China Development Brief, No.56 (Winter 2012)
Wu Chen discusses a weakness of China’s grassroots NGOs that prevents them from fully participating in international development discussions: their lack of English language skills and familiarity with international perspectives.
Apple and its supplier Foxconn have faced constant criticism from NGOs in recent years. In China and other developing countries, labor NGOs have launched various advocacy campaigns targeting overtime work, protecting wage guarantees and the right to lodge complaints. The results, however, have been mostly the same. Companies took no concrete actions and as a result the cases remained unresolved. In Mexico, Foxconn were even able to fire labor activists while labor NGOs stood by powerless.
There is a global consensus that it is almost impossible for a single organization to effect change when going up against powerful multinational corporations. Even when many NGOs in the same country collaborate, their influence remains weak. As members of the Chinese NGO community, if we wish to protect the legal rights of migrant workers, and ensure that the operations of Chinese overseas companies and foreign multinational companies in China are in line with internationally recognized norms, we need increased international dialogue.
As the process of globalization seeps into every aspect of our personal lives, NGO practitioners need to change. We must be able to look beyond the horizon and put theories into practice. This, however, does not necessarily mean mastering cutting-edge theories put forth by the international development community. Rather, it means that in our daily work, we will need to adopt international frameworks in resolving social issues, especially those that have expanded beyond the borders of a single country.
Unfortunately, those international frameworks (for example the treaties and policies promulgated by the UN, World Bank, OECD, etc.) are generally written in English. What we need is not just the ability to understand written English, but also to develop fluency in spoken English. Using English to communicate with NGO practitioners from other regions, to master this “living knowledge,” is one way for us to put theory into practice. Although local NGOs, especially labor NGOs, face unique local problems and obstacles, other manufacturing regions in Southeast Asian share much in common with China with regards to environmental protection and labor problems. Once we stop acknowledging that China’s issues are idiosyncratic and start learning the strategies and techniques that NGOs from other countries employ, we will then, perhaps, be one step closer to a solution.
As one of the world’s top 500 companies, Foxconn’s core competitiveness as a manufacturing company lies in being able to offer cheap labor. Thus, its factories are usually located in developing countries, where the disparity between rich and poor is extreme. Due to the government’s cozy attitude towards foreign investment, labor costs remain at relatively low levels, and labor rights and environmental safety legislation and implementation are weak.
If we analyze the technology behind Foxconn’s products, we will find that all they need is a few human and robotic hands. This goal reflects the future of the electronics subcontracting industry. With robotic technology still developing, Foxconn’s attempts to turn human beings into robots have aroused the outrage of NGOs worldwide, most of all Chinese NGOs, which feel powerless to act in response to the string of suicides in Shenzhen’s Foxconn plant.
If we divide the work that NGOs worldwide have carried out with regard to Foxconn, we can identify the following four levels of influence:
1) Plant-community level. Many NGOs have focused on this level, and they are therefore able to build long term relationships with workers and distinguish the needs of workers and communities more clearly. NGOs at this level can coordinate negotiation between workers and management personnel while bringing in the media, scholars and other outside resources.
2) Company level. Generally speaking, most companies will have corporate social responsibility guidelines and dispute resolution processes. NGOs will file demands for improvements in labor practices based on these publicly available documents. Sometimes, NGOs bypass the company and file protests directly with the purchasing companies, especially European or American companies with prominent brands that adhere to more extensive codes of conduct .
3) National level. In nations and regions with relatively comprehensive legal systems, NGO will assist workers in filing arbitration claims. NGOs choose to carry out most of their work at this level.
4) International level. Although many international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank have already introduced mandatory and voluntary conventions and regulations, it is hard to evaluate their effects due to the complicated procedural requirements and long waiting time. For Chinese NGOs, the language barrier is another obstacle, making it difficult for Chinese grassroots NGOs to participate at this level. This is especially true for Chinese NGOs that engage in labor rights and rural development issues. Except for a few training and exchange opportunities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they are rarely heard outside Chinese-speaking regions.
Despite the work of NGOs at all these levels, there is still a desperate need for interaction and collaboration between these different levels. Those who are able to speak at the international level are mostly U.S. and European NGOs. When it comes to discussing the current situation in China and what NGOs in China have experienced in their everyday work, we can only rely on limited and sketchy reports, and exaggerated or misinterpreted reporting in English-language newspapers. The result is that each NGO fights its own battles with regard to each specific situation or problem. If it needs to verify facts, unreliable information sources can harm its advocacy work.
Chinese NGOs generally view those with English-language skills as lacking in practical experience. What NGO practitioners who deal directly with farmers and workers fear most is that they cannot speak the language of their beneficiary groups during interviews. If by chance they happen to use an English word and cannot come up with its Chinese equivalent, they are sure to be the laughingstock of other NGO practitioners. Most NGO practitioners working in the frontlines, particularly those directly engaged in servicing and safeguarding the interests of disadvantaged communities have, despite their university degrees, inevitably neglected to improve their English because of lack of opportunities to use it. However, in the globalization process’s complex division of labor, focusing solely on the experience of one particular region, may lead us to adopt a parochial view. Therefore, it is beneficial for us to draw upon the diverse perspectives of different regions and levels, and use existing policies to carry out our work at an international level. By implementing these ideas, we may be able to improve on our current stop-gap measures.
At this point, if we can recognize the importance of carrying out work at the international level for Chinese NGOs , then it is crucial that we find more platforms for international dialogue and help NGO practitioners improve their English-language proficiency. Previously, the Open Society Foundation provided funding for Friends of Nature and other NGOs to organize a program to improve the English of Beijing’s NGO practitioners. Unfortunately, this program was not continued. We hope for further funding to provide NGO practitioners with similar opportunities. From a long-term perspective, it is better to provide English-language training to NGO practitioners working on the front lines than to pour more resources into leadership training to avoid creating a group of elite, internationally-oriented NGOs that are removed from local community needs. This will be more beneficial to the growth of civil society in China.
苹果及其供应商富士康，在过去的几年中不断受到来自NGO的指责。无论是在一些其他发展中国家还是中国内地，劳工NGO针对超时劳动、工资保障、申诉权 利，开展了内容相似、手法各异的维权和倡导工作，但最终的结果却极为相似，企业做出了模糊的回应，在欠缺清晰的改进步骤的情况下，渐渐被拖成无头公案。在 墨西哥，富士康甚至开除了工人中的活跃分子，而劳工NGO对此却无能为力。
无论身处哪一个国家，扎根于社区的NGO从业者拥有一个普遍的共识，面对实力雄厚的跨国企业，单个组织很难发挥效用，而即使是来自同一个国家的多个NGO 的协同合作，所能发挥的作用仍是微乎其微。作为中国的NGO从业者，如果我们期望能够维护农民工的正当权益，期望中国企业的海外投资以及跨国企业的在华运 营能够符合国际社会普遍承认的准则，我们需要进入更多的国际对话。
随着全球化进程深入到个人生活中的每一个细节，NGO从业者也需要面对一个转型，我们必须要兼具抬头看天的视野和低头做事的地气。而所谓抬头看天的视野， 在此并非指代的是掌握国际发展界的前沿理论，而是特指在我们具体的日常工作中，需要借助一些国际框架来推动问题的解决，特别是一些已经超越了单一国家层面 的社会问题。
很不幸的事，这些国际框架，如联合国、世界银行、OECD等颁布的条约政策大体都是英文材料，我们不仅需要通畅阅读英文文章，更重要的是听力和口语，这是 掌握“活知识”的必备技能。能够使用英语与不同地区的一线工作者进行交流，是增加地气的途径之一。虽然本土NGO尤其是劳工NGO面对的独特问题和环境障 碍不可忽视，但一些文化背景相似的东南亚国家，同样也是制造企业密集的地区，和中国在环境保护和劳工问题上有诸多相通之处，当我们强迫自己搁置中国具有不 可复制的特殊性这一顽固意识，尝试去理解其他国家的NGO从业者的工作策略和技巧，或许能够突破“只缘身在此山中”中的当局者之迷。
4） 国际层级。虽然联合国以及世界银行等国家间机构，都颁布有较为全面的强制性或自愿性的公约和条规，但由于步骤繁琐、等待时间较长而难以真正发挥效用，对于 中国的NGO而言，又面临着语言障碍，因此一般扎根社区的NGO很少在国际层面发声，特别是中国的劳工和农村发展类NGO，至多在香港和台湾地区有少数的 培训和交流机会，在中文圈之外就很难听到这些机构的声音。
虽然在各个层级上都有NGO的身影，但不同层级之间的工作缺乏互动和协作，而在国际层级上发出声音的多数是来自欧美国家的NGO，一旦讨论到中国国内的社 会发展现状以及NGO的工作经验，就只能依据英文报纸上有限的隔靴搔痒型的报道，以及一些被夸大或者被误解的事件。这也造成了针对同一事件或者主 题，NGO各自为战的混乱局面，以及当需要事实作为证据时，不可靠的信息源对NGO开展倡导工作所带来的损害。
在国内的NGO从业者中，一般会认为能够熟练使用英语的人通常缺乏实践经验，而整天和工人、农户打交道的NGO从业者，最忌讳自己在访谈中无法掌握受益群体的语言，如果在交流中不幸脱口而出某个英文单词却又找不到对应的中文用法，基本就可以沦为同业圈内的笑柄。多数一线NGO工作者，尤其是在弱势群体社区 直接从事服务和权益维护的从业者，虽然基本上都拥有大学学历，但由于日常工作中缺少使用英语的机会，而有意无意地忽视了发展自己的外语能力。但在分工复杂 精细的全球化过程中，专注于某一地区的经验，有可能导致盲人摸象的后果。能够兼顾不同地区和不同层次的视角，反而对思考的深度更有助益，并且在国际层面利用现有政策开展工作，也有可能摆脱“头疼医头，脚疼医脚”的方法局限。
至此，如果我们能够认可全球化进程中，国内NGO在国际层面开展工作的重要性，那么不可或缺的突破路径就是如何为NGO提供更多的国际交流机会，以及在一 线工作的NGO从业者如何提高自身英语技能。这两者相辅相成，互相促进。之前，开放社会基金会（Open Society Foundation）曾资助自然之友等NGO作为执行机构组织在京NGO从业人员的英语技能学习，但很遗憾此项目没有继续。我们期望那些关注NGO能 力提升的基金会，能够为NGO的一线工作者提供类似的机会。从长远角度来看，与其在各式领导力培训中重复投入资源，不如扎扎实实先提高一线人员的英语能 力，避免催生出一个脱离社区实践，专职与国际NGO接洽、在国际上发声的中间层，这将对中国公民社会的成长发挥更良性的影响力。