Bridging Gaps in China: an Interview with Michael Hermann

This interview was conducted by CDB's Gabriel Corsetti

Editor’s Note

Michael Hermann, originally from Germany and based in Kunming, has been the country representative of Humana People to People China since 2005. This interview was conducted by CDB’s Gabriel Corsetti in Beijing on March 19, 2018.


CDB: Could you briefly describe Humana People to People’s work in China?

Michael Hermann: We are a grassroots-based, capacity building and educational organization. “Grassroots-based” means that we work only in villages, we work at the frontline, and our project leaders live there. Secondly, we work with the community, through the community and for the community, and thirdly, most of our staff is actually coming from the villages. Sometimes people think that because we are an overseas NGO we must be very rich, we must have very many cars, we must work in very good offices and our people must all be PhDs. But the reality is different, as I always say we are an international grassroots organization, we started to support the fight against apartheid in 1977 and we supported the liberation movements in the Frontline States in Southern Africa.

We have always been based on empowering people, making people in the developed part of the world aware of global differences and global poverty, and then engaging them to support people in the developing countries. So that is where the name ‘Humana People to People’ comes from. We started off with the name ‘Development Aid from People to People’, but then in the eighties we decided that the term “development aid” sounds like “we here are better than you over there”. So we changed the name to ‘Humana People to People’, based on ‘Humanitas’ (‘humanity’ in Latin), expressing our solidary humanism as the driving force of our development work.

So like I said we are grassroots-based, and our main focus is building capacity for people through self-organization and self-help groups, be it parents’ committees who run a locally based kindergarten, be it Farmers’ Clubs through which farmers organize themselves and increase their skills and capacities, be it cooperatives or be it HIV-AIDS self-help groups. So this is our basic theme, and we now work in three provinces, Yunnan, Sichuan and Chongqing. We have 10 different projects, including rural development projects, Farmers’ Clubs, rural preschool education projects and rural health projects, both in HIV/AIDS prevention and control and in nutritional support.

In Liangshan (Sichuan Province), one of the places we work, we have conducted the first scientific health survey of more than 1,500 children, and we found that they are on average 10 cm shorter and 1.5 kg lighter than the lowest standards in China, probably because these kids mainly just eat potatoes and starches. So there are a lot of structural issues. China has saved a lot of children with heart diseases and other emergency conditions, which is very good, and there are lots of foundations working on helping rural children to get the right healthcare and operations, but the structural problems like lack of nutrition are still an issue in places like Liangshan and other impoverished regions.

We now have 53 staff on long-term contracts and about 124 village outreach workers on service contracts, including for example our village preschool teachers and their community-based preschool teacher assistants who help the teachers, since there is only one teacher in a class. We also have farming instructors, people hired in the villages and then going from house to house every day and looking at the production, looking at the fields and teaching the farmers how to improve. Overall in the last 13 years we have benefited about 3,3 million people in Yunnan, Chongqing and Sichuan.


Mr. Hermann receives the “Ten movers of Charity 2017” Award 

CDB: Humana does a lot of work in the field of poverty alleviation in China. Recently, the Chinese government made it its official goal to completely eliminate poverty in China by the year 2020. Do you think this is a feasible goal? How do you think that Humana’s programs in China can fit into this policy framework?

MH: First of all, let us speak a little bit more specifically. The government’s policy is to eradicate absolute poverty. Poverty and absolute poverty have a clear definition. Poverty is both the current absolute distance in living conditions in a society, and the lack of future development due to lack of opportunities, skills, capacity and mind set. So what is China doing now? The Chinese government is doing a phenomenal job of raising the bottom line in society. I’m not absolutely sure of the figures, but I think last year 400 billion yuan were invested by both central, provincial, city level and county level governments to assist a defined 140,000 “poverty villages” to lift themselves out of poverty, and I think there are 150,000 to 200,000 officials who live either short or long-term in the villages. About 10 million people were officially lifted out of absolute poverty.

Besides that, all government employees in Yunnan have the responsibility to help 1-5 families out of poverty. It’s called “Bang Fu” (supporting the poor). For example, the Director General at the Provincial Education Department has to support five families, and he goes there and visits them one or two times a year. He is not requested to put his own funds into anything, but he is requested to help these people get connected if they don’t know the government scheme for medical health support, or if they don’t know that they can get 600 Renminbi a month from the ministry of civil affairs for an HIV/ADIS infected child, or in other ways help these families to get connected to government support.

So the government is doing a huge job, from building houses for all the people and building roads to all the poor villages, to setting up solar cells and photovoltaic installations for which people get a loan for twenty years, and then they have an income from it every year and after twenty-five years the installation is paid back. Of course there are a lot of details, but the policy goes very deep and is actually very demanding for the system. For instance, earlier on the fupinban (Poverty Alleviation and Development Office) in Yunnan was led by the Vice Governor, and now it’s the Shengweishuji (Secretary of the provincial party committee) who is in charge. So the responsibility is now based on the actual leader and not on number three in the organizational hierarchy. So China is doing an awful lot of work in this field.

I do believe that 90% of people will reach an income above 2100 Renminbi, which was defined as the national poverty line in 2011, and now inflation-adjusted it’s about 3000 Renminbi. You might not know this, but this income is calculated in many different complicated ways, for example if a farmer goes out in the wood and cuts his wood, then this is calculated as a part of the 3000 Renminbi. It’s scientific, yes, but there’s a lot of reporting, and I know people who in the village report X to the township, and then the township reports Y, so each system has its own internal issues. Having said that, I believe the bottom line will be raised, and the poor and the ill and the disadvantaged will not be completely forgotten. On the TV every second day in the xinwenlianbo (新闻联播, national news) you have news about poverty alleviation, you have Xi Jinping going to the villages, and the whole of society is made aware of the fact that while in Shanghai they have a GDP of about 20,000 US dollars per person, and they are actually a high-income society, their brothers and sisters in the West are not forgotten.

Having said all that, in relative terms, the bottom of society will still be the bottom of society. I mean you might be aware that in America in 2016 we officially have about 14% of the population, or 43 million people, who are recorded by the government as being poor, and the bottom line is defined as something like 18,000 dollars a year of income for a family of two. So every country has its bottom line, and the bottom line in a country may be raised, but this is not the same as eliminating poverty. We have something like 150 billionaires in this country, so the relative distance between the top and the bottom is actually increasing. And I think we have a gini coefficient of, some say 50, some say 43, there are different ways you can measure it.

So, what we do is we do not ‘fight poverty’, since it is an abstract phenomenon, but rather we ‘fight with the poor’. We work with people in disadvantaged settings and try to help them be the drivers of their own life. So we fight with the poor and we don’t fight poverty, the wording is completely different. Because “the poor” is a man, a husband, a family, a child like you and me, they have their feelings and dreams, but they just have a different social, cultural or historical background. There’s a lot of different factors that make people the way they are, from the lack of education to the lack of food. Going back to those students in Liangshan, if you lack enough protein, your brain cells will be not fully developed for your whole life, so we as society lose some of this brain’s full capacity. Therefore, I believe that poverty’s bottom line will be raised, no doubt; but will poverty be eliminated? No. The society will still have its poor.

After the reforms you had naked capitalism, which only focused on economic-driven development. There was no health insurance, the public structures like the people’s communes broke down. For 40 years many rural women never went to a doctor, because they couldn’t afford it. And then under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao there was a slight reversal, because there is a contradiction with a purely market-oriented society that just forgot the villages. So the government changed and reinvested in the villages. China is working on social security reforms, and I think the social security net, which is still imperfect, will be improved even more.

So yes, I think we are on the right track, but of course we need to continue, all these people who work in the fupinban will not be unemployed after 2021, because the bottom line of society continues to exist, just on a higher level. How does our organization fit into this policy? We fit in perfectly, but we focus on long-term capacity. Everyone knows the saying that if you give a poor man a fish, you feed him for day, and if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

But we want to go one step further, we want to create the experience of changing oneself in the collective setting, and thereafter have the capacity to continue to be the master of your own development. So if you use the fish analogy, the third goal is to become a fish-farming entrepreneur. This is the ideal of our rural development model, so it needs capacity-building in our projects. When I talk about a “collective setting”, it means that for instance forty farmers meet every month and have two hour discussions and learning-sessions and discuss their own production, because a single person needs to be the driver, but if you are based in the framework of your voluntarily chosen self-help group you develop much faster, because you listen and learn from each other.



CDB: Next, I wanted to ask you a bit about your own experience. So, you’ve been working as Humana’s representative in China since 2005, and I believe you studied in China for a few years even earlier.

MH: Yes, from eighty-seven to eighty-nine I studied Chinese at Fudan University International Cultural Exchange School.


CDB: So how would you say that the environment for your work has shifted since 2005 to now, for instance in terms of how society has changed, how the government perceives you and how the beneficiaries perceive your work?

MH: I think there have been many, many different changes on many, many different levels. I mean, you now have civil society developing in this country, you have 6,000 foundations, you have 700,000 social organizations, you have the Charity Law, you have the ONGO Law, so the legal basis for the individual to be active in society has greatly increased, and it seems like it will hopefully soon exceed the purely economic and for profit-driven motive of the previous four decades. One result of this is that in the past it was easier for me to fundraise from multinational companies. It was like “here comes a guy who knows the project cycle and can make budgets, make financial reports, and deliver a sound project implementation”. Today when I try to engage a multinational company on poverty alleviation, they ask “the government uses four hundred billion Renminbi, what can my one million Renminbi do?”

Another thing is that today there are so many capable and very active Chinese social organizations, so the competition for funding is increasing. Most multinationals now say sorry, but we build capacity in local organizations. So we are squeezed from the funding side and we are squeezed from the policy side. Since 2005, we have been working through a cooperation office in Yunnan province. When I got there, there was no legal basis for overseas NGOs to do anything, but then we established this cooperation office with the fubinban, like others at that time – eg the Gates Foundation or the Clinton Foundation etc – had cooperation offices with the Ministry of Health, so in these a Ministry of Health official would be the faren (legal representative) and the zhuren (director), and the foreign director would be the “fuzhuren” (vice-director).

This was the old model, and then there also was the model for all the organizations who would come in and never register anywhere, and just did their work. So there were two different models for engaging in China. And then we established this Yunnan office, which by the way required 32 government agencies to sign off that I and HPP were trustworthy. It’s not easy to establish a cooperation office approved by the government, but we did it.

Then in 2010 the Yunnan Provincial Government carried out this reform on how to manage foreign organizations, which was actually a trial under the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In Yunnan at the time we had by a government estimate about 160 foreign organizations, and if you could find what was then called a yewuzhidaodanwei (political guidance unit) you could record a ‘Yunnan Office’ at the Yunnan Civil Affairs Department and then you got a certificate, a bank account and your tax registration, and you could report all your staff to social security. If you don’t have certain things you cannot be a proper employer in this country. So out of the 160 organizations, 48 organisations got recorded under the lingshibeian (temporary filing) system in Yunnan, and this gave the model.

And then due to global security concerns the new ONGO law was passed, changing the Ministry of Civil Affairs‘ supervision which was actually quite lax. For instance, I would voluntarily give them my auditing report every year, but it was never requested. So I do understand the shift from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Public Security. I wrote a ten page letter to the NPC suggesting not to do it, and I told them: “you can just do it secretly like everybody else, NGOs around the world are screened by the public security system in their country, so why don’t you just do it like all the others? Let us register at the Ministry of Civil Affairs and then do the background check through your own systems”.

But anyhow they did it like this, and in fact we now have four work visas available while earlier we only had two, so I can say that the law has been an improvement from this perspective. When you registered at the Civil Affairs Bureau you could only have two foreigners, but know you can have four, so it’s quite a good change for us. You have one shouxidaibiao (首席代表, chief representative) and three daibiao (代表, representatives), and now I shortly will have three representative offices, so basically I could employ twelve foreigners, but this is just to say that you can look at this law in different ways. It has created a legal basis for our work and it has increased the engagement of foreigners.


Mr. Hermann receives the registration certificate for Humana’s Sichuan office

CDB: What would you say Humana People to People’s greatest success has been since first coming to China? Could you give us one or two examples of something you’ve done that’s been very meaningful and impactful?

MH: There are three types of achievements. The first is that over time we have engaged more than 2,500 people in people-focused, people-driven and result-oriented projects. Be it six months working in our projects or four years working in our office, all of them have built up their capacity. Our way of looking at history and running the organisation is bottom up and not top-down, and I believe people need this environment to develop themselves.

Secondly, we have actually created some models that the government is replicating because they are effective. We have a model called ‘TCE’ (‘Total Control of the Epidemic’). Based on our experience in Africa, we feel that the public health system is not able to prevent and control HIV/AIDS for the public, only the people themselves can prevent and control it, so the question is how you bridge the gap between the health system and the people. How do you go the ‘last mile’ in public health? So the way we do it is we take an area of 100,000 people, and then divide it into 50 fields and in every field we hire a local ‘Field Officer’, we train them, and then this local – like I told you we are a capacity building and educational organisation, we think like we are in a big classroom outside of the classroom, and the village is our classroom – so this one person goes around every day and visits families and talks with them face to face, engages with them, discusses complicated issues such as sex, infidelity, the risk of getting infected and the need to get tested to know one’s HIV status.

Capacity building among the people is the only way to stop HIV/AIDS, because you alone can prevent yourself from getting infected by AIDS, nobody else can. So it’s only the people who can liberate themselves from the epidemic, and this was the model we used for three years in Linxiang District, in Lincang Prefecture in Yunnan. Then the Ministry of Health got interested, and they got us into Liangshan in 2010, where we were the first village-based home testing provider. So imagine that it takes six hours to go to the local weishengyuan (public health center) and go back, and say you are a drug user, you walk there and it is very tiring, and suddenly the doctor says “I’m busy today, come again tomorrow”, and this drug user will never come again and get tested.

So based on all of this we decided that we needed to bring the testing to the people, and we did home-based screenings, because we are not allowed to give official positive test results, so we would do a rapid test and then if the screening was positive our field officer would bring this person personally to the clinic, and there they would get tested and put into the public system. This way, since there is only maybe 2% of the population infected, you stop the other 98% running to the clinic, so it is a smart method. We did this for many years, we got 700,000 Euros from the EU to do a three-and-a-half-year project, and now the government says this is a model.

In the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture they call this model ‘1+M+N’. There are 650 townships in Liangshan, and the 100 most infected townships are termed the zhongdianxiangzhen (focal towns), and the prefectural zuzhibu (organizational department) and weijiwei (the family planning and health commission) made a plan in 2016 that all those 100 townships would get a diyishuji, a party secretary sent down who is only responsible for stopping AIDS. These people are called yi, number 1, which is what the ‘1’ refers to. There needs to be a general to lead a battle. And then ‘M’ is the guy in charge of HIV/AIDS prevention in the township clinic, probably the clinic director. Then we come in, because we created something called the aikongyuan (AIDS control worker), which is the ‘N’. All the people that we hired in the villages that go day in and day out, talk to people and mobilise people are called AIDS prevention control workers.

And then the ministry, which is now called weijiwei, has now officially stated that every village in Liangshan shall have AIDS control workers – they are now called ‘fangaiyuan‘, and now we are working on models and how to do it. Our team is engaged, it’s not running the project, but the government is going to employ about six hundred to a thousand fangaiyuan, and we shall be the technical advisors, advising on how to find the people, how to hire them, train them, monitor them and manage them. They have basically adopted our model, and given it their own name. So I think that in Liangshan we have had some impact, not only an impact from a good project delivery perspective, but a long-term impact in contributing to the ways the government works.

That is one example, another example is our rural-based community pre-school model. We feel that the government has no capacity to reach 100% of the kids. And as studies from Harvard, WHO and UNICEF have demonstrated, the 3-6 years of age period is a crucial period in human development, you build capacities for your whole life, so if we have 12 million children of that age group out of kindergarten, and mostly rural and poor children, this creates an even bigger gap for society. Therefore, we need to get these kids into kindergarten. So how do you do that? In reality the village has three resources: first of all, you can probably find an empty classroom, or a culture room or some other kind of room – so there is a room. Secondly, you have local villagers who like children, who the community thinks have good ethics, a good attitude and a good capacity to handle children. Thirdly, the government has no money but parents are willing to pay for this lay teacher from the community to run a local kindergarten.

So based on these three things: a local classroom, a local lay teacher and local funding, we then train this teacher, because they are most often just an ordinary lower or higher middle school graduate with 9-12 years of schooling, they do not know how to do teaching, what the government rules are, how you treat children, how you develop imagination and confidence, how you do all this. So we started off as an external force to train village-based teachers, and after three years our teachers have good capacity but they have no qualifications, they are uncertified, but as we say a barefoot teacher is better than no teacher. So based on this model we have opened 241 kindergartens in villages, and we have had more than 10,000 kids in these.

Right now in the World Bank loan project in Yunnan we are one of the pilots, we persuaded them to use the USD 50 million loan not only to build super “model” kindergartens, but also to put one million US dollars aside to make rural enrolment increase and conduct some pilots. One pilot was won by Save the Children and one by us in Qiaojia County in Zhaotong Prefecture, so now we have a four-year project with the World Bank and the Department of Education, and our model, the ‘POF’ (‘Pre-schools of the Future’) model, is renowned in this sector.

So these are two models which we have created which were taken over and accepted and could solve social needs. Besides we trained all the people in our programs, and we also promoted international friendship. I got the Yunnan Friendship Award, I got the Honour award for foreign contributions to HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, and then the ‘China Out There’ programme of Tianjin TV, which introduces a new foreigner every week who has done social work and been making contributions in China, invited me to appear three times. I also worked with UNDP and Phoenix Television, I got an award called 中国为了你更美丽 (‘You Bring Charm to China’). And then last December on Phoenix Television ten foundations in what is called the ‘Charity Actor Alliance’ gave me the ’10 Movers of Charity 2017 award’. So yes we’ve got some recognition, people know we are active at the grassroots, and we have a tiny impact on these 1.4 billion people.


The opening of one of Humana’s pre-schools in Hubei province

CDB: Humana claims it wants to contribute to “bridge the big four gaps in China (Urban-Rural, East-West, Rich-Poor, Men-Women)”. I think you have already spoken about the first three gaps, but could you tell us a bit about how your work contributes towards bridging the gender gap in China?

MH: Again, everything has multiple layers, and here again we have different layers. First of all, in our community work we engage a lot of grassroots women. So for example we run these community-based preschools, we now have a total of 241 of them. For every preschool there is a parents’ group, so for instance there are 20-30 parents for each village, and they will form a parents’ group and get trained, and then they are responsible for running the preschool. So if the roof is leaking, somebody needs to repair it and maybe the local government is not interested, then the community itself has to work on it. And the bigger part of the attendants in these pre-school groups are women, so they will discuss how to find the money and who will come up with the labour to repair the roof.

Then we have village parents’ committees, because to organise 30-40 people you need a key group, so we have three to four people elected by these parent’s groups to be the top committee. Most of them are women, even though in many cases the official leaders of these committees are the local production group leaders who are mostly men, but we empower a lot of grassroots women. For example, with our work on HIV/AIDS when we go into the villages we go into every home, we do couples counselling and we council the men and the women at the same time. In many cases men are the main drivers of the epidemic, and they never tell their partner that they either had sex with a prostitute or took drugs, so just by doing couple testing you are empowering the woman of the household. And then in Liangshan, in the last EU project, we formed 180 positive women self-help groups. So our work is absolutely non-discriminatory, and this first layer of our work empowers women to come forward and take local responsibilities.

The second layer is our policy as an organisation, which all our staff and all our partners have to subscribe to. We have a child protection policy and we have a prevention of sexual harassment and abuse policy in our conditions of service, and everybody has to have a clean stand on this. This is the second layer – you show and lead by example.

The third layer is represented by the fact that out of our office staff, 85% are female, whereas when it comes to our 241 POF teachers, selected by the communities, we are proud to say that 14% are men. We are exceeding the government average for engagement of men in education. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but there is a big discussion about how you need both genders to be role models, and if you only have women this is not good. On the other side we can proudly say 85% of the people engaged in our education program are women. I don’t write policy papers because I don’t have funding to do research on gender issues, but you have to practice your beliefs in your daily life. So on these three levels we work on bridging the gender gap in China, and a lot more people need to do it in their daily life.


CDB: Could you tell us any interesting or amusing anecdotes from your years of working in China?

MH: I have lots of stories, but one story which I like very much is this one: in 2009 I got an invitation from the Ministry of Health to come to World AIDS Day in Beijing, at Ditan hospital. So we went there, and there were about 10 other people, all working on HIV/AIDS in some way, including Thomas Cai, the founder of AIDS Care China and Wu Zunyou, the Director of the China Centre for Disease Control National Centre for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control. There also was a lady from the You’an hospital who 25 years ago brought the first HIV/AIDS patient into the hospital, because in the 80s even the doctors were afraid of it.

And then suddenly I saw Premier Wen Jiabao appear with Vice premier Li Keqiang and the Minister of Health and five vice-ministers, as well as the vice-director from the NDRC and a vice-minister from the Ministry of Finance. They came up just driving in a little bus, a shuttle bus, and just came in. There were no metal detectors or anything. If I go into the American Embassy I even have to put my USB into a safe box and I have to go through three screenings, and here I was just meeting the prime minister of China.

He made a small introduction and we had two hours to make suggestions to premier Wen to improve the government policies against HIV/AIDS. So all these experts, very distinguished people with a lot of experience in their fields, made some good suggestions, and then I introduced in Chinese our rural community mobilisation model (TCE) and the big need in Yunnan to do more. So I talked, gave them an introduction and some examples, and then suddenly he asked me: “Michael, how long have you been in China for?” I said “four and a half years”. Then he asked: “how much longer are you prepared to be in China for?”. I said “fifty years”, and then he said: “OK! 这样你就可以说咱们云南,咱们中国” (Ok! In that case you can talk about ‘our’ Yunnan, about ‘our’ China). The point is if one just comes in and, say, stays for a year in Guangzhou or the Philippines, then they are just an expatriate flying in and most probably living in the expatriate bubble, they are not part of local society. So I liked his reaction very much.

He’s a very humorous guy, and when everybody was leaving and wanted to go, well I’m German, so I dared not to care so much about protocol, and I asked “Premier Wen, could we have a group picture with you?”, and he accepted. So we took a group picture, all 10 of us, there was a young lady from a village in Longchuan in Yunnan, on the border with Myanmar, they have one of the highest HIV infection rates. She is a village director, in her village there were 25 HIV/AIDS patients and she organised everything, and everything was very well done, so she’s a model worker form Yunnan and she came flying in, but she would never dare to ask Wen Jiabao for a group picture. So we had a group picture, and later I had to sign that it was internal – meaning that I am not allowed to publish it, because I am standing with Wen Jiabao on my one side and Li Keqiang on the other. The picture doesn’t matter, but the story is that he was very happy to hear that I was staying here for 50 years, and I promised him I would 愚公移山得继续控制艾滋病 (to fight AIDS like the foolish old man who moved the mountain). This phrase yugongyishan (the foolish old man who moved the mountain, a Chinese idiom) has followed me all over. In the China Out There program I was called the xiandaihuadecishanyugong (modern “foolish old man” of charity).

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