China Has Changed. How Should Overseas NGOs Adapt?

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Over the past few decades, international non-government organisations (from here on referred to as overseas NGOs) have played an extremely important role, from directly helping impoverished and vulnerable groups to improve their living and development conditions, to promoting the development of China’s modern non-profit sector.

During these decades, dramatic changes have happened in China. These changes include the rapid improvement of the Chinese economy and of poverty levels, the rise of domestic non-profit organisations, and the standardisation of the related legal and policy environments. Along with these changes, overseas NGOs have also changed regarding the direction of their projects, models of cooperation with local partners, and their own role within project cooperation.

Now that China has become the world’s second largest economic power, and both the Charity Law and the Overseas NGO Law have come into force, the changes have accumulated to a stage where everything is almost totally different from the time when overseas NGOs started their work in China. In this brand new environment, how overseas NGOs can adapt to these changes to go on demonstrating their value and gain their place within the sector is the question each overseas NGO needs to answer. By reviewing the changes in the past decades, this article is trying to provide some thoughts for overseas NGOs’ strategic repositioning under the new conditions and environment.

 

                             The history of overseas NGOs in China

In the 1980s, with the reform and opening up, many overseas NGOs started their work in China. Over the past 30 years China has experienced great changes. These changes can roughly be split into three stages.

 

Stage one: From the 1980s to the end of the 20th century

In the 1980s and 1990s, China’s domestic civil society organisations (from here on referred to as domestic NGOs) practically did not exist. Local revenues were very small, and it was common for a county to have an annual revenue of only a few million RMB. Poverty was widespread, and the demands of the poor still centred around basic living conditions such as food, shelter, and clothes; there were also no laws and policies for managing international NGOs.

On the other hand, due to China’s poverty levels at the time, along with the curiosity towards the newly opened-up country, donors in developed countries across the world were very enthusiastic about funding projects in China. There were many cases where the annual project input from an overseas NGO in a single county was close to or even exceeded the local government’s revenue.

In this sort of environment, overseas NGOs would directly cooperate with the local governments for project delivery. The projects mainly focused on grains and livestock, drinking water, immunisation, basic education and sanitation etc.. As the project activities were very close to the plans and goals of the local governments, and due to the large amount of funding overseas NGOs could bring to the projects, the local governments were generally very enthusiastic in seeking cooperation with overseas NGOs. The cooperation was often protected by an MOU signed between the local government and the overseas NGO, and project offices were often jointly set up to care for the project delivery. Overseas non-profits would often have a strong bargaining power in selecting partners for cooperation and deciding the project direction.

During this time, while directly helping a large number of poor and vulnerable people to improve their living conditions through their projects, the overseas NPOs also introduced development concepts and approaches into China and helped to train a group of local development and non-profit researchers and practitioners. This contribution laid a positive basis for the creation of the modern Chinese non-profit sector at a later stage.

 

Stage two: From the late 20th century to 2016

After decades of hard work, China achieved huge improvements in its poverty alleviation and general development. First of all the basic conditions for life, such as the provision of food, shelter, and clothes, were no longer the biggest issue, and the major needs of the impoverished population turned to increasing the living standards and improving the development conditions. Secondly, the registration of domestic NGOs became possible in some places, and more and more domestic NGOs came out and became important players in the sector. Thirdly the economic strength of the local governments greatly increased, and it was not a surprise for a county to have an annual revenue of hundreds of millions of Yuan. The increase in the local economic strength also indicates that more and more government funding was available to improve the living and development conditions of the poor and vulnerable.

In contrast to these positive changes within China, international donors became less and less interested in continuing to support China projects, and thus the amount of project input that overseas NGO could offer began to decrease accordingly. In terms of the legal and policy environment, though discussions on the development of an Overseas NGO Law could be seen everywhere, and experiments with the registration for overseas NGOs began in Yunnan province, there was not a big change in the general sense.

Along with these changes, overseas NGOs started to incorporate more and more “soft” activities in their projects, such as capacity building and community participation and empowerment. With the decreasing project input and “softening” projects, the local governments became less and less interested in direct cooperation with overseas NGOs. However the emergence of local NGOs provided opportunities for overseas NGOs for project partnerships. At the same time, more and more overseas NGOs began to register as foreign companies in the hope of having some kind of legal status for operations in China.

During this time, while continuing to help the poor and vulnerable to improve their living conditions and development capacity, overseas NGOs also supported the creation of a group of local non-profit research institutes and supporting platforms, and cultivated a large number of domestic NGOs and non-profit practitioners. All these efforts meaningfully contributed to the formal emergence of the modern Chinese non-profit sector and its rapid expansion.

 

Stage three: From 2016 to the present

From 2016, the Charity Law and the Overseas NGO Law started to take effect. The introduction and implementation of the Charity Law is generally considered to be positive for the development of domestic NGOs, and the facts have proved this judgement correct. In the following two years, the number of newly registered local NGOs became historically high.

However, from the perspective of sustainable development, this expansion is merely a growth in quantity rather than quality. Many domestic NGOs are still at the initial stage in their capacity, both at the institutional governance and administration level and at the operations level. At the same time, a large number of new domestic NGOs coming into place also means a rapid expansion of the number of non-profit employees. Considering the poor reserve of talents in the non-profit sector, this means that a large number of employees are new-hands who are poorly trained. Therefore, without a timely enhancement of the professional capabilities of the local NGOs and their employees, the impact and effectiveness of their work is questionable.

For overseas NGOs, the introduction and implementation of the Overseas NGO Law is both good news and bad news. The good aspect is that it is now possible for overseas NGOs to eventually obtain full legal status. The bad aspect is that this law, particularly in the areas of registration requirements and fundraising within China, has not met the sector’s expectations. Some overseas NGOs are so pessimistic towards the law that they eventually decided to withdraw from China.

After the law was put into execution, the relevant government departments demonstrated a positive attitude towards helping overseas NGOs in their registration, and many of the major overseas NGOs successfully registered. However there is a big number of overseas NGOs, especially the small ones lacking sufficient influence and networks, that is still cannot get registered, as they are unable to find a proper professional supervisory unit (PSU) to endorse their registration. Furthermore, with the implementation of the Overseas NGO Law, having the legal status of a foreign company is no longer proper for an overseas NGO that wants to continue its work in the non-profit sector.

On the other hand, with the rapid increase in China’s economic strength, the number of international funders willing to support projects in China has continued to decrease, leading to a further reduction of funding income for overseas NGOs in China. Moreover, the law’s restrictions on overseas NGOs’ fundraising within China have dashed their hopes to counter this reduction in funding.

On the demand side, with the advancement of urbanization and industrialization in China, the trend of rural migrant workers seeking jobs in the cities has continued, ending in a hollowing out of many rural communities. As a result, many poverty reduction and development projects have found themselves short of labourers to carry them out and with a shrinking body of beneficiaries. At the same time, the infrastructure and living conditions in poor rural areas have continued to improve; and urban social problems around the migrant population have become more and more obvious. On the other hand, the government has offered more and more resources and opportunities to domestic NGOs by meaningfully expanding the “services purchase” program.

 

 

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                             The future of overseas NGOs in China

As mentioned above, the working environment for overseas NGOs has changed dramatically compared with what it was decades ago, when they began their work in China. Generally these changes have included the following points: (1) the poverty situation has been greatly improved; the impoverished and vulnerable population is spreading from rural villages to urban areas, and their needs are becoming more and more diverse; (2) the government has been offering more and more resources to domestic NGOs; (3) the number of domestic NGOs is rapidly increasing, but their capacities are yet to be upgraded; (4) laws related to the charity sector have been officially put into force and cannot possibly be revised in the near future.

On the other side the income for overseas NGOs keeps decreasing, and there is no hope to raise funds from within China to counter this trend. However overseas NGOs have accumulated a rich experience in non-profit development, including in accountable institutional governance, management and operation, and development values, principles and approaches. Under the current circumstances, if overseas NGOs in China cannot catch up with the external changes and stick to their previous stance and working model, it will be very hard for them to continue to play a valuable role in promoting the development of non- profit in China.

Thus, overseas NGOs will have to deeply re-evaluate their external circumstances and their internal strengths and weaknesses, and strategically update their project directions and approaches and their cooperation models with their partners on the basis of this assessment. Only in this way can they maintain their advantages and values in the face of these challenging conditions. During this process of review and assessment, the following questions need to be answered.

  • In terms of the organization’s role:

Are you an executor, a leader, an advocator, or a facilitator?

  • In terms of project execution:

Do you serve your target group directly or fulfil your mission by working through local partners?

  • In terms of project direction:

Should you continue the traditional projects, or leave these projects to local forces and focus on something cutting edge and exemplary?

  • In terms of your responsibility within the partnership:

Do you primarily offer your partners funding or improve their capacities for self-development and impactful project execution?

  • In terms of funding:

Do you provide funds directly or help your partners to raise funds locally?

As long as overseas NGOs can fully analyse their environment and redesign their strategies in a spirit of “developing and innovating with the times”, they will find their own place of value within the new environment.

中国变了,国际民间公益组织该何去何从?

2018-07-20 13:05:00  来源:发展简报  作者:刘忠亮    点击数量:987

 

国际民间公益组织(后简称“国际NGO”)参与中国扶贫与发展几十年以来,无论在直接帮助贫困与弱势群体改善其生存与发展状况,还是在促进中国现代公益慈善行业的发展方面,都发挥了非常重要的作用。 随着国内经济实力的增强和贫困状况的改善、国内本土公益机构的异军突起以及国内公益慈善法律和政策环境的不断规范,国际NGO在其项目的内容、与地方的合作方式以及在合作中的地位等方面也都发生了相应的变化。 当这种变化累积到今天,特别是当中国已经成为全球第二大经济体,《中国慈善法》和《境外非政府组织管理法》进入实施后,国际NGO该何去何从,才能充分发挥自己的优势和价值,并获得自己生存与发展的一席之地?本文通过梳理国际NGO在中国几十年的发展变化,为其在新的环境条件下的战略定位提供一些思考。

 

国际民间公益组织在中国的过去

 

从上世纪80年代开始,随着中国的改革开放,国际NGO开始进入中国。在30来年的过程中,中国无论是在经济实力、贫困状况,还是相关政策与法律环境等方面都发生了巨大变化。随着这些变化,国际NGO在其项目方向和内容、与当地的合作方式以及在合作中的角色等方面也相应发生了变化。这种变化可以粗略地分为三个阶段。

 

第一阶段:即在20世纪80年代开始到20世纪末

 

在20世纪80至90年代,国内的本土民间公益组织(之简称“国内NGO”)基本不存在;地方财政也很弱,一个县每年的财政收入只有几百万的比比皆是;贫困群体大面积存在且其需求仍处在与温饱相关的基本生存条件方面;而相关国际NGO运作和管理的政策和法规也是空白。

 

与此相对应的是:由于中国当时的贫困程度,以及对于刚刚开放的中国的好奇心,国际上发达国家的资助方很愿意支持中国的项目,国际NGO在一个县每年的投入接近甚至超过该县财政收入的也不在少数。

 

在这种环境下,国际NGO的项目合作对象主要是当地政府。而项目的内容也主要在粮食与畜牧业产量提升、饮用水、免疫、基础教育和卫生条件改善等方面。由于这些项目与当地政府的目标极其相近,且国际NGO能够投入的资金规模较大,地方政府合作的积极性很高。为解决国际NGO在合作中的合法性问题,当地政府往往与国际NGO签署合作备忘录并成立合作项目办公室,使合作得以顺利进行。国际NGO在合作中具有高度的主动权和发言权。

 

在此期间,通过项目及其合作,国际NGO不仅帮助了数以万计的贫困人群改善了生存条件,还带来了先进的发展和公益理念和工作方法,并为中国培育了首批公益研究人员和项目操作与管理人员。这些贡献为中国公益行业后期的发展奠定了基础。

 

第二阶段:20世纪末到2016年

 

经过20来年的努力,中国的扶贫与发展环境发生了很大变化。首先,贫困人群的温饱问题基本得到了解决,贫困人群的需求转到了生活质量的提高和发展条件的改善等方面;其次,对于国内NGO的注册开始松动,一批国内NGO开始出现;再次,地方经济实力得到了大幅增强,财政收入上亿的县成为了普遍现象,因此政府投入改善农村基础设施等方面的资金不断加大;与此对应的是,随着中国贫困状况的改善和经济能力的大幅提升,国际资助者对中国项目的支持意愿开始减弱,国际NGO对项目的投入规模开始逐步减少。以此同时,尽管相关讨论和试验已经开始,但相关国际NGO的政策与法律环境没有明显的改变。

 

在这种环境下,国际NGO的项目开始越来越多地包括像能力建设、社区参与这样的“软”内容。在项目内容越来越偏“软”且投入规模不断减少的情况下,地方政府与国际NGO的合作意愿不断减弱。而一批国内NGO的出现为国际NGO的项目合作伙伴选择提供了机会。同时,为解决法律身份问题,一些国际NGO开始选择了以外资公司的身份进行工商注册。

 

在此期间,国际NGO在继续支持贫困人群改善其生活条件和可持续发展能力的同时,扶持了一批本土的公益研究机构和支持平台,并直接培育和孵化了一批国内NGO,进一步为国内公益行业培养了一批较为专业的从业人员。这些贡献为中国现代公益的正式形成和后期的腾飞做出了贡献。

 

第三阶段:2016年至今

 

从2016年开始,《中国慈善法》和《中国境外非政府组织管理法》先后出台并付诸实施。慈善法的出台和实施普遍认为对于促进国内NGO的发展具有积极意义,结果也证实了这种判断。

 

在慈善法出台并进入实施两年多时间里,年均新注册的国内NGO数量创出历史新高。然而,对于国内NGO的生存和发展而言,这种增长只是数量的增加,而非质量的提升。不少国内NGO无论是在治理层面还是在管理和操作层面的能力都仍然处于初始阶段。同时,大量的新生的国内NGO意味着急剧扩大的公益从业人员队伍。在比较匮乏的公益人员储备面前,这意味着一大批几乎没有公益与发展教育背景和实践经验的人员在从事公益工作。公益组织及其从业人员的专业能力如果不能及时得到提升,将使公益项目的效果和影响大打折扣。

 

对于国际NGO而言,《境外非政府组织管理法》的出台和实施既是好消息也是坏消息。好的方面是国际NGO终于有机会获得完整的法律身份了。不好的方面是本项法律,特别是在注册和在国内筹资等方面没有达到行业的预期,甚至有部分国际NGO对此项法律持悲观态度,并决定撤出中国。《境外非政府组织管理法》在进入实施后,虽然有关政府部门在注册方面展示了积极正面的姿态,解除了部分国际NGO的担忧,但不少国际NGO,特别是较小的、缺乏影响力的机构,还是因为找不到愿意作为其业务主管单位的机构而不能完成注册,这些机构之前的外企身份也随着管理法的实施而失去作用。随着中国经济实力的进一步提升,愿意继续支持中国项目的国际资助者继续减少,导致国际NGO在中国的项目资金进一步缩减。而《境外非政府组织管理法》限制国际NGO在国内筹资的规定使国际NGO看不到将来的希望,更不能像一些机构之前预期的那样可以从中国筹资去更贫困国家开展项目。

 

在需求方面,随着中国城市化和工业化的推进,农村青壮年进城务工的潮流仍然在不断延续,使贫困农村越来越空心化。导致许多与农村为载体的扶贫与发展项目越来越缺乏实施的力量和受益主体。与此同时,贫困农村的基础设施和生产与生活条件继续在改善;城市围绕着流动人口的社会问题越来越值得关注。另一方面,政府在改善贫困和弱势人口生存和发展方面持续加大投入,且政府购买服务项目的纵深扩大为国内NGO提供了越来越多的资源和机会。

 

 

国际民间公益组织在中国的未来

 

如前所述,国际NGO在中国所面临的生存和发展环境较早期已经发生了巨大变化。这种变化一方面表现为:(1)贫困和弱势群体越来越分散并有向城市转移的趋势,且需求越来越多元化;(2)政府在扶贫与发展方面的投入和为国内NGO提供的资源不断增加;(3)国内NGO数量激增但能力有待提高;(4)公益慈善相关法律已经正式实施,且短期没有修订的可能。

 

另一方面表现为:国际NGO项目资金不断减少,同时也没有希望从中国筹资来改变这种趋势;但国际公益组织在治理、管理和操作层面积累了非常成熟的规范和经验。在这种情况下,国际NGO如果还以原来的定位和方式来行事,势必会事倍功半。

 

国际NGO要想继续在新的环境中生存下来并展现自己的价值,必须对所处环境条件和自身优劣势进行深度评估,并在此基础上对其项目内容、开展方式、合作对象等重新进行战略定位。只有这样,在项目投入不断减少的情况下,才能最大限度地体现自身的优势和项目的效果和影响。笔者认为,这种评估和定位需要回答以下几方面的问题:

1,在机构的角色方面:自己在中国公益慈善行业中的角色是执行者、所在领域的引领者、倡导者、还是协助者? 2,在项目执行方式方面:是自己直接去服务目标群体,还是通过当地合作伙伴来实现自己的使命目标? 3,在项目内容方面:是继续开展常规项目,还是将当地可以做的留给当地来做,自己根据自身优势去做一些前沿性的或是创新性的引领和示范? 4,在对于合作伙伴的支持方面:是主要为其提供项目资金,还是主要提升其自身发展和执行项目的能力? 5,在资金投入上:是直接投入资金,还是帮助合作伙伴从地方进行筹资?等等。

国际NGO只要本着开拓创新和与时俱进的精神来分析所处的环境和定位自己的战略,就一定能够找到自己的生存与发展之道!

Translated by Luxia Broadbent and Joy Yue

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