broad range of donors, ranging from institutional donors, trust and foundations and corporate partners as well.

AF: When you apply for funds, do you so on your own or do you partner with Chinese organisations such as Government-organised non- governmental organisations or grassroots NGOs, for example in the case of compulsory competitive tendering bids?

PL: First of all we do not raise funds in China because our registration status does not enable us to do that. Also because within the bigger world of Save the Children we are a country office. Country offices have the mission to implement projects and to do advocacy for children, not to fundraise. Fundraising is done by thirteen national organisations and funding is then channeled to the country offices. Having said that we do partner up with different organisations to craft proposals that will then be presented to donors. But we do not do fundraising in China.

AF: When you craft these proposals with other partners, how do you ensure that once you succeed with your application that funding sources are distributed in an equitable way? It can be a source of friction in joint project applications that a partner at one point may feel that they do not benefit enough. Do you have some good practices in how to ensure an equitable distribution of resources?

PL: First of all, we often lead the design of a proposal. We manage expectations from very early on. Both sides are very clear what each side is supposed to bring to the table. Let me give you an example. We work a lot with local government partners. In the long-standing relationships that we have we also have local government partners that are willing to contribute in kind to the project. They do so because they trust us and want to work with us. They will contribute people’s time, meeting rooms, different kinds of things. I do not feel we are running into this problem of equitable distribution of resources at all. Of course our partners – just like ourselves – could always do with a little bit more of funding (laughs). But we work very hard to ensure that the proposal works for everyone. Otherwise implementation becomes very problematic.

AF: When you design initiatives, do you see advantages and disadvantages of single-entry and multi-entry partnership models, e.g. initiatives where you cooperate either with one partner organisation (single-entry) or two and more partner organisations (multi-entry)? Does Save the Children have a preference of one model over the other?

PL: I think it really depends on the field of work. It also depends on the amount of funding available. What we found over the years is that if there is too little funding available it makes multi-location and multi-partnership projects very difficult to implement. You need to have a reasonable amount of resources available to implement a decent project. I guess it also depends on how the partnership is structured. If a big share of the funding is allocated to a sub-grant then maybe that sub-granted partner can involve other organisations. But it really depends mostly on the amount of funding.

AF: You mentioned that during the past five years there have been changes in the sources of funding. For example you mentioned that there are more and more corporate funders. Have you observed any significant changes in the way donors and implementing organisations communicate and cooperate with one another?

PL: I can see differences in the way corporate donors communicate with domestic implementing organisations, but I do not think that there has been a drastic change in the past five years. They are just different players which contribute in different ways. They have different things to offer and are also expecting different things out of a partnership. Corporate partners have very different motivations to enter a partnership. They might have a Corporate Social Responsibility strategy or focus that they need to implement, they might need to build a better brand image, or they might want to improve their government relations. It is really about working together with the partner and to find out what it is that they want to gain out of the partnership with Save the Children and to find out how we are going to make it successful for both sides. This is very different from institutional donors that have a strategy and objectives in China that they need to meet. With regards to foundations it is very different. We work with foundations which come from all over the world. Some are very structured, like the Ford Foundation. They have very structured objectives and are clear about what they are trying to achieve. Other foundations do not have a strategy which is as well constructed. In such cases it is again a matter of trying to understand what everyone wants to achieve and how we can achieve it together.

AF: To what extent has the growth and maturation of Chinese civil society led to a market of CSOs competing for funding? Do you make good use of the market mechanism to allocate resources, for example through sub-grants which are competitive?

PL: We are looking into that. We have done very little of that to date. The reason why we have not done that is that in our line of work there were not many organisations that could have actually gone for competitive bidding. That has changed a lot. There are now many more local civil society organisations that have an increased capacity. We are exploring different models of partnerships now also with local government authorities. Maybe we need to decide on project locations also in a more competitive way. This is something we are considering at the moment. We have not decided on this yet. Of course we are also competing with other international NGOs in the same field. We are often engaging the same donors. We are increasingly competing with domestic organisations as well that have the capacity to tap into international funding. It is definitively a new trend.

AF: Do you have an organisational view of Chinese civil society? If yes, how would you describe it? If not, who is framing the discourse about China’s civil society in your organisation and how?

PL: We work with civil society organisations. I do not know whether we have an organisational view of civil society. In the longer term the aspiration of Save the Children is to become very much a Chinese civil society organisation. We are increasingly working with local domestic civil society organisations. But it also depends on the area of intervention. When we are trying to improve the quality of services delivered to children they might not be the best partners to engage with. This is because we are looking at systemic changes in the delivery of public services, essentially run by the government. In that sense it does not make a lot of sense to engage with civil society organisations. Having said that, the Chinese government is now expecting that some of these services should be delivered by local civil society organisations. This is why we are expecting more partnerships with those organisations that will be providing basic services to children. Another trend we are following is the emergence of domestic foundations. They are increasingly important players. They have resources and they are also doing a lot of work with children, particularly in the fields of health and education. What we found is that they do not necessarily have the capacity to deliver quality programmes and particularly programmes that keep children safe. We see very low awareness of child safeguarding issues. We would love to engage more with the sector as a whole to build their capacity as implementers. A lot of private foundations are both grant making bodies and direct implementers. We are seeing an opportunity for us to engage and to help build the capacity of the sector.

AF: It is interesting you mention the point of child safe-guarding. In a previous interview I learned that there is indeed a low awareness for child safe-guarding in China. This is a global issue, as we learned from the Jimmy Savile scandal, where children were abused by a TV host of the BBC. How are you promoting child safe-guarding in China?

PL: First of all, we systematically do capacity building on child safe-guarding with our partners. That is something we have to do directly with the partners we work with. Secondly, I think it is a broader issue which is reaching beyond the civil society sector. We are doing a lot of work on child protection in China. It is one of the major focus of the government now to build a child protection system in China. We have been doing for the past ten years work on child protection that was mainly focused on youth justice and anti-trafficking issues, but not on the construction of a child protection system. This was because traditionally the way child protection was understood was along the lines of child welfare, rather than in terms of protection. We define child protection as protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence. In the past 10 years, China has seen the emergence of the social work profession. But it has not been until quite recently, until about two years ago, that the press has reported of absolutely ugly cases of child abuse. Those cases triggered public outrage in China and the government reacted. Now the Ministry of Civil Affairs has rolled out a national project to build a child protection system with a properly trained social workers workforce, an adequate coordination between the different government bodies involved, a case management system etc. They have rolled out twenty pilots at the national level and we have been asked to provide technical assistance to that initiative. This is why I think it is a broader issue than just for the civil society sector. Child protection is an issue that was and still is not very well understood. But we can see that it has moved up much higher on the government’s agenda. They have started to tackle it at the central government level. I think it will trickle down to the civil society sector, but it will take time. Overall, I am quite optimistic, given the changes taking place at the national level.

AF: Where do you see Save the Children, where do you see the civil society sector in 5-10 years?

PL: My very personal view is that we will see a lot more domestic organisations that provide services to children, ranging from education to child protection services as well. We will probably also continue to see an increase in the number and power of private foundations. I do not necessarily see that there will be strong advocacy or networks of civil society organisations developing. Not quite yet in the next five years. So maybe we will see a focus on service delivery still, but with actors with reinforced capacity.

AF: So in that process of capacity building, what kind of change processes are you supporting on the individual, organisational, societal and/or policy level?

PL: All we are about is building the capacity of people. Save the Children in China and also elsewhere in the world focuses a lot on the capacity of adults that care for children. We train teachers, front-line health workers as well as child protection staff such as social workers on child-centered interventions etc. We are also going to train parents. Let me give you another concrete example. We now that frontline health workers are crucial in preventing children from dying from preventable diseases. One of the main cause of death of children under the age of five is still pneumonia. A lot of frontline health workers do not know how to diagnose it. So we are training them to better diagnose the illnesses. So that is individual capacity building.

In terms of system strengthening – to stick with this example – in our health projects we also strengthen referral systems between the different levels of the health system, from the village level to the township level to the county level. So that when doctors are faced with a case that they can not treat they have the system in place that to refer the child to a higher, the better hospital on the township or county level. So that is system strengthening at the local level.

In terms of organisational capacity building we do work with civil society organisations. We do a lot of capacity building of our partners. We have done trainings on financial management, we have done trainings on the specific technical aspects within education or health. We do also organisational capacity building to have them come up with a strategy for example. So depending on the needs and the project requirements we do very different things.

As regards to advocacy on the national level there is the example I just mentioned, our collaboration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs on the child protection system. In these initiatives we often bring in expertise from outside, so that top policy makers can learn from experiences from other countries. It is also about bringing in evidence that we gather from our project sites. Because what we seek to do in our projects is to basically improve the way things work by demonstrating how they could work differently and better. Every time we do that we a very strict and thorough monitoring and evaluation procedure that enables us to gather evidence that can feed into different policy dialogues on the national level. In terms of policy change we have been really successful in our youth justice work. We have worked in this field for ten years. We have introduced the appropriate adult model that was originally from the UK, whereby an adult accompanies a child from the first confrontation with the law and throughout the whole process. Those adults are basically like social workers. They are present during the police interrogation and at every step of the judicial process. They are seeking to collect information on the child that they put in a social file, with a view to try and divert children from incarceration at every stage of the process. Our project work has been so successful that the new Criminal Procedure Law that came into effect January last year has a chapter on youth justice, for the first time. It is referencing the need to have appropriate adults. That is as a result of the work that we have done. We have been working on that in Yunnan and now our office in Yunnan is getting phone calls from other provinces with questions like “How do we implement this in practice?” and “What does it mean to be an appropriate adult?”.

AF: Can you explain a bit more what kind of people qualify as an appropriate adult?

PL: Initially they were volunteers, similar to social workers. The experience we drew upon was from Panlong district in Kunming. What our project partners have done is that they have registered as a local civil society organisation. They are now get subsidies from the local government to continue to provide this kind of services.

AF: Let us delve a little bit further into the practicalities of your development work in China. How do you assess which kind of instruments are most appropriate to achieve your goals (e.g. study tours, trainings, local pilots etc)?

PL: We use all of these instruments in the tool box (laughs). What we found is that to achieve durable change for children it requires time and committed partners. We have a range of tools, ranging from local pilots on the ground with very good monitoring and evaluation to get the good evidence. And then of course bringing expertise from the outside, but not exclusively. We also work a lot with universities in China. There is expertise available here. We do promote learning between different projects and getting partners for example from Xinjiang to visit partners in Yunnan who are working in the same sector. This way they can see how things are being implemented in practice and see how things can work. But I think the key to success are long- standing solid partnerships. It took ten years in the case of the youth justice project. It was very well spend ten years I think.

AF: This is indeed a very successful project. What do you when there is resistance in project and programme implementation? How flexible are you in meeting new demands of your partner organisations? What kind of demands would you not meet and thus consider ending the project or programme cooperation?

PL: That is more a question for our budget holders, they are the people who are managing the projects. They have to deal with these things. Something we really need to keep focus on before the start of implementation is the choice of the right partner. This is absolutely crucial. Engaging partners early on is very difficult if funding opportunities suddenly crop up, for example when we need to submit a proposal in a week. What we have tried to do is to differentiate the project design from the funding cycle. This allows us to take some time and engage with our partners before even identifying the funding opportunity. As a result we have a very clear idea what we would like to achieve. It is very tricky to do though. Things change very rapidly here. So even if we have agreed on something, if the funding does not come quickly then we have to restart the conversations. It is not an easy process. But that is what we are trying to do. And I guess the lesson that we have learned as well is that unless there is a very substantial amount of funding to build something solid over at least three years, if we want to pilot new initiatives we try to weave it into our current work so that we can learn and start engaging people and have a better idea of what needs to be done and what could work before engaging or before setting up a stand-alone project. All of this is very difficult to do though since we work with very restricted funding.

AF: Let us talk about Save the Children initiatives in China. How many individuals and CSOs do you typically involve in your civil society initiatives?

PL: It is a difficult question. It is interesting in that sense that in financial terms we do work on projects which are over three years. The biggest grant is 2 million Euros for three years, which is quite substantial. We also have a lot of grants are a 150.000 Euros over one year. In terms of results or beneficiaries reached I think that the number of beneficiaries reached is not necessary the best indicator for our impact. It is an important indicator, but not the only one. We work in very different regions. Let me again give you an example. We are running an important project in Tibet on neonatal resuscitation. When babies are born they have one minute to start breathing, otherwise they suffer very bad consequences for their health and sometimes die.

There is a very simple technique you can teach village doctors to resuscitate babies that are born not breathing. And that is what we are teaching Tibetan doctors to do. But we are working in a region of Tibet that is very sparsely populated. And it is a very expensive project. There are not many beneficiaries and it is a lot about training doctors. But it is very successful because we now that it has already helped save children lives. So that is a measure of success.

Let me also give you another example. Apart from the youth justice project we also had quite a lot of success in informing policies around inclusive education, for example in the field of education for children with disabilities. Again, we have taken the pilot example on the ground to the Ministry of Education and let them see how inclusive education in mainstream schools could work. They were revising the regulations from 1994 on the education of disabled children. We showed them that children with disabilities could go to mainstream schools, and that it could work, provided that the teachers have the proper resources available. And now the revised regulations that will come to into force very soon should have a focus on inclusive education and are encouraging children with disabilities to go to mainstream schools. So our inclusive education project was quite a substantial project in monetary terms. It was a grant of around 1 million Euros. The result makes it very powerful, because the policy change potentially could affect all the disabled children in China. As we know, a lot of them are still not going to school. Because the official policy was to have them in special schools, but there were not enough of them.

AF: In a way what you are describing here is a combination of pilots, scaling experiences from the pilots up to the policy level, seeking policy change.

PL: This is the best way we can operate in China. Because even if we are one of the biggest international NGOs in China we are still very tiny compared to the sheer size of the country. If we really want to create change for children we need to engage on the policy level. But we do it with our feet on the ground and on the community level. So we are thinking on our feet.

AF: The interesting thing about policy change is that once you have succeeded in having some input arguably the question of policy implementation will always crop up. So do you feel that once you have a bit of an impact – let us say on inclusive education – the potential impact may actually not realize since local governments do not know about the new policy or do not have the means to implement it?

PL: You are absolutely right. The fact is in general for children the central government has got a good set of policies. In health for example policies are there but they are just not known at the local level at all. Or local governments lack the capacities to implement policies in practice. So a lot of our advocacy work is to bridge the policy to practice gap. Local governments need practical tools to just make it happen in practice. Also the policy framework is sometimes very broad and it does not really help at the local level to understand what needs to be done.

AF: You have mentioned the importance of monitoring and evaluation of local pilots for your policy advocacy work. Would you mind sharing some of the technicalities of how you measure the social impact of your initiatives?

PL: I may not be the best person to do that. We have technical experts that are assisting with it and the monitoring and evaluation lead as well. We have a team which is overseeing this type of work. In a nutshell it is about having a proper design at the beginning with a very strong logical framework and then deciding on a monitoring and evaluation plan at the beginning. We are very careful with the design of our indicators and what we want to measure. We have got a monitoring and evaluation plan which is agreed upon at the beginning of a given project. We work with technical advisors to design the relevant indicators. We have got a programme and development quality team in house that is able to perform evaluations, but we also sometimes involve external evaluators.

AF: How do you learn both from successful and unsuccessful initiatives?

PL: In the past we have run evaluations fairly frequently. I think we have not been so much of a learning organisation and we are becoming better at that. Our programme development and quality team was quite recently set up. Part of its mandate is going to be to facilitate that learning process. As a global organisation our monitoring and evaluation initiative is not called monitoring and evaluation but goes by the acronym MEAL, which stands for monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning. As a global organisation we have put a lot more emphasis on learning. We are starting to see evaluations being shared and discussed at the national level. That is a process that is starting now and it is a process that is becoming more systematic.

AF: That is very interesting. In a way it requires Save the Children as an organisation to own up to failure as well and to accept failure as a learning opportunity.

PL: Absolutely. That is what we are seeking to do and that is what we are also seeking to do at the senior management team level, to learn and to do better.

AF: Finally, how to you ensure the sustainability of your initiatives?

PL: We have exit strategies. In order to be sustainable you need long-term engagement. Sometimes we have been more successful than others. Again choosing the right partner is essential and making sure that they have the capacity to take things on board, including the financial capacity after the project is finished. This is also why we have engaged with the local government because for service delivery – and that is also why we engage on the policy level – it is really crucial to have the government involved if you want to create sustainable change. So we build the capacity of the partners throughout the project, we have an exit strategy at the end, but sometimes it does need a second phase of work for it to be completely sustainable.


In Brief

An interview with Perrine Lhuillier, Director of Communications and Donor Relations at Save the Children in China, as part of the “Thinking Strategically about Civil Society Assistance in China” project
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